Trust Me, I'm an Archivist
Born-digital archival material represents the single most important challenge to the archival profession for a generation or more. It requires us to rethink issues and assumptions around acquisition, preservation, cataloguing and reader access. Not least is the problem of getting donors to transfer their born-digital material to us. We have encountered four common scenarios that seem to act as blocks to the transfer of such material. We also need to change the way we engage with donors. This is a challenge that we cannot duck unless we wish to condemn our collection to increasing irrelevance.
Managing born-digital material is difficult. We all have trouble finding, storing and managing the data we create. Yet we have an attachment to this transient and ephemeral stuff that we find hard to relinquish. We seem to have a stronger emotional attachment to digital material than we did with paper. Thus, donors who have happily donated paper archival materials to the Library struggle with the challenges of donating born-digital material, challenges that are not always technical.
The Current State of Play
Two previous articles in Ariadne  have reported on the Wellcome Library’s engagement with born-digital material: for readers who have not seen these it is appropriate to begin by recapitulating the themes established there.
The Wellcome Library is a collecting institution and the majority of its archival holdings are acquired from outside bodies or individuals by purchase, deposit or gift. The Library has no mandate to require an organisation or individual to lodge their records in the Library, and little influence over their use of particular formats or technologies. Conversely the Library is not required to take in any given material. The archivists have the freedom to decide what material to accept or if a particular format is too problematic to acquire when set against the material’s informational value.
The Library’s work with digital material is based on two central principles:
- That sound archival practice is wholly appropriate to working with born-digital materials.
- That if the Library does not acquire born-digital archival material then its future relevance as a research Library is compromised.
Starting from First Principles
Learning from experience has been crucial to the Wellcome Library, and much of this article will be concerned with those lessons. Archival first principles, the concepts of respect for provenance, authenticity and original order - issues common to all archival material whether paper or digital – form a sound foundation for working with digital material. A similar call to start with archival first principles and develop a methodology from them, rather than working up from specific projects, was made in a recent blog-posting by Christopher Prom . This includes close working relationships with an archive’s donors and creators.
We have focused upon the first phases of the process; acquisition, educating donors and the Library’s ability to take in born-digital material and apply a preservation strategy to it. Conversations with donors have emphasised the importance of born-digital material and our desire to support them in transferring digital material; for most, a new activity. The Library’s Web site provides frequently asked questions (FAQs) and other information setting out the basics of working with born-digital material and we always encourage potential donors to come and talk to us.
Experiences with Donors
There is, then, a continuous process of feedback, of reality-testing, between our basic assumptions, the first principles of archival practice, and the specific challenges set by born-digital material. The encounter between assumptions and reality is not confined solely to the Library taking in material: it is something also experienced by the creators of born-digital material who become involved in transferring that material to an archive. Whether they have previous experience of transferring paper records, or are encountering the archival process for the first time, they will bring assumptions to the operation which will shape its execution for both depositor and archive. Our encounters with born-digital material suggests that donors are not simply carrying over their past experiences in working with paper materials.
It Used to Be Simple
Despite our conviction that the key aspect of born-digital material is its content, that is, the information within it, for the creator the different physical nature of born-digital material makes it seem somehow different to paper material.
One experience of ours highlights this clearly in the separation of responsibilities in organisations between paper and digital records. We encountered one organisation in which paper material flowed down a well-established path to a single information professional charged with the organisation’s records management. Guidelines were set on what should be retained, what discarded and what had only a fixed-term importance. They had previously set up periodic transfers of this paper material to the Library. Here was a mature and organised records management set-up seemingly ripe for extension to cover born-digital material. However, technical issues outranked information management principles and born-digital material was seen solely as the responsibility of the IT department, whose remit was confined to short-to-medium term access to material without regard to long-term preservation. Born-digital material went down a completely different management track to paper records: one in which the main concerns were to maximise server space by deleting material seen as no longer current, and in which material no longer accessible because of software changes had simply been deleted. Much material was permanently lost with no consideration to its value.
Obstacles to Digital Transfer
In our dealings with donors and/or creators, we have frequently observed four characteristics in relation to their transferring born-digital material to the Library.
Lack of Long-term Planning
When it comes to the preservation of digital material, there seems to be less awareness of the need for long-term thinking. There is an acceptance that paper needs to be stored somewhere if it is to be retained, but, somehow, not digital material. Perhaps digital material creates ‘invisible clutter’ which can be ignored. Many of the paper donations to the Library come about as a result of offices becoming full, or the space being needed for other things. Whilst digital clutter can also be inconvenient for an organisation (e.g. by making it harder to locate files), the organisation’s chief executive is not going to trip over it and break his or her neck when paying an unexpected visit to the office!
IT vs Records Management
The separation of IT and Records Management functions within an organisation has already been mentioned above. One of the problems associated with this is that if server space is needed, one of two things tends to happen: either new space is bought and the ‘digital clutter’ is temporarily forgotten, or the IT department takes it upon itself to delete any documents older than a certain date. Whilst the former is problematic in its own way, it is the latter that causes the most problems for archivists. The date a document was last accessed is no indicator of its archival value. There is a broader issue here in how organisations manage their own records that goes beyond the simply archival that we have been unable to tackle effectively.
Duplication and Abundance
Whilst capricious disposal can be a problem for archives, so can the reverse. It is easier than ever before to create and duplicate records. Recently a medium-sized medical organisation donated its papers to the Library. This organisation has been archiving the papers of its yearly conference with the Library for some time, including the obligatory group photograph of the conference participants. However, when they began to produce the conference papers in born-digital format, instead of the usual official photograph, the papers were accompanied by hundreds of digital photographs (taken by the honorary archivist with personal camera), none of which were remotely archival. The problems of abundance become problems of appraisal and of the time taken to appraise large donations.
The Fear of Digital
However, the most common problem we have faced so far has been in regard to access. Organisations which have been giving us their paper archives for decades suddenly seem reluctant to continue to pass the same documents to us because they are now produced and circulated in digital form. There appears to be a fear, perhaps born of ignorance, about making their material available. The fear is that ‘anyone can see it’ just because it is digital. Despite familiarity with donation agreements, withholding agreements and the experience of past practice, some organisations’ staff assume that ‘digital’ must mean ‘unrestricted access’.
Not Everyone Is the Same
The above issues have emerged in our dealings with large- to medium-scale organisations. A slightly different dynamic is at work in our dealings with individuals and very small bodies. Here it is likely that the initial approach has been from the individual to the Library, rather than from the Library to the organisation. A much greater degree of interest in the material is common, in which individuals are dealing with their own records or a small organisation has devolved responsibility for record keeping to an interested member of staff or volunteer. In such instances, we may not be battling inexperience or indifference, but, instead, over-enthusiastic engagement. A common feature in such cases is a misplaced willingness to migrate between formats (something that can also occur with larger organisations). This may take the form of suggesting that all born-digital material should be printed out for transfer as paper records. This would be laborious, would falsify the experience of the material both for its creators and future researchers, and in the case of some formats would simply be impossible. Surprisingly we have also encountered the suggestion that all paper material should henceforth be scanned and transferred to the Library as .pdf. It seems clear that potential donors of born-digital material see the change of format as betokening not simply new technical problems but as somehow changing the dynamic of how they relate to the Library.
More ominously, this suggests that our donor education efforts are failing. Somehow the messages we thought were clear are obviously not. Perhaps our approach of treating digital and physical materials as the same, at least in terms of donation, is too simplistic. It might be that the passive FAQ approach is not sufficient in delivering the message. Perhaps we need to return to first principles and work more closely with our donors.
Whom to Educate and How?
There is a difficulty in differentiating between personal and professional in the digital realm. Whilst professional correspondence taken in by archives has always included a personal element, it is clear that the boundary is even more blurred when it comes to digital material. For example, a lecturer at a university recently tried to send his digital personal papers to the Library. The university’s IT department decided that he had no right to do this as the material was the property of the university, not of the individual. However, it seemed to have no problem with the individual sending his paper archives to the Library. As archivists we have too little experience in dealing across a wide range of organisations, and in dealing with multiple interested parties. It would be difficult in this case to know to whom exactly to talk: the IT department may be following a set procedure, and senior management may in fact have no interest in the archiving of an individual’s papers.
It has become ever more apparent as we engage with digital material and its creators that we are educating our donor/depositor community at the same time as we are learning and adapting our procedures. In particular, if we are sure that the most important principles involved in this exercise are archival ones – that born-digital material is simply information in a different guise - we need to convince our donor/depositor community of this truth. The value of early engagement is clear. It can be a matter of years from initial contact to deposit, whilst the issues involved are sorted out to the donor’s satisfaction. Time and again, the simple rule of having a single point of contact during this process has proved most valuable. If that point of contact is the same person who deals with paper records, and thus is someone familiar with some basic concepts already, this is even more helpful.
Although this article has presented a number of examples where the transition from paper to digital has not been a smooth one, this is not always necessarily the case. There is a small medical organisation with which we have been dealing which has been extremely helpful. This organisation has been donating its paper records to the Library for some time, and when these records started to be generated in digital formats, it contacted the Library to discuss their transfer. The staff there are well organised, ready to ask questions of us and confident about what records they need to retain as an organisation, and therefore what they can transfer to the Library. They are also prepared to engage with technology and to learn how to perform functions beyond the basics. The result is that the transition from paper archives to born-digital archives has been incredibly smooth. The bonus has been a closer working relationship. This shows what can be achieved by communication and early intervention. We can only hope that other organisations and individuals follow their example!
We remain convinced that sound archival principles are the key to working with born-digital archival material. We are convinced that engagement with our donor community is absolutely necessary. Yet the ‘old’ paper model does not fit the digital world as perfectly as we had thought. Our education and engagement efforts to date have not resulted in donors simply handing over their archives in digital form. We can see that what our donors are doing with their digital material is not always to the greatest advantage of that material. Somehow we are powerless to stop them. We have clearly underestimated the differences in the way individuals ‘feel’ about their digital material.
We do not yet have a new model for engagement with our donors. We can see where currently we are failing to get the message across; consequently we need to change the way we present information, about how we work with digital material and about how we can support and assist our donors. It is as if we need to re-convince them that we can be trusted, in the advice we give, in the assistance we provide, and in our ability as archivists.
We already knew that only by engaging with our donors/depositors could we test our hypotheses, learn from our experience and move forward. It has become apparent that in addition to this the degree of engagement that is standard practice with paper records will not suffice for born-digital material: our interaction with depositors will ideally be even closer and even more frequent, as we help them deal not merely with new technical challenges but with the plethora of soft-skills issues, of preconceptions and of attachments that surround them. But maybe this, again, is nothing new: the archivist once more is being asked to combine specialist knowledge with ‘bedside manner’. We return, as ever, to one of the basic core skills of the profession.
- Christopher Hilton and Dave Thompson. “Collecting Born Digital Archives at the Wellcome Library”, January 2007, Ariadne Issue 50,
- Christopher Hilton and Dave Thompson, “Further Experiences in Collecting Born Digital Archives at the Wellcome Library”, October 2007, Ariadne issue 53,
- Christopher J. Prom, “Re-imagining Academic Archives”, 27 May 2010, Practical e-Records blog,
http://e-records.chrisprom.com/?p=1219 (accessed 18 October 2010). See also Christopher J. Prom, “Making Digital Curation a Systematic Institutional Function”,Forthcoming, Proceedings of the 6th International Digital Curation Conference, Chicago, Illinois, USA. December 6-8 2010, for a development of this theme.