The Human and the Tech: Failing Gracefully While Archiving a Downsized Unit

By Mary Mellon and Heidi Kelly

This is the second post in the bloggERS series #digitalarchivesfail: A Celebration of Failure.

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The human element of digital archiving has lately been covered very well, with well-known professionals like Bergis Jules and Hillel Arnold taking on various pieces of the topic.  At Indiana University (IU), we have a tacit commitment in most of our collections to the concept of a culture of care: taking care of those who entrust us with the longevity of their materials. However, sometimes even the best of intentions can lead to failures to achieve that goal, especially when the project involves a fraught issue, like downsizing and the loss or fundamental change of employment for people whose materials we want to bring into the collection. We wanted to share a story of one of our failures, as part of the #digitalarchivesfail series, because we hope that others can learn from our oversights. We hope that by sharing this out we can contribute to the conversation that projects like Documenting the Now have really mobilized.

Introduction: Indiana University Archives and the Born Digital Preservation Lab

Mary Mellon (MM): The mission of the Indiana University Archives is to collect, organize, preserve and make accessible records documenting Indiana University’s origins and development and the activities and achievements of its officers, faculty, students, alumni and benefactors. We often work with internal units and donors to preserve the institution’s legacy. In fulfilling our mission, we are beginning to receive increasing amounts of born digital material without in-house resources or specialized staff for maintaining a comprehensive digital preservation program. 

Heidi Kelly (HK): The Indiana University Libraries Born Digital Preservation Lab (BDPL) is a sub-unit of Digital Preservation. It started last January as a service modeled off of the Libraries’ Digitization Services unit, which works with various collection owners to digitize and make accessible books and other analog materials. In terms of daily management of the BDPL, I generally do outreach with collection units to plan new projects, and the Digital Preservation Technician, Luke Menzies, creates the workflows and solves any technical problems. The University Archives has been our main partner so far, since they have ongoing requests from both internal and external donors with a lot of born-digital materials.   

Developing a Project With a Downsized Unit

MM: In the middle of 2016, IU Archives staff were contacted by another unit on campus about transferring its records and faculty papers. Unfortunately, the academic unit was facing impending closure, and they were expected to move out of their physical location within a few months. After an initial assessment, we worked with unit’s administrative staff and faculty members, the IU Libraries’ facilities officer, and Auxiliary Library Facility staff to inventory, pack, and transfer boxes of papers, A/V material, and other physical media to archival storage. 

HK: The unit’s staff also suggested that they transfer, along with their paper records, all of the content from their server, which is how the BDPL got involved. The server contained a relatively small amount of content comparatively to the papers records, but “accessioning a server” was a new challenge for us. 

What We Did

MM: I should probably mention that the job of coordinating the transfer of the unit’s material landed on my desk on my second day of work at Indiana University (thanks, boss!), so I was not involved in the initial consultation process. While the IU Archives typically asks campus offices and donors to prepare boxes for transfer, the unit’s shrinking staff had many competing priorities resulting from the approaching closure (the former office manager had already left for a new job). They reached out for additional help about four weeks prior to closure, and the IU Archives assumed the responsibility of packing and physically transferring records at that point. As a result, the large volume of paper records to accession was the immediate focus of our work with the unit. 

In the end, we boxed about 48 linear feet of material, facing several unanticipated challenges along the way, namely coordinating with personnel who were transferring or leaving employment. The building that housed the unit was not regularly staffed anyway during the summer, requiring a new email back-and-forth to gain access every time we needed to resume file packing. This need for access also necessitated special trips to the office by unit staff. The staff were obviously stretched a bit thin with the closure in general, so any difficulties or setbacks in terms of transferring materials, whether paper or digital, just added to their stress.  

In addition, despite consulting with IU Archives staff and our transfer policies, the unit’s faculty exhibited an unfortunate level of modesty over the enduring value of their papers, which significantly slowed the process of acquiring paper materials. To top it all off, during a stretch of relentless rain, the basement, where most of the paper files were stored prior to transfer, flooded. The level of humidity necessitated moving the paper out as soon as possible, which again made the analog materials our main focus in the IU Archives.

HK: Accessioning the server, on the other hand, didn’t involve many trips to the unit’s physical location. Our main challenges were determining how best to ensure that everything got properly transferred, and how to actually transfer the digital content.

Because the server was Windows, this posed the first big issue for us. Our main workflow focuses on creating a disk image, which in this case was not optimal. We had a bash script that we were regularly using on our main Linux machines to inventory any large external hard drives, but we weren’t prepared for running it on a Windows operating system. Luke, having no experience with Python, amazingly adapted our script within a short period of time, but unfortunately this still set us back since the unit’s staff were working against the clock. I also didn’t realize that in explaining the technical issue to them, I had inadvertently encouraged them to search out their own solutions to effectively capture all of the information that our bash inventory was generating. This was a fundamental misstep, as I didn’t think about their attenuated timeline and how that might push a different response. While the staff’s proactivity was helpful, it compounded the amount of time they ultimately spent and left them feeling frustrated.

All of that said, we got the inventory working and then we faced a new set of challenges in terms of the actual transfer. First, we requested read-only access to the server through the unit’s IT department, but were unable to obtain the user privileges. We then tried to move things using Box, the university’s cloud storage, but discovered some major limitations. In comparing the inventory we generated on the user’s end with what we received in the BDPL, there were a lot of files missing. As we found out, the donor had set everything to upload, but received no notifications when the system failed to complete the process. Box had already been less than ideal in that some of the metadata we wanted to keep for every file was wiped as soon as the files were uploaded, so this made us certain that it was not the right solution. Finally, we landed on using external media for the transfer–an option that we had considered earlier but we did not have any media available early on in the project. 

What We Learned

HK: In digital archiving, and digital curation more broadly, we are constantly talking about building our <insert preferred mode of transport here> as we <corresponding verb> it. Our fumblings to figure out better and faster ways to preserve obsolete media are, often, comical. But they also have an impact in several ways that we hadn’t really considered prior to this project. Beyond the fact of ensuring better odds for the longevity of the content that we’re preserving, we’re preserving the tangible histories of Indiana University and of its staff. Our work means that people’s legacies here will persist, and our work with the unit really laid that bare.

Going forward, there are several parts of the BDPL’s workflow that will improve based on the failures of this particular project. First, we’ve learned that our communication of technical issues is not optimal. As a tech geek, I think that the way in which I frame questions can sometimes push people to answer and act in different ways than if the questions are framed by a non-tech person. I spend every day with this stuff, so it’s hard to step back from, “How good are you at command line?” to “Do you know what command line is?” But that’s key to effective relationship management, and that caused a problem in this situation. My goal in this case is to further rely on Mary and other Archives staff to communicate directly with donors. To me, this makes the most sense because we in the BDPL aren’t front-facing people, our role is as advisors to the collection managers, to the people who have been regularly interfacing with donors for years. They’re much better at that element, and we’ve got the technical stuff covered, so everybody’s happy if we can continue building out our service model in that way. Right now we’re focusing on training for the archivists, librarians and curators that are going to be working directly with donors. Another improvement we’ve made is the creation of a decision matrix for BDPL projects in order to better define how we make decisions about new projects. This will again help archivists and other staff as they work with donors. It will also help us to continue focusing on workflows rather than one-offs–building on the knowledge we gain from other, similar projects, instead of starting fresh every time. The necessity of focusing on pathways rather than solutions is again something that became clearer after this project.

MM: Truism alert: Born-digital materials really need to be an early part of the conversations with donors. In this case, we would have gained a few weeks that could have contributed to a smoother experience for all parties and more ideal solution preservation-wise than what we ended up with. Despite the fact that our guidelines for transferring records and paper state that we want electronic records as well as analog, we cannot count on donors to be aware of this policy, or to be proactive about offering up born-digital content if it will almost certainly lead to more complications. 

Seconding Heidi’s point, we at the Archives need to assume more responsibility in interactions with donors regarding transfer of materials, instead of leaving everything digital on the BDPL’s plate. The last thing we want is for donors to be discouraged from transferring born-digital material because it is too much of a hassle, or for the Archives to miss out on any contextual information about the transfers due to lack of involvement. We at the Archives are using this experience to develop formal workflows and policies in conjunction with the BDPL to optimize division of responsibilities between our offices based on expertise and resources. We’re not going to be bagging any files anytime soon on our own workstations, but we can certainly sit down with a donor to walk them through an initial born-digital survey and discuss transfer procedures and technical requirements as needed.

Conclusion

HK: In the end, we’re archiving the legacies of people and institutions. Creating a culture of care is easy to talk about, but when dealing with the legacies of staff who are being displaced or let go, it is crucial and much harder than we could have imagined. Empathy and communication are key, as is the understanding that failure is a fact in our field. We have to embrace it in order to learn from it. We hope that staff at other institutions can learn from our failures in this case.

MM: Ditto.

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Mary Mellon is the Assistant Archivist at Indiana University Archives, where she manages digitization and encoding projects and provides research and outreach support. She previously worked at the Rubenstein Library at Duke University and the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill. She holds an M.S. in Information Science from UNC-Chapel Hill and a B.A. from Duke University.

Heidi Kelly is the Digital Preservation Librarian at Indiana University. Her current focuses involve infrastructure development and services for born-digital objects. Previously Heidi worked at Huygens ING, Library of Congress, and Nazarbayev University. She holds an Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University.

 

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