by Maggie Schreiner and Erica López
In establishing a born-digital records program at Brooklyn Historical Society, one of our main challenges was scaling the recommendations and best practices, which thus far have been primarily articulated by large and well-funded research universities, to fit our reality: a small historical society with limited funding, a very small staff, and no in-house IT support. In navigating this process, we’ve attempted to strike a balance that will allow us to responsibly steward the born-digital records in our collections, be sustainable for our staffing and financial realities, and allow us to engage with and learn from our colleagues doing similar work.
We started our process with research and learning. Our Digital Preservation Committee, which meets monthly, held a reading group. We read and discussed SAA’s Digital Preservation Essentials, reached out to colleagues at local institutions with born-digital records programs for advice, and read widely on the internet (including bloggERS!). Our approach was also strongly influenced by Bonnie Weddle’s presentation “Born Digital Collections: Practical First Steps for Institutions,” given at the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifact’s 2018 conference at the Center for Jewish History. Bonnie’s presentation focused on iterative processes that can be implemented by smaller institutions. Her presentation empowered us to envision a BHS-sized program, to start small, iterate when possible, and in the ways that make sense for our staff and our collections.
We first enacted this approach in our equipment decisions. We assembled a workstation that consists of an air-gapped desktop computer, and a set of external drives based on our known and anticipated needs (3 ½ floppy, CD/DVD, Zip drives, and memory card readers). Our most expensive piece of equipment was our write-blocker (a Tableau TK8u USB 3.0 Bridge), which, based on our research, seemed like the most important place to splurge. We based our equipment decisions on background reading, informal conversations with colleagues about equipment possibilities, and an existing survey of born-digital carriers in our collections. We were also limited by our small budget; the total cost for our workstation was approximately $1,500.
A grant from the Gardiner Foundation allowed us to create a paid Digital Preservation Fellowship, and hire the amazing Erica López for the position. The goals and timeline for Erica’s position were developed to allow lots of time for research, learning through trial and error, and mistakes. For a small staff, it is often difficult for us to create the time and space necessary for experimentation. Erica began by crafting processes for imaging and appraisal: testing software, researching, adapting workflows from other institutions, creating test disk images, and drafting appraisal reports. We opted to use BitCurator, due to the active user community. We also reached out to Bonnie Weddle, who generously agreed to answer our questions and review draft workflows. Bonnie’s feedback and support gave us additional confidence that we were on the right track.
Starting from an existing inventory of legacy media in our collections, Erica created disk images of the majority of items, and created appraisal assessments for each collection. Ultimately, Erica imaged eighty-seven born-digital objects (twelve 3.5 inch floppy disks, thirty-eight DVDs, and thirty-seven CDs), which contained a total of seventy-seven different file formats. Although these numbers may seem very small for some (or even most) institutions, these numbers are big for us! Our archives program is maintained by two FTE staff with multiple responsibilities, and vendor IT with no experience supporting the unique needs of archives and special collections.
We encountered a few big bumps during the process! The first was that we unexpectedly had to migrate our archival storage server, and as a result did not have read-write access for several months. This interrupted our planned storage workflow for the disk images that Erica was creating. In hindsight, we made what was a glaring mistake to keep the disk images in the virtual machine running BitCurator. Inevitably, we had a day when we were no longer able to launch the virtual machine. After several days of failed attempts to recover the disk images, we decided that Erica would re-image the media. Fortunately, by this time, Erica was very proficient and it took less than two weeks!
We had also hoped to do a case study on a hard drive in our collection, as Erica’s work had otherwise been limited to smaller removable media. After some experimentation, we discovered that our system would not be able to connect to the drive, and that we would need to use a FRED to access the content. We booked time at the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Studio to use their FRED. Erica spent a day imaging the drive, and brought back a series of disk images… which to date we have not successfully opened in our BitCurator environment at BHS! After spending several weeks troubleshooting the technical difficulties and reaching out to colleagues, we decided to table the case study. Although disappointing, we also recognized that we have made huge strides in our ability to steward born-digital materials, and that we will continually iterate on this work in the future.
What have we learned about creating a BHS-sized born-digital records program? We learned that our equipment meets the majority of our use-case scenarios, that we have access to additional equipment at METRO when needed, and that maybe we aren’t quite ready to tackle more complex legacy media anyway. We learned that’s okay! We haven’t read everything, we don’t have the fanciest equipment, and we didn’t start with any in-house expertise. We did our research, did our best work, made mistakes, and in the end we are much more equipped to steward the born-digital materials in our collections.
Maggie Schreiner is the Manager of Archives and Special Collections at the Brooklyn Historical Society, an adjunct faculty member in New York University’s Archives and Public History program, and a long-time volunteer at Interference Archive. She has previously held positions at the Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY), NYU, and Queens Public Library. Maggie holds an MA in Archives and Public History from NYU.
Erica López was born and raised in California by undocumented parents. Education was important but exploring Los Angeles’s colorful nightlife was more important. After doing hair for over a decade, Erica started studying to be a Spanish teacher at UC-Berkeley. Eventually, Erica quit the Spanish teacher dream, and found first film theory and then the archival world. Soon, Erica was finishing up an MA at NYU and working to become an archivist. Erica worked with Brooklyn Historical Society to setup workflows for born-digital collections, and is currently finishing up an internship at The Riverside Church translating and cataloging audio files.