Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Best Practices Exchange: day three

Memorial Hall, Pennsylvania State Museum, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 21 October 2015.
The 2015 Best Practices Exchange (BPE) ended just before noon today. I spent most of the afternoon and early evening driving home, and I need to spend the rest of this evening unpacking and getting ready to go to work tomorrow, so I'm going to put up a few more substantive posts in the coming days. However, one of the things that I love about the BPE is that it often makes one look for connections between seemingly disparate things, and this morning I took a look around the museum and noted that our very surroundings seemed to be reinforcing points made in various presentations.

This year's BPE sessions took place in the Pennsylvania State Museum building, and attendees repeatedly passed through the Museum's Memorial Hall, which is dedicated to the vision of Pennsylvania founder William Penn as they made their way from one session to the next. Memorial Hall features a mammoth, strikingly modernist sculpture of Penn, a reproduction of Pennsylvania's original colonial charter, and a mural by Vincent Maragliotti depicting the state's history from the colonial era to the mid-1960s.

Painted beneath the mural are quotations from over a dozen prominent Pennsylvanians. I scanned them this morning as I was heading to a session, and several of them seemed strikingly resonant.

 BPE attendees tend to be thoroughly practical, in part because we've all seen large-scale information technology projects end miserably. Doug Robinson, the executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, noted during a plenary address that the spectacular failure of numerous government IT projects -- failures rooted in the desire to solve all problems at once and in repeated changes in project scope and direction -- is finally moving state CIOs toward an agile, incremental approach to software and system development.

The BPE exists because archivists, librarians, and other people recognize that the processes and policies that worked so well in an analog world don't work so well in the digital era. This year, many presenters detailed how they're developing and documenting new processing workflows and drafting new preservation and records management policies. We're creating these things not because we wish to sow discord or promote ourselves but because our mission -- preserving and providing state government and other born-digital content -- demands it of us.

BPE attendees have always stressed that failure can be just as instructive as success, and Kate Theimer stressed in her plenary address that we need to create organizational cultures in which failure is recognized as part and parcel of innovation. I would argue that demonstrating a certain degree of compassion is part and parcel of this effort. Most of the people who self-select to become archivists and librarians were conscientious students who took pride in having the "right" answer, and we have to keep gently reminding our perfectionist peers that failure itself is neither unusual nor a sign of incompetence. Failure to learn from a failure is far more damaging.

I don't know whether the "irresistible right arm shall divide the waves," but as Pennsylvania State University records manager Jackie Esposito emphasized in this morning's plenary address, those of us who are actively grappling with digital preservation and electronic records management are doing so in part because the risks associated with not doing so -- financial losses, legal sanctions, tarnished institutional reputations, inability to conduct business -- are even greater than the risks associated with wading into the deep waters of digital preservation and electronic records management. We don't have any choice but to keep going forward, even if the only right -- or left -- arms pushing against the waves are our own.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Best Practices Exchange 2015: day two

Utility marking in front of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex, North Third Street, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 20 October 2015
The experiences I had today at the 2015 Best Practices Exchange (BPE) highlighted highlighted precisely why I love this conference so much: I listened as other people shared some thought-provoking insights, discussed how my own institution is addressing some electronic records challenges and encouraged others to share how their organizations are tackling the same problems, learned about some great new tools and their uses, and spent lunch and dinner catching up with friends I rarely get to see.

It's late, tomorrow's plenary starts at 8:30 AM, and as a result I'm going to devote this brief post to Kate Theimer's incisive plenary presentation. Kate's planning to post the full text of her talk -- and, perhaps, the full text of an alternate version she opted against writing for the BPE -- on her own site, and I don't want to steal her thunder. As a result, I'm simply going to underscore what, in my view, was her most essential point:

Archivists don't set out to be innovative, and "innovation" isn't the preserve of the library or archival profession's elite. Innovation is what happens when we try to figure out how we can do our jobs more effectively. In most instances, innovation occurs when we're confronted with some sort of problem or challenge and decide that we're going to try to do something about it. If you've figured out some way to improve your organization's processes or services, you're an innovator -- even if your solution is less than perfect.

Good night.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Best Practices Exchange 2015: day one

Light fixture, Pennsylvania State Museum, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 19 October 2015.
The 2015 Best Practices Exchange (BPE) got underway at the Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg earlier today. The BPE is a conference that brings together archivists, librarians, information technologists, and other people who seek to preserve born-digital state government information, and it emphasizes sharing lessons learned (i.e., lessons taught by failure) as well as success stories. It's my favorite conference, and I always leave the BPE feeling energized and inspired.

I'm a little under the weather and am still thinking through some of the things I heard about today, so this post is going to be brief. However, I did want to pass on something that really piqued my interest:
  • A group of Michigan archivists and librarians doing hands-on digital preservation work have formed a grassroots organization, Mid-Michigan Digital Practitioners, that meets twice a year to exchange information. The group has no institutional sponsor, has no formal leadership structure, and charges no membership dues; however, the website of Michigan State University's Archives and Historical Collections includes information about and presentations delivered at past meetings. Mid-Michigan Digital Practitioners has capped its size in an effort to ensure that it remains small enough to allow members to form a tightly knit, geographically concentrated community of practice, and I think that this is a good thing. Local and regional professional organizations and regional, national, and international communities of practice are all incredibly valuable, but local, less formalized communities can propel enduring collaboration and can be far less intimidating to people who are just beginning to grapple with digital preservation issues. I would love to see lots of little, unstructured, and locally based digital preservation groups pop up all over the place.
I also want to share a couple of key points that a pair of experienced professionals made about making the case for electronic records management and digital preservation:
  •  The technologies we will use to manage and preserve archival records are the same technologies we will use to preserve records that are not permanent but which have lengthy retention periods. When making the case for digital preservation to CIOs and other high-ranking, we should consider focusing less on the former and emphasizing that we can help care for the latter. If we create an environment in which people are comfortable sending records that have long retention periods to an archives-governed storage facility -- just as they are currently comfortable sending paper records that have long retention periods to a different archives-operated storage facility -- we can easily take care of preserving those records that warrant permanent preservation.
  • All too often, we think in terms of what records creators must do in order to comply with regulations, laws, or records management best practices. We should instead assess the environment in which records creators operate, identify the problems with which creators are struggling, and then stress how we can help to solve these problems.
 Finally, one attendee made a comment that struck me as being so basic that it's often overlooked:
  • When we talk about "electronic records," many people simply assume that we're advocating scanning paper documents and then getting rid of all paper records. We need to make sure that people understand that we're focusing on those materials that are created digitally and will be managed and preserved in digital format. How do we do this?
More tomorrow.

Monday, August 24, 2015

SAA 2015: Cleveland Digital Public Library

Main lobby, Cleveland Public Library, East 3rd Street and Superior Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-22. This is what a library should look like.
The annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists ended early Saturday afternoon. I then visited the main branch of the Cleveland Public Library. I fell in love with this library as an undergraduate, and I was pleased to see that the original building, a Beaux Arts beauty, has received some much needed care and that a sparkling 21st century addition now sits immediately to the east of the library's reading garden.

I was particularly pleased to discover that earlier this year, the library launched the Cleveland Digital Public Library, which supports digitization of historically significant materials owned by the Cleveland Public Library, other cultural heritage institutions, and organizations and individuals in the Cleveland area. Cleveland was one of four large public libraries that received Library Services Technology Act and Ohio Public Library Information Network funding that supported the purchase of high-resolution scanning equipment and storage, and Cleveland's program is unique in that it allows community members to use its scanning equipment and to add copies of the resulting image files to the library's permanent digital collections.

I know that the Cleveland Public Library isn't the first institution to create and maintain digital images of manuscript and archival materials that remain in the hands of their creators, but it may be unique in that it puts community members in charge of determining whether their materials should be added to the library's collections and enables them to create and donate copies of their materials at their convenience. Almost all of the other "scan and add" projects with which I'm familiar have sought to collect copies of materials that focused on a given event (e.g., the Civil War) and make their scanning services available to community members for only a few hours or a few days at a time.

I imagine that, in at least a few instances, the community-created images added to the Cleveland Public Digital Library's collections will strike archivists, librarians, and other members of the community as less than preservation-worthy. However, judging from the videos embedded in the Cleveland Digital Public Library's web page, this program will help to ensure that some fascinating Cleveland lives and stories are preserved and made broadly accessible. It pleases me deeply that the Cleveland Public Library is taking a 21st century approach to collecting and facilitating access to the city's historical record.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

SAA 2015: thinking about access

Glass globe (1925) based upon a drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci, main branch of the Cleveland Public Library, East 3rd Street and Superior Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-15.
The 2015 meeting of the Society of American Archivists ended early yesterday afternoon, and I spent the remainder of the day thinking about . . . well, a lot of things, but mainly about the conference and my hometown.

By my count, there were five sessions -- four listed in the preliminary program and a fifth "pop-up" session that came together shortly before the meeting began -- that focused on making born-digital records accessible to end users. I heard a little grumbling about the weight given to this particular topic and to electronic records generally, and I also heard some griping about the timidity and complexity of the access solutions and systems that were discussed. As I walked through the Cleveland Public Library this afternoon and visited various suburban bookstores this evening, the subject of access to records kept popping into my mind.

I agree that in some instances, we allow fear -- of embarrassment, of reprisals, of vague and undefined consequences -- to play an inordinately large role in shaping our access policies and procedures. I also agree that it's quite easy to develop online access mechanisms that force users to jump through additional hoops instead of providing a seamless entree into one's digital holdings. However, it's important to remember that our hangups regarding access aren't merely the product of fear.

In some instances, access restrictions are the result of negotiated agreements with donors. In other words, we've made a promise that we need to keep -- in part because it demonstrates our trustworthiness and in part because -- generally -- it's the right thing to do. One can argue that the terms embedded in a given agreement are excessive, needlessly complex, or downright unreasonable, but I don't think that any archivist would assert that we should treat donor agreements lightly.

In other instances, restrictions are imposed by law. Is every law that might bear upon access to records well written, easy to enforce, and in alignment with archival principles. No, no, a thousand times no. However, archivists generally seek to operate within the bounds established by law and those working in government repositories may have a legal as well as an ethical obligation to uphold the law.

Moreover, upholding laws relating to records access is, in some instances, a matter of social justice, particularly when public records are involved. Over the course of my career, I have encountered records that a) concern individuals who are quite likely still alive and b) contain detailed documentation of injuries and illnesses, identify victims of sexual assault, document psychiatric histories, or plumb the family histories of minors who came into contact with the criminal justice or social welfare systems. Releasing such records might very well do these individuals substantial psychological harm. If the records document abuses that these individuals suffered while being "served" by government-operated facilities and programs, their improper disclosure may rightly be regarded as perpetuation of that abuse.

On one of the sessions (I forget which one), one of the panelists (again, I forget which one) said that she thought it would be a good idea if archivists focused less on the harms that inadvertent disclosure might cause ill-defined third parties and more on advocating for the interests of end users. Keeping in mind the perspective of end users is absolutely appropriate, but we need to remember that some of the people documented in our holdings have claims that may be even more compelling.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

SAA 2015: making born-digital records accessible

Terminal Tower, Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-21. Until 1991, Terminal Tower was the tallest building in the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio. I have loved this building as long as I can remember.
SAA 2015 is in full swing. Today, I sat in on two sessions -- Arrangement and Description and Access for Digital Archives (session 401) and Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Reading Room (session 507) -- that focused on on providing access to born-digital materials. I was tardy in arriving to the first and had to leave the second in order to travel to an offsite meeting, so what follows is a partial listing of things I found interesting or useful.
  • One repository is providing access to a born-digital body of materials that is subject to varying copyright and donor restrictions by loading copies of the files onto a laptop that is not connected to any network and has disabled USB ports. This approach isn't perfect, but archivists shouldn't wait for perfection to start making their holdings accessible. (Moreover, as another archivist pointed out, this approach requires minimal IT support.) 
  • No two collections are the same, and processing is always time-consuming. Another repository assesses each collection of born-digital materials for quality of data, authenticity of data, complexity of the access restrictions associated with copyright and donor stipulations, and anticipated level of use. Records that contain high quality and authentic data, lack complicated access restrictions, and will likely receive high use receive more intensive processing than those that don't meet these criteria. 
  •  The amount of processing work we do will likely vary. One institution has some born-digital collections that consist of flat groupings of items and some collections that consist of files arranged in directory structures. In other instances, collections are mixtures of analog and digital items, and the archives wants the arrangement of the digital materials to correspond to that of the analog. 
  •  We don't yet have a firm sense of what our users want. Some of our users are comfortable with doing keyword or other types of searches, and others are accustomed to box-and-folder hierarchies. We may discover that we need to try to meet the needs of both groups. 
  • Access solutions are varied, constantly changing, and have a way of emerging in response to pressing user requests. We need to remain flexible and mindful of the fact that solutions that work at one institution might not work at another. 
  • We need to publicize our born-digital holdings, and we need to make sure that colleagues who do reference work are comfortable working with these materials and highlight their existence to researchers when appropriate.
The question of making restricted materials available online also came up, and one presenter recommended making use of the redaction functionality being incorporated into BitCurator and informing end users of their responsibilities regarding inappropriate disclosure of information that may be subject to various restrictions. The latter approach was also explored quite extensively in a Thursday afternoon pop-up session that centered on issues raised by recent events at the University of Oregon, and the discussion included making access contingent upon entering into formal, online agreements.

I find this an intriguing approach, but most most government archives will likely be very slow to embrace it. Some state open records laws specify that records creators and archives cannot impose limitations on the use of information that is disclosed in response to freedom of information requests; if a record contains restricted information, the creating agency or the archivist must redact it prior to disclosing it. Moreover, governments tend to be risk-averse -- sometimes excessively, and sometimes with good reason. However, I can envision some scenarios in which government archives might well adopt this approach; using a click-through agreement to highlight the presence of records potentially covered by copyright isn't quite the same thing as hoping a researcher will abide by an agreement prohibiting disclosure of information found within psychiatric case files.

Finally, in response to a question concerning whether we should embed all of the metadata we're creating as we work with digital materials into our finding aids, one of the panelists in session 401 said something that's been on my mind for some time: we need to start thinking about moving away from document-based finding aids. I like Encoded Archival Description (and well-crafted MARC records make me feel as if there is an inner logic and order to the world), but it's high time we stopped thinking of archival description solely in terms of "fast paper."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

SAA 2015: new approaches to documentation

Album cover, The Impressions, People Get Ready (1965), and hat (c. 1981) and jacket (c. 1981) owned by Curtis Mayfield. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio, 2015-08-20.
 The annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists is in full swing, and I put in a full day attending sessions and catching up with people. I am not going to blog about every session or meeting that I attend-- I no longer have the stamina needed for that sort of thing -- but will instead post about the most interesting, compelling, or useful session or idea that I encounter each day.

Today, I attended two very good sessions that concerned balancing privacy and access considerations as they relate to electronic records. I also found thought-provoking a session that focused on how and whether one should document communities that either do not wish to be documented and on how some of the assumptions and understandings embedded in archival practice can perpetuate the past injustices done to indigenous peoples. However, for me, a lunchtime forum entitled "The Secret Life of Records" was the high point of the day. What follows probably will not do it justice -- as is usually the case when I'm at SAA, I've been sleeping wretchedly -- but I wanted to sketch out a few thoughts before crawling into bed.

Sponsored by SAA's Diversity Committee, this forum highlighted several recent efforts to document the Black Lives Matter movement and other responses to the recent high-profile police shootings and other actions that resulted in the deaths of African-American citizens. As panelist Jarrett Drake (Princeton University) noted, the news media and substantial segments of the public tend to accept the narratives embedded in police reports and other government records. However, recent events have highlighted the fact that these records may contain inaccuracies, distortions, and deliberate untruths and that they must be supplemented by materials created by individuals and communities affected by police misconduct.

The panelists discussed numerous approaches to capturing these materials in the digital age. Bergis Jules (University of California at Riverside) detailed how he and his colleagues were capturing tweets (i.e., Twitter content) relating to African-Americans who died in police encounters and to the Black Lives Matter movement. Nadia Ghasedi (Washington University) discussed how her repository established an Omeka-based website that enables area residents to upload copies of still images, video and audio recordings, and other materials that documented the community protests that took place in the St. Louis, Missouri area following a police shooting that resulted in the death of a young African-American man in the suburb of Ferguson. Stacie Williams (University of Kentucky) and Jarrett Drake detailed how an online discussion between archivists throughout the United States gave rise to an online repository and oral history initiative documenting citizen experiences of police abuse in Cleveland, Ohio.

I find these projects intriguing for a number of reasons:
  • They're a striking departure from the traditional archival approach to acquisition of records, which involves allowing time to pass before attempting to take in records documenting a given event, careful evaluation of potential acquisitions, and, in many instances, the privileging of records created by institutions or individuals that wield significant social and economic power. These projects involve proactive capture of materials soon after creation and consciously seek out materials created by individuals and organizations that are all too often marginalized.
  • They involve copying materials that are born digitally and will, in all likelihood, be maintained digitally and leave the originals in the hands of their creators (or, in the case of tweets, the online service used to disseminate them). If the "custodial" approach to preserving electronic records represents one horn of a bull and the "post-custodial" approach to preservation represents the other horn, this approach sails through the space between these horns.
  • They suggest that creating an "archives" as we currently understand the term may not be the only model for preserving the history of a community. The Cleveland project is propelled by a geographically dispersed group of archivists, doesn't have a formal institutional home, and may well never "belong" to a single "archives" as we currently understand the term. I suspect that we're going to see a growing number of informal, online-only "archives" (and I hope that the Internet Archive will capture them, because some of them may well perish otherwise).
  • They underscore the fact that archivists will still have to grapple with questions of power and privilege -- and may find that working in an online environment heightens them. As Bergis Jules noted, a Twitter user may come to regret a given tweet -- and be shocked to discover that an archives captured and preserved said tweet without asking her permission. Stacie Williams and Jarrett Drake asserted that they were painfully aware that they were privileged strangers who were asking Cleveland residents to trust them even though they lacked detailed knowledge of the community's history and struggles. The speed with which one can find collaborators online and establish a presence on the Web means that one can get a project underway very quickly, but winning the trust of potential donors/interviewees will no doubt continue to require a substantial commitment of time and effort. I suspect that a growing number of archivists are going to find themselves grappling with such conflicts.
Off to bed.