Experimenting and Digressing to the Digital Archivist Role

By Walker Sampson

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This is the third post in the bloggERS! series Digital Archives Pathways, where archivists discuss the non-traditional, accidental, idiosyncratic, or unique paths they took to become a digital archivist.

On the surface, my route to digital preservation work was by the book: I attended UT–Austin’s School of Information from 2008–2010 and graduated with a heavy emphasis on born-digital archiving. Nevertheless, I feel my path to this work has been at least partly non-traditional in that it was a) initially unplanned and b) largely informed by projects outside formal graduate coursework (though my professors were always accommodating in allowing me to tie in such work to their courses where it made sense).

I came to the UT–Austin program as a literature major from the University of Mississippi with an emphasis on Shakespeare and creative writing. I had no intention of pursuing digital archiving work and was instead gunning for coursework in manuscript and codex conservation. It took a few months, but I realized I did not relish this type of work. There’s little point in relating the details here, but I think it’s sufficient to say that at times one simply doesn’t enjoy what one thought one would enjoy.

So, a change of direction in graduate school—not unheard of, right? I began looking into other courses and projects. One that stood out was a video game preservation IMLS grant project. I’ve always played video games, so why not? I was eventually able to serve as a graduate research assistant on this project while looking for other places at the school and around town that were doing this type of work.

One key find was a computer museum run out of the local Goodwill in Austin, which derived most of its collection from the electronics recycling stream processed of that facility. At that point, I already had an interest in and experience with old hardware and operating systems: I was fortunate enough to have a personal computer in the house growing up. That machine had a certain mystique that I wanted to explore. I read DOS for Dummies and Dan Gookin’s Guide to Underground DOS 6.0 cover to cover. I logged into bulletin board systems, scrounged for shareware games, and swapped my finds on floppy disk with another friend around the block. All of this is to say that I had a certain comfort level with computers before changing directions in graduate school.

I answered a call for volunteers at the computer museum and soon began working there. This gig would become the nexus for a lot of my learning and advancement with born digital materials. For example, the curator wanted a database for cataloging the vintage machines and equipment, so I learned enough PHP and MySQL to put together a relational database with a web frontend. (I expect there were far better solutions to the problem in retrospect, but I was eager to try and make things at the time. That same desire would play out far less well when I tried to make a version two of the database using the Fedora framework – an ill-conceived strategy from the start. C’est la vie.)

I and other students would also use equipment from the Goodwill museum to read old floppies. At the time BitCurator had not hit 1.0, and it seemed more expedient to simply run dd and other Unix utilities from a machine to which we had attached a floppy drive pulled from the Goodwill recycling stream. I learned a great deal about imaging through this work alone. Many of the interview transcripts for the Presidential Election of 1988 at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History were acquired in this way under the guidance of Dr. Patricia Galloway. Using vintage and ‘obsolescent’ machines from the Goodwill computer museum was not originally part of a plan to rescue archival material on legacy media, but Dr. Galloway recognized the value of such an exercise and formed the Digital Archeology Lab at UT–Austin. In this way, experimenting can open the door to new formal practices.

This experience and several other like it, were as instrumental as coursework in establishing my career path. With that in mind, I’ll break out a couple of guiding principles that I gleaned from this process.

1: Experiment and Learn Independently

I say this coming out of one of the top ten graduate programs in the field, but the books I checked out to learn PHP and MySQL were not required reading, and the database project wasn’t for coursework at all. Learning how to use a range of Unix utilities and write scripts for batch-processing files were also projects that required self-directed learning outside of formal studies. Volunteer work is not strictly required, but a bulk of what I learned was in service of a non-profit where I had the space to learn and experiment.

Despite my early background playing with computers I don’t feel that it ultimately matters. Provided you are interested in the field, start your own road of experimentation now and get over any initial discomfort with computers by diving in head first.

This, over and over

 

In other words, be comfortable failing. Learning in this way mean failing a lot—but failing in a methodical way. Moreover, when it is just you and a computer, you can fail at a fantastic rate that would appall your friends and family —but no one will ever know! You may have to break some stuff and become almost excruciatingly frustrated at one point or another. Take a deep breath and come back to it the next day.

2: Make Stuff That Interests You

All that experimenting and independent learning can be lonely, so design projects and outputs that you are excited by and want to share with others, regardless of how well it turns out. It helps to check out books, play with code, and bump around on the command line in service of an actual project you want to complete. Learning without a destination point you want to reach, however earnest, will inevitably run out of steam. While a given course may have its own direction and intention, and a given job position may have its own directives and responsibilities, there is typically a healthy latitude for a person to develop projects and directions that serve their interests and broadly align with the goals of the course or job.

Again, my own path has been fairly “traditional”—graduate studies in the field and volunteer gigs along with some part-time work to build experience. Even within this traditional framework however, experimenting, exploring projects outside the usual assignments, and independently embarking on learning whatever I thought I needed to learn have been huge benefits for me.

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Walker Sampson is the Digital Archivist at the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries where he is responsible for the acquisition, accessioning and description of born digital objects, along with the continued preservation and stewardship of all digital materials in the Libraries.

 

Playful Work: Media Carriers and Computers

By Tracy Popp

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This is the second post in the bloggERS! series Digital Archives Pathways, where archivists discuss the non-traditional, accidental, idiosyncratic, or unique paths they took to become a digital archivist.

Geek and Poke Cartoon, "How to Save your Digital Work for Posterity? Alternative 1: Put it on a Disc"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although I am not by title a Digital Archivist, I work very closely with our University Archives and other special collections units to make born-digital content accessible and available for processing. So, how did I get to be the first Digital Preservation Coordinator at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and what does that mean? Let me illuminate that through interpretive dance…no, wait. I’ll just tell you via the parts I *think* have contributed to my ending up here. Dance isn’t something I picked up along the way.

I’ve had a fascination with media carriers and digital stuff since childhood. When I was elementary school age, I recall spending time in the Southfield, MI Public Library loading up the microfilm machine to scroll through various newspapers committed to the reel. Was I engaged in some sort of deep historical research as a seven-year-old that required I review these polyester rolls for pertinent info? Nope. I seem to recall the process of loading the machine and staring at an illuminated screen while I scrolled through words and pictures engaging in and of itself. Little did I know how much of that I’d be doing later in life…

Through a varied avenue I found myself moving toward a career path in libraries and archives – one that I had not previously considered. I have a BFA in Photography and Intermedia, which, at the time, was the term used for making digital artwork. Concurrently, I picked up a Computer Information Systems minor after finding that building, breaking and rebuilding computer systems in my spare time also proved an engaging way to support myself.

By working on a visual resources project for an Art History professor where I converted slides and cleaned up images in PhotoShop, to a visit to the Conservation Lab at the Eastman House in Rochester, NY and via other library-related activities, I found my way to graduate school at GSLIS (now the iSchool) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. There, I had graduate assistant experiences in audiovisual media and visual resources and worked on a pilot project to recover content from legacy born-digital media. My understanding of computer storage media as well as familiarity with a range of operating systems and types of digital content served as a bedrock on this project. I also had the opportunity to build a digital forensics computing workstation and amaze colleagues with the ability to raise files from the dead with my magical powers. My present position reflects this culmination of education and desire to explore and apply a variety of experiences.

As the digital archives landscape is continually evolving, keeping up with professional organizations and meetings is incredibly important. Notably, I completed a Digital Archives Specialist certificate through the Society of American Archivists and recently attended the born-digital archives exchange at Stanford which was an excellent opportunity to meet with colleagues engaged in digital archives. A range of online resources are helpful too, such as the BloggERS! blog, the BitCurator Google group and myriad tech forums dedicated to solving hardware and software challenges.

Through experience I’ve learned to not be timid about thoroughly investigating hardware and software – modern computer systems aren’t as fragile as one may think – although static electricity can shut things down pretty quickly, so ground yourself. Hands on work is essential to understanding and continued learning. Presently, I’m deep into “breaking” a Linux system which has motivated me to learn command line tools for filtering, scripting and system administration. I’ve also lost personal data and learned the hard way about working with copies, making backups and the fallibility of computer media. So, before you experiment with content make sure it’s not the only copy, of course.   🙂

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Tracy Popp serves as Digital Preservation Coordinator at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. As part of her duties she manages the Born-Digital Reformatting Lab and works closely with Library and Archives colleagues to manage and preserve digital collections.

Digital Archivist in Disguise

By Amber D’Ambrosio

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This is the first post in the bloggERS! series Digital Archives Pathways, where archivists discuss the non-traditional, accidental, idiosyncratic, or unique paths they took to become a digital archivist.

 

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This is the warning I’ve received at every conference and workshop since I started graduate school coursework in archives. When I applied for my current position as Processing Archivist & Records Manager, I knew that digital archiving was involved at some level because the job responsibilities included archiving the university’s website. There was also some discussion of digital archiving during the in-person interview, which made me wary.

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Prior to this position my experience with digital archiving consisted of a brief introduction to the home-grown system used by the Utah State Archives and some basic information about checksums and multiple copies in multiple locations. My previous position was at a small state university without the infrastructure, funding, or staffing to undertake any kind of digital archiving beyond saving digitized material in multiple places with occasional validation checks by the systems librarian. The closest I came to digital archiving was downloading important records off of the university website to the backed up shared drive used by the library.

I’m still within the first five years of my career as a librarian/archivist, and I remember my graduate program offered a single course on digital records management. I didn’t take it because I didn’t necessarily want to be a records manager, and I wasn’t terribly interested in digital archiving.  As an English major, I assumed that I didn’t have the technical knowledge base to make it a viable option anyway.

memebetter.com-20170622101037But here I am. Undercover digital archivist. I’m a digital archivist by necessity because the archives and records I process and manage as part of my job sometimes show up on hard drives and legacy media. I’m also responsible for archiving the website. How did I do it? How did I go from some vague idea of checksums and LOCKSS to undercover digital archivist? I read. A lot. Fortunately, my institution invested in Archive-It for archiving the website and ArchivesDirect (hosted Archivematica) for managing the bulk of the digital preservation activities. I read all of their documentation. I started reading bloggERS! and about the Bentley Historical Library’s Mellon-funded ArchivesSpace-Archivematica-DSpace Workflow Integration project. My predecessor created a preliminary workflow and processing manual based on the early attempt to self-host Archivematica, so I read that and tried to understand it all.

I started attending the Society of American Archivists’ Digital Archivist Specialist certificate courses being offered in this region. I talked to our systems team. I read some more. I looked up terminology on Wikipedia. I took more DAS courses, some of which were more helpful than others. I figured out the gaps in the workflow.

Do I feel like a digital archivist after all of that? Not really. I still feel like something of an imposter.memebetter.com-20170622095504

memebetter.com-20170622102324After all, I don’t get to do much digital archiving in the grand scheme of my job. It’s challenging to find time to focus on processing the digital material through our workflow because it is time consuming. For all that we have ArchivesDirect, there’s proper stewardship to consider prior to ingest into Archivematica. I have gradually added steps into the workflow, including verifying fixity when copying from media to our digital processing drive and when copying from that drive to the secure file transfer protocol provided by ArchivesDirect. There are also the inevitable technical hiccups that happen whenever systems are involved. Human errors play a role as well, like that time someone sent me a duplicate of their entire hard drive before they left their job with no warning or explanation of its contents.

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What have I learned? I can be a digital archivist if I have to be, and command line isn’t as intimidating as it always seemed. I learned the basics of the command line interface from our digital asset management librarian combined with the Internet and trial and error. I wouldn’t claim to have even intermediate knowledge of command line, but not being intimidated by it makes digital archiving much easier. Being a digital archivist seems to be mostly a willingness and ability to constantly reassess, learn, adapt, and try something else.

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Amber D’Ambrosio is Processing Archivist & Records Manager at Willamette University, a small, urban liberal arts college in Salem, Oregon, where she manages the collections and wrangles ArchivesSpace and Archivematica. In her spare time she writes, reads about early modern London, hikes, travels, and obsessively visits the Oregon Coast.

 

Call for Contributors – Digital Archives Pathways Series

Archivists by their very nature are jacks of all trades, and the same goes for those who work with digital collection materials. Archives programs and iSchools are increasingly offering coursework in digital archives theory and practice, but not all digital archivists got their chops through academic channels, and for many archivists, digital only describes part of their responsibilities.

While all archivists must determine their own path for professional growth, the field of digital archives is also uniquely challenging. Preparation and training for this work require dedication, creativity, and engagement. Processing, preserving, and providing access to digital materials, and expertise in specialized content such as legacy media and web archiving are ever-expanding challenges.

In the Digital Archives Pathways series, we are looking for stories about the non-traditional, accidental, idiosyncratic, or unique path you took to become a digital archivist, however you define that in your work. What do you consider essential to your training, and what do you wish had been a larger part of it? How might your journey towards digital archives work be characterized as non-traditional? How do you plan on continuing your education in digital archives?

Writing for bloggERS! Digital Archives Pathways Series:

  • We encourage visual representations: Posts can include or consist of comics, flowcharts, a series of memes, etc!
  • Written content should be 200-600 words in length
  • Write posts for a wide audience: anyone who stewards, studies, or has an interest in digital archives and electronic records, both within and beyond SAA
  • Align with other editorial guidelines as outlined in the bloggERS! guidelines for writers.

Posts for this series will start in July, so let us know ASAP if you are interested in contributing by sending an email to ers.mailer.blog@gmail.com!