While not directly related to our Archivematica-ArchivesSpace-DSpace Workflow Integration project, HASTAC served as a good reminder of why it is we're doing what we're doing.
It's not so that it's easier to manage or preserve digital archives (although we're very excited about that, thank you very much).
Digital Preservation is for People
That is, we have to start thinking outside of a well known box...
|OAIS Reference |
People Use Our Stuff in Interesting Ways
One of the most exciting things I learned at HASTAC was that people actually use the digital archives we create. And not just to look a pretty pictures. They use them in new and exciting ways that push the boundaries of knowledge:
|A traveler puts his head under the edge of the firmament [a metaphorical illustration of either the scientific or the mystical quests for knowledge] in the original (1888) printing of the Flammarion engraving.  |
On this point I'd like to quote from the National Agenda for Digital Stewardship:
Researchers increasingly seek not only access but enhanced use options and tools for engaging with digital content... Models for access continue to evolve as methods for analyzing and studying contemporary born-digital and historic digitized materials are available.
I know what you're thinking: Cool! So what? Well, these new uses of digital archives have big implications for how we process them and make them accessible to people. "PDF is where DHers go to die!" was one of my favorite quotes from the conference. While it's true that PDF/As meets archival standards, and that page-turning applications are cool, sometimes things like this actually inhibit the work that scholars want to do. To do this type of analysis, digital humanists would prefer to have some way to download all or a portion of the plain text of a digital archive. It's also nice when metadata is clean (more on that later) and structured and available for download in a similar way.
People Get Frustrated When They Use Our Stuff
- Some archives are "not functional." Stated by Owen Fenton in a presentation on using a newspaper archive to trace the development of Northern Irish identity.
- Inconsistent metadata "shattered my dreams." Exclaimed (truly exclaimed!) by Frederico Pagello, describing the moment he realized that he would not be able to analyze all European crime fiction using the fairly comprehensive but very dirty bibliographic records he had been collecting.
- Digital archives are "stressful." This one I heard through the grapevine, but I think it had something to do with analyzing Enron emails.
I think these observations can break down into two categories: usability of our access mechanisms and metadata. On usability, I'd like to quote again from the 2015 National Agenda for Digital Stewardship: "Usability is increasingly a fundamental driver of support for preservation, particularly for ongoing monetary support." Read: People give us money for digital archives when they like what they see on the other end (online). We can get all nerdy about file formats and storage configurations, but I promise you that we're the only ones that get excited about these things. We will also never be able to hang our hats on the fact that we saved some bits if nobody ever uses them, or starts to but quits because they aren't usable.
So what do we do? First, we have to acknowledge that access, use and re-use are as important as preservation in digital curation (so yes, the website is part of your job). Then, work to make it things better, little-by-little. What do you make better? Here are a couple of ideas:
- download some server logs;
- install Google Analytics;
- talk to some researchers;
- do some usability studies.
On metadata, I think we all already understand the issue. But how do we fix it? First, we have to get over the fact that we have dirty metadata. We can blame it on our predecessors all we want (and I'm as guilty about this as anyone else), but that doesn't actually help. Describing collections is the most time-consuming and labor-intensive part of the process because it has to be done by humans, and humans make mistakes. Deal with it.
After we get over it, we then have to commit to finding ways to make this better. I'd suggest that an important second step to addressing the metadata issues is to have a system of record, wherever that is. Having three places where you record descriptive information actually makes cleanup harder. Finally, start cleaning. Whether that's having a system in place to correct mistakes as you find them, little-by-little, or whether you're migrating to ArchivesSpace and as part of your legacy EAD import you decide that you have an unprecedented opportunity to systematically clean your metadata, get it done!
I should also note here that digital humanists get frustrated with all of the errors in OCR'd text. For better or worse, however, this didn't make me feel very compelled to change the way we process collections (except for maybe, I'll concede, very important--and very small!--collections, or by investing in OCR research and development). Transcription is time-consuming and expensive! MPLP all the way!
People Create Their Own Digital Archives
- Fortepan Iowa, an initiative by a historian and a communications professor (and a programmer) to make digitized images of Iowans through the years available online;
- Nashville's New Faces, a not-quite-ready-for-production effort by a digital humanists to let immigrants from all over the world tell their own stories;
- a map of installations along the Way of Santiago de Compostela;
- Hoccleve Archive, an archive by a historian of resources for scholars, teachers, and students interested in Thomas Hoccleve, his works, and their textual history; and
- citizen archivists! There was a lot of talk about these people. I had to throw them in somewhere.
In addition to creating their own digital archives, people like to contribute to existing digital archives, and see this as a way to overcome the mistrust that exists between people who have been marginalized and institutions like archives that often represent "official" history. Another of my favorite quotes from HASTAC was that "Crowdsourcing is counter-hegemonic." (As it turns out, I'm all about crowdsourcing, but I won't get into it here because it's slightly out of scope.)
So what does all this mean? How can we support these folks? I have to admit, I'm a bit at a loss here. I know there is something to be said about the role of a digital archivist, and how sometimes it's educational/consultative and not practical/hands-on. I also know there's something to be said about personal digital archiving initiatives. I'd be curious to know in the comments, though, if anyone has any specific ideas about how to support researchers who want to build digital archives for their own research, and the digital archives that they create.
Every time you reinforce the myth of immateriality, somewhere, a hard drive stops spinning.— Ben Fino-Radin (@benfinoradin) February 24, 2013
 "OAIS-" by Poppen - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:OAIS-.gif#/media/File:OAIS-.gif
 "Flammarion" by Anonymous - Camille Flammarion, L'Atmosphere: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888), pp. 163. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flammarion.jpg#/media/File:Flammarion.jpg
 This image was Scott B. Weingart's opening keynote, Connecting the Dots. I highly recommend it.
P.S. I'm very proud of myself for not making even one joke about a needle in a HASTAC.