Diving into Computational Archival Science

by Jane Kelly

In December 2017, the IEEE Big Data conference came to Boston, and with it came the second annual computational archival science workshop! Workshop participants were generous enough to come share their work with the local library and archives community during a one-day public unconference held at the Harvard Law School. After some sessions from Harvard librarians that touched on how they use computational methods to explore archival collections, the unconference continued with lightning talks from CAS workshop participants and discussions about what participants need to learn to engage with computational archival science in the future.

So, what is computational archival science? It is defined by CAS scholars as:

“An interdisciplinary field concerned with the application of computational methods and resources to large-scale records/archives processing, analysis, storage, long-term preservation, and access, with aim of improving efficiency, productivity and precision in support of appraisal, arrangement and description, preservation and access decisions, and engaging and undertaking research with archival material.”

Lightning round (and they really did strike like a dozen 90-second bolts of lightning, I promise!) talks from CAS workshop participants ranged from computational curation of digitized records to blockchain to topic modeling for born-digital collections. Following a voting session, participants broke into two rounds of large group discussions to dig deeper into lightning round topics. These discussions considered natural language processing, computational curation of cultural heritage archives, blockchain, and computational finding aids. Slides from lightning round presenters and community notes can be found on the CAS Unconference website.

Lightning round talks. (Image credit)

 

What did we learn? (What questions do we have now?)

Beyond learning a bit about specific projects that leverage computational methods to explore archival material, we discussed some of the challenges that archivists may bump up against when they want to engage with this work. More questions were raised than answered, but the questions can help us build a solid foundation for future study.

First, and for some of us in attendance perhaps the most important point, is the need to familiarize ourselves with computational methods. Do we have the specific technical knowledge to understand what it really means to say we want to use topic modeling to describe digital records? If not, how can we build our skills with community support? Are our electronic records suitable for computational processes? How might these issues change the way we need to conceptualize or approach appraisal, processing, and access to electronic records?

Many conversations repeatedly turned to issues of bias, privacy, and ethical issues. How do our biases shape the tools we build and use? What skills do we need to develop in order to recognize and dismantle biases in technology?

Word cloud from the unconference created by event co-organizer Ceilyn Boyd.

 

What do we need?

The unconference was intended to provide a space to bring more voices into conversations about computational methods in archives and, more specifically, to connect those currently engaged in CAS with other library and archives practitioners. At the end of the day, we worked together to compile a list of things that we felt many of us would need to learn in order to engage with CAS.

These needs include lists of methodologies and existing tools, canonical data and/or open datasets to use in testing such tools, a robust community of practice, postmortem analysis of current/existing projects, and much more. Building a community of practice and skill development for folks without strong programming skills was identified as both particularly important and especially challenging.

Be sure to check out some of the lightning round slides and community notes to learn more about CAS as a field as well as specific projects!

Interested in connecting with the CAS community? Join the CAS Google Group at: computational-archival-science@googlegroups.com!

The Harvard CAS unconference was planned and administered by Ceilyn Boyd, Jane Kelly, and Jessica Farrell of Harvard Library, with help from Richard Marciano and Bill Underwood from the Digital Curation Innovation Center (DCIC) at the University of Maryland’s iSchool. Many thanks to all the organizers, presenters, and participants!


Jane Kelly is the Historical & Special Collections Assistant at the Harvard Law School Library. She will complete her MSLIS from the iSchool at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in December 2018.

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DLF Forum & Digital Preservation 2017 Recap

By Kelly Bolding


The 2017 DLF Forum and NDSA’s Digital Preservation took place this October in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Each year the DLF Forum brings together a variety of digital library practitioners, including librarians, archivists, museum professionals, metadata wranglers, technologists, digital humanists, and scholars in support of the Digital Library Federation’s mission to “advance research, learning, social justice, and the public good through the creative design and wise application of digital library technologies.” The National Digital Stewardship Alliance follows up the three-day main forum with Digital Preservation (DigiPres), a day-long conference dedicated to the “long-term preservation and stewardship of digital information and cultural heritage.” While there were a plethora of takeaways from this year’s events for the digital archivist community, for the sake of brevity, this recap will focus on a few broad themes, followed by some highlights related to electronic records specifically.

As an early career archivist and a first-time DLF/DigiPres attendee, I was impressed by the DLF community’s focus on inclusion and social justice. While technology was central to all aspects of the conference, the sessions centered the social and ethical aspects of digital tools in a way that I found both refreshing and productive. (The theme for this year’s DigiPres was, in fact, “Preservation is Political.”) Rasheedah Phillips, a Philadelphia-based public interest attorney, activist, artist, and science fiction writer opened the forum with a powerful keynote about the Community Futures Lab, a space she co-founded and designed around principles of Afrofuturism and Black Quantum Futurism. By presenting an alternate model of archiving deeply grounded in the communities affected, Phillips’s talk and Q&A responses brought to light an important critique of the restrictive nature of archival repositories. I left Phillips’s talk thinking about how we might allow the the liberatory “futures” she envisions to shape how we design online spaces for engaging with born-digital archival materials, as opposed to modeling these virtual spaces after the physical reading rooms that have alienated many of our potential users.

Other conference sessions echoed Phillips’s challenge to archivists to better engage and center the communities they document, especially those who have been historically marginalized. Ricky Punzalan noted in his talk on access to dispersed ethnographic photographs that collaboration with documented communities should now be a baseline expectation for all digital projects. Rosalie Lack and T-Kay Sangwand spoke about UCLA’s post-custodial approach to ethically developing digital collections across international borders using a collaborative partnership framework. Martha Tenney discussed concrete steps taken by archivists at Barnard College to respect the digital and emotional labor of students whose materials the archives is collecting to fill in gaps in the historical record.

Eira Tansey, Digital Archivist and Records Manager at the University of Cincinnati and organizer for Project ARCC, gave her DigiPres keynote about how our profession can develop an ethic of environmental justice. Weaving stories about the environmental history of Pittsburgh throughout her talk, Tansey called for archivists to commit firmly to ensuring the preservation and usability of environmental information. Related themes of transparency and accountability in the context of preserving and providing access to government and civic data (which is nowadays largely born-digital) were also present through the conference sessions. Regarding advocacy and awareness initiatives, Rachel Mattson and Brandon Locke spoke about Endangered Data Week; and several sessions discussed the PEGI Project. Others presented on the challenges of preserving born-digital civic and government information, including how federal institutions and smaller universities are tackling digital preservation given their often limited budgets, as well as how repositories are acquiring and preserving born-digital congressional records.

Collaborative workflow development for born-digital processing was another theme that emerged in a variety of sessions. Annalise Berdini, Charlie Macquarie, Shira Peltzman, and Kate Tasker, all digital archivists representing different University of California campuses, spoke about their process in coming together to create a standardized set of UC-wide guidelines for describing born-digital materials. Representatives from the OSSArcFlow project also presented some initial findings regarding their research into how repositories are integrating open source tools including BitCurator, Archivematica, and ArchivesSpace within their born-digital workflows; they reported on concerns about the scalability of various tools and standards, as well as desires to transition from siloed workflows to a more holistic approach and to reduce the time spent transforming the output of one tool to be compatible with another tool in the workflow. Elena Colón-Marrero of the Computer History Museum’s Center for Software History provided a thorough rundown of building a software preservation workflow from the ground-up, from inventorying software and establishing a controlled vocabulary for media formats to building a set of digital processing workstations, developing imaging workflows for different media formats, and eventually testing everything out on a case study collection (and she kindly placed her whole talk online!)

Also during the forum, the DLF Born-Digital Access Group met over lunch for an introduction and discussion. The meeting was well-attended, and the conversation was lively as members shared their current born-digital access solutions, both pretty and not so pretty (but never perfect); their wildest hopes and dreams for future access models; and their ideas for upcoming projects the group could tackle together. While technical challenges certainly figured into the discussion about impediments to providing better born-digital access, many of the problems participants reported had to do with their institutions being unwilling to take on perceived legal risks. The main action item that came out of the meeting is that the group plans to take steps to expand NDSA’s Levels of Preservation framework to include Levels of Access, as well as corresponding tiers of rights issues. The goal would be to help archivists assess the state of existing born-digital access models at their institutions, as well as give them tools to advocate for more robust, user-friendly, and accessible models moving forward.

For additional reports on the conference, reflections from several DLF fellows are available on the DLF blog. In addition to the sessions I mentioned, there are plenty more gems to be found in the openly available community notes (DLF, DigiPres) and OSF Repository of slides (DLF, DigiPres), as well as in the community notes for the Liberal Arts Colleges/HBCU Library Alliance unconference that preceded DLF.


Kelly Bolding is a processing archivist for the Manuscripts Division at Princeton University Library, where she is responsible for the arrangement and description of early American history collections and has been involved in the development of born-digital processing workflows. She holds an MLIS from Rutgers University and a BA in English Literature from Reed College.