Thursday, 30 November 2017

Digital Archives – working with depositors

On this, the first International Digital Preservation Day, we here at the University of Hull working on the City of Culture Digital Archive project are thinking about our experiences of some of the earlier stages of digital preservation: working with depositors to share expectations from both sides, fact-find and prepare records as fully as possible for their transfer to the archive early in 2018. There will be a range of artist and participant depositors but the bulk of the archive will be received from the Culture Company which was founded to deliver the year’s activities. There are currently in the region of 100,000 digital records in scope for this project. 

The Culture Company’s Asset Bank which contains thousands of image and video files
One of the key differences between this project and others I have worked on is the immediacy. As archivists working with “traditional” records we often expect a delay of some years between records being created and used and then becoming “archival”.  In this project our intention is to capture the activities of a single year and once that year is over to process them through Archivematica and provide public access to what we can as soon as possible. 

There are some huge advantages to this approach. We know that working with digital archives can present a complex set of issues surrounding ownership, software, file types and beyond. We’re in the brilliant position that where there is doubt we are able to approach the record creators directly and seek clarification. I have been able to sit down with members of different teams to talk to them about how they create, store and share records. 

The City of Culture team are extremely busy delivering a packed programme of cultural events and activities. Whilst they are very supportive of the development of the archive, on a day-to-day basis they often have limited time to engage in the administrative activities that would help make processing the archive at a later stage easier. This means that in some cases, records that should be on the team SharePoint or Asset Bank sites are liable to linger on personal drives and that files are stuck with meaningless titles or are stored in labyrinthine folder structures. 

The Culture Company’s team SharePoint site where they store and share records
Whilst for archivists this is hardly a new phenomenon, we have been grateful to receive support in tackling this from the senior management team at the Culture Company who have declared one day in December “Archive Day”. 

On Archive Day no meetings will be allowed and everyone will be asked to concentrate solely on sorting out their digital files. This will help the Culture Company as much as it helps us as it will help to ensure that staff don’t leave at the end of their contracts with important records still saved locally and will also give them the opportunity to flag any records with commercial or other sensitivity that we, without that insiders’ perspective, may not immediately recognise. It makes sense for the people who know the records best to do this work.

Hopefully by the time the next International Digital Preservation day rolls around we’ll be in a good position to talk about some of the technical components of digital preservation. In the meantime my tips for the early stages of a digital archive project are:

  • Be prepared to encounter a small amount of jitters from depositors – I’m sure we’d all be a little daunted at the prospect of all our records suddenly being made public! Reassure them that this is not the case and come prepared with a good knowledge of the legal landscape in this regard. Encourage questions.
  • Advocate for the digital archive at a high level within the organisation you are collecting from – they are the ones with the authority to ensure that records are managed well!
  • Get out there and talk to digital preservation colleagues at other institutions – we’re all in a great position to learn from each other.

Laura Giles, City of Culture Digital Archivist

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