By Carol Kussmann and Lara Friedman-Shedlov
This is the third post in the bloggERS series #digitalarchivesfail: A Celebration of Failure.
The Electronic Records Task Force (ERTF) at the University of Minnesota just completed its second year of work. This year’s focus was on the processing of electronic records for units of the Archives and Special Collections. The Archives and Special Collections (ASC) is home to the University of Minnesota’s collection of rare books, personal papers, and organizational archives. ASC is composed of 17 separate collecting units, each focusing on a specific subject area. Each unit is run separately with some processing activities being done centrally through the Central Processing department.
We realized quickly that even more than traditional analog records processing, electronic records work would be greatly facilitated by utilizing Central Processing, rather than relying on each ASC unit to ingest and process this material. In keeping with traditional archival best practices, Central Processing typically creates a processing plan for each collection. The processing plan form records useful information to use during processing, which may be done immediately or at a later date, and assigns a level of processing to the incoming records. This procedure and form works very well with analog records and the Task Force initially established the same practice for electronic records. However we learned that it is not always efficient to follow current practices and that processes and procedures must be evaluated on a continual basis.
The processing plan is a form about a page and a half long with fields to fill out describing the condition and processing needs of the accession. Prior to being used for electronic records, fields included: Collection Name, Collection Date Span, Collection Number, Location(s), Extent (pre-processing), Desired Level of Processing, Restrictions/Redactions Needed, Custodial History, Separated Materials*, Related Materials, Preservation Concerns, Languages Other than English, Existing Order, Does the Collection need to be Reboxed/Refoldered, Are there Significant Pockets of Duplicates, Supplies Needed, Potential Series, Notes to Processors, Anticipated Time for Processing, Historical/Bibliographical Notes, Questions/Comments.
A few changes were made to include information about electronic records. The definitions for Level of Processing were modified to include what was expected for Minimal, Intermediate, or Full level of processing of electronic records. Preservation Concerns specifically asked if the collection included digital formats that are currently not supported or that are known to be problematic. After these minor changes were made, the Task Force completed a processing plan for each new electronic accession.
After several months experience using the form, Task Force members began questioning the value of the processing plan for electronic records. In the relatively few instances where accessions were initially reviewed for processing at a later date it captured useful information for the processor to refer back to without having to start from the beginning. However, the majority of electronic records that were being ingested were also being processed immediately and only a handful of the fields were relevant to the electronic recorded.. The only piece of information being captured on the Processing Plan that was not recorded elsewhere was the expected “level of processing” for the accession. To address this, the level of processing was added to existing documentation for the electronic accessions eliminating the need for creating a Processing Plan for accessions that were to be immediately processed.
The level of processing itself soon became a point of contention among some of the Electronic Records Task Force members. For electronic records, the level of processing only defined the level at which the collection would be described on a finding aid – collection, series, sub-series, or potentially to the item. The following definitions were created based on Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS).
Minimal: There will be no file arrangement or renaming done for the purpose of description/discovery enhancement. File formats will not be normalized. Action will generally not be taken to address duplicate files or PII information identified during ingest. Description will meet the requirements for DACS single level description (collection level).
Intermediate: Top level folder arrangement and top-level folder renaming for the purpose of description/discovery enhancement will be done as needed. File formats will not be normalized. Some duplicates may be weeded and redaction of PII done. Description will meet DACS multi-level elements: described to the series level with high research value series complemented with scope and content notes.
Full: Top level folder arrangement and renaming will be done as needed, but where appropriate renaming and arrangement may also be done down to the item level. File normalization may be conducted as necessary or appropriate. Identified duplicates will be removed as appropriate and PII will be redacted as needed. Description will meet DACS multi-level elements: described to series, subseries, or item level where appropriate with high research value components complemented with additional scope and content notes.
Discussions between the ERTF and unit staff about each accession assisted with assigning the appropriate level of processing. This “level of processing,” however, did not always correlate with the amount of effort that was being given to an accession. For example, a collection assigned a minimal level of processing could take days to address while a collection assigned a full level of processing might only take hours based on a number of factors. Just because the minimal level of processing says that there will be no file arranging or renaming done – for the purpose of description/discovery – does not mean that no file arranging or renaming will be done for preservation or ingest purposes. File renaming must often be done for preservation purposes. If unsupported characters are found in file names these must be addressed. If file names are too long this must also be addressed.
Other tasks that might be necessary to assist with the long-term management of these materials include:
- Removing empty directories
- Removing .DSStore and .Thumbs files
- Removing identified PII while not necessary for the description, better protects the University. The less PII we need to manage, the less risk we put ourselves in.
- Deleting duplicates (as much as the “level of processing” tries to limit this, as someone who needs to manage the storage space, continually adding duplicates will cause problems down the line). We have a program that easily removes them, so use it.
Therefore the “level of processing”, while helpful in setting expectations for final description, does not provide accurate insight into the amount of work that is being done to make electronic records accessible. In order to address the lack of correlation between the processing level assigned to an accession and the actual level of effort being given to the processing of the accession, a Levels of Effort document was drafted to help categorize the amount of staff time and resources put forth when working with electronic materials. The expected level of effort may be more useful for setting priorities then a level of processing as there is a closer one-to-one relationship with the amount of time required to complete the processing.
This is another example of how we were not able to directly apply procedures developed for analog records towards electronic records. The key is finding the balance between not reinventing the wheel and doing things the way they have always been done.
Carol Kussmann is a Digital Preservation Analyst with the University of Minnesota Libraries Data & Technology – Digital Preservation & Repository Technologies unit, and co-chair of the University of Minnesota Libraries – Electronic Records Task Force (ERTF). Questions about the activities of the ERTF can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lara Friedman-Shedlov is Description and Access Archivist for the Kautz Family YMCA Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries. Her current interests include born digital archives and diverse and inclusive metadata.