An Interview With Caitlin Birch — Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist at the Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth

Interview conducted with Caitlin Birch by Juli Folk in March 2019

This is the third post in the Conversations series

Meet Caitlin Birch

Caitlin Birch is the Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist for the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire: she sat down with Juli Folk, a graduate student at the University of Maryland-College Park iSchool, who is pursuing an archives-focused MLIS and certificate in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture. Caitlin’s descriptions of her career path, her roles and achievements, and her insights into the challenges she faces helped frame a discussion of helpful skill sets for working with born-digital archival records on a daily basis.

Caitlin’s Career Path

As an undergraduate, Caitlin majored in English, concentrating in journalism with minors in history and Irish studies. After a few years working as a reporter and editor, she began to consider a different career path, looking for other fields that emphasize constant learning, storytelling, and contributions to the historical record. In time, she decided on a dual degree (MA/MSLIS) in history and archives management from Simmons College (now Simmons University). Throughout grad school, her studies focused on both historical methods and original research as well as archival theory and practice.

When asked about the path to her current position, Caitlin responded, “To the extent that my program allowed, I tried to take courses with a digital focus whenever I could. I also completed two internships and worked in several paraprofessional positions, which were really invaluable to preparing me for professional work in the field. I finished my degrees in December 2013 and landed my job at Dartmouth a few months later.” She now works as the Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist for Rauner Special Collections Library, the home of Dartmouth College’s rare books, manuscripts, and archives, compartmentalized within the larger academic research library.

Favorite Aspects of Being an Archivist

For Caitlin, the best aspects of being an archivist are working at the intersection of history and technology; teaching and interacting with people every day; and having new opportunities to create, innovate, and learn. Her position includes roles in both oral history and born-digital records, and on any given day she may be juggling tasks like teaching students oral history methodology, working on the implementation of a digital repository, building Dartmouth’s web archiving program, managing staff, sharing reference desk duty, and staying abreast of the profession via involvement with the SAA and the New England Archivists Executive Board. “I like that no two days are the same,” she shared, adding, “I like that my work can have a positive impact on others.”

Challenges of Being an Archivist

Caitlin pointed out that aspects of the profession change and evolve at a pace that can make it difficult to keep up, especially when job- or project-related tasks demand so much attention. She also noted other challenges: “More and more we’re grappling with issues like the ethical implications of digital archives and the environmental impact of digital preservation.” That said, she finds that “the biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity: most of what I do hasn’t been done before at Dartmouth. I’m the first digital archivist to be hired at my institution, so everything—infrastructure, policies, workflows, etc.—has been/is being built from the ground up. It’s exciting and often very daunting, especially because this corner of the archives field is dynamic.”

Advice for Students and Young Professionals

As a result, Caitlin emphasized the importance of experimentation and failure. “Traditional archival practice is well-defined and there are standards to guide it, but digital archives present all kinds of unique challenges that didn’t exist until very recently. Out of necessity, you have to innovate and try new things and learn from failure in order to get anywhere.” For this reason, she recommended building a good professional network and finding time to keep up with the professional literature. “It’s really key to cultivate a community of practice with colleagues at other institutions.”

When asked whether she sets aside time specified for these tasks or if she finds that networking and research are natural outputs of her daily work, Caitlin stated that networking comes more easily because of her involvement with professional organizations. However, finding time for professional literature and research proved more difficult, a concern Caitlin brought to her manager. In response, he encouraged her to block 1-2 hours on her calendar at the same time every week to catch up on reading and professional news. She remains grateful for that support: “I would hope that every manager in this profession encourages time for regular professional development. It may seem like it’s taking time away from job responsibilities, but in actuality it’s helping you to build the skills and knowledge you need for future innovation.”


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Juli Folk is finishing the MLIS program at the University of Maryland-College Park iSchool, specializing in Archives and Digital Curation. Previously a corporate editor and project manager, Juli’s graduate work supplements her passions for writing, art, and technology with formal archival training, to refocus her career on cultural heritage institutions.

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An Interview with Amy Berish – Assistant Archivist at the Rockefeller Archive Center

by Georgia Westbrook

This is the first post in a new series of conversations between emerging professionals and archivists actively working with digital materials.

Amy Berish is an Assistant Archivist at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. There, she is a member of the Processing Team, working on processing collections that cover a wide range of philanthropic history and a variety of materials. A recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh Master of Library and Information Science program, Amy has generously shared her path and experiences with bloggERS!

Amy began working in her local library when she was 14 and went on to major in library and information science as an undergraduate. While there and throughout graduate school, she worked at the university library, took various internships, and worked for school credit at the preservation lab, all in an effort to find her place in the library and archives world.

In her current role at the Rockefeller Archive Center, she works as part of a larger staff to process incoming collections in both paper and digital formats. The Rockefeller Archive Center collects materials related to the Rockefeller family, but also several other large philanthropic organizations, including the Ford Foundation, the Near East Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the W. T. Grant Foundation, among others. While she shied away from working with digital formats and learning coding skills during college, she has had the opportunity to pursue that work in her current role and has embraced the challenges that have come with it.

“I feel like digital work is the biggest challenge right now, in both the work I am doing and the work of the broader archival profession,” she said. “Learning to navigate the technical skills required to do some of the work we are doing can be especially daunting. Having a positive attitude about change and a willingness to learn is often easier said than done – but I also think these two factors could help make this type of work seem more doable.”

Amy has found support in her teams at the Rockefeller Archive Center and in the archives community in and around New York City. For example, Digital Team members at the Rockefeller Archive Center reminded her that it would be ok to break things in the code, and that they would be able to fix it if she wanted to experiment with a new way of scripting. She has also found support in online forums, which have allowed her to connect to others doing related work across the country.

Beyond scripting, part of her position requires her to deal with formats that might be obsolete or nearly so, and to face policy questions regarding proprietary information and copyright. Like coding however, Amy has used her enthusiasm for learning new skills as an asset in facing these challenges.

“I love learning new things and as a processing archivist, it’s part of my job to continue to learn more about various topics through each collection I process,” Amy said. “I also get the opportunity to learn through some of the digital projects I am working on. I have learned to automate processes by writing scripts. I have also had a lot experience lately working with legacy digital media – from optical disks and floppies to zip disks and Bernoulli disks – it has been a challenge trying to get 10-year-old media to function properly!”

As a new professional, Amy was quick to mention some of the challenges that archivists can face at the beginning of their career. Still, she said, a pat on the back for each small step you take is well-deserved. She cited one of her graduate school professors, who encouraged her to cultivate an “ethos of fearlessness” when facing technology; she said the phrase has become a mantra in her current position. Since that, Amy acknowledged, is easier said than done, especially while you’re still in school, she has three other pieces of advice to share for others just starting out in digital archives work: Take the opportunities you’re given, always be ready to learn, and don’t be afraid digital work.


Georgia Westbrook is an MSLIS student at Syracuse University. She’s interested in visual resources, oral histories, digital publishing, and open access. Connect with her on LinkedIn or on her website.

Digital Preservation, Eh?

by Alexandra Jokinen

This post is the third post in our series on international perspectives on digital preservation.

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Hello / Bonjour!

Welcome to the Canadian edition of International Perspectives on Digital Preservation. My name is Alexandra Jokinen. I am the new(ish) Digital Archives Intern at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I work closely with the Digital Archivist, Creighton Barrett, to aid in the development of policies and procedures for some key aspects of the University Libraries’ digital archives program—acquisitions, appraisal, arrangement, description, and preservation.

One of the ways in which we are beginning to tackle this very large, very complex (but exciting!) endeavour is to execute digital preservation on a small scale, focusing on the processing of digital objects within a single collection, and then using those experiences to create documentation and workflows for different aspects of the digital archives program.

The collection chosen to be our guinea pig was a recent donation of work from esteemed Canadian ecologist and environmental scientist, Bill Freedman, who taught and conducted research at Dalhousie from 1979 to 2015. The fonds is a hybrid of analogue and digital materials dating from 1988 to 2015. Digital media carriers include: 1 computer system unit, 5 laptops, 2 external hard drives, 7 USB flash drives, 5 zip disks, 57 CDs, 6 DVDs, 67 5.25 inch floppy disks and 228 3.5 inch floppy disks. This is more digital material than the archives is likely to acquire in future accessions, but the Freedman collection acted as a good test case because it provided us with a comprehensive variety of digital formats to work with.

Our first area of focus was appraisal. For the analogue material in the collection, this process was pretty straightforward: conduct macro-appraisal and functional analysis by physically reviewing material. However, (as could be expected) appraisal of the digital material was much more difficult to complete. The archives recently purchased a forensic recovery of evidence device (FRED) but does not yet have all the necessary software and hardware to read the legacy formats in the collection (such as the floppy disks and zip disks), so, we started by investigating the external hard drives and USB flash drives. After examining their content, we were able to get an accurate sense of the information they contained, the organizational structure of the files, and the types of formats created by Freedman. Although, we were not able to examine files on the legacy media, we felt that we had enough context to perform appraisal, determine selection criteria and formulate an arrangement structure for the collection.

The next step of the project will be to physically organize the material. This will involve separating, photographing and reboxing the digital media carriers and updating a new registry of digital media that was created during a recent digital archives collection assessment modelled after OCLC’s 2012 “You’ve Got to Walk Before You Can Run” research report. Then, we will need to process the digital media, which will entail creating disk images with our FRED machine and using forensic tools to analyze the data.  Hopefully, this will allow us to apply the selection criteria used on the analogue records to the digital records and weed out what we do not want to retain. During this process, we will be creating procedure documentation on accessioning digital media as well as updating the archives’ accessioning manual.

The project’s final steps will be to take the born-digital content we have collected and ingest it using Archivematica to create Archival Information Packages for storage and preservation and accessed via the Archives Catalogue and Online Collections.

So there you have it! We have a long way to go in terms of digital preservation here at Dalhousie (and we are just getting started!), but hopefully our work over the next several months will ensure that solid policies and procedures are in place for maintaining a trustworthy digital preservation system in the future.

This internship is funded in part by a grant from the Young Canada Works Building Careers in Heritage Program, a Canadian federal government program for graduates transitioning to the workplace.

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Alexandra Jokinen has a Master’s Degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management from Ryerson University in Toronto. Previously, she has worked as an Archivist at the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto and completed a professional practice project at TIFF Film Reference Library and Special Collections.

Connect with me on LinkedIn!