Introductions and Thoughts on Digital Curation

Greetings, everyone!  

My name is Allison Gunn.  I am a third year HiLS (History & Library Science) student.  I focus on American Southern Jewish history in history and digital curation in the MLS program.  I currently work as an assistant at the Center for the History of the New America in the Department of History.  We’re a research center that examines immigration to the United States both past and previous.  The Center maintains an online archive of digitally recorded immigrant interviews and photos, so I’m definitely looking for ideas to immediately implement while in this course.  Additionally, I work as a guide for the National Park Service on the George Washington Memorial Parkway.


As I mentioned above, I’m looking for some creative yet easily implemented ways of ensuring preservation of the Archive of Immigrant Voices.  Currently, we’re using Omeka but fully recognize that the site will soon not accommodate all of our needs.  Not only is size an issue, but we’ve included recordings in a wide array of formats since these interviews are culled from students in oral history classes as well as from the general public.  As I read Jason Koebler’s “Gone in a Flash: The Race to Save the Internet’s Least Favorite Tool,” I felt myself getting increasingly more nervous about the survivability of our resources at the Center.  We have file formats from PDFs to JPEGs, MP3s, MPEG-4s, WAVs and more.  While all of these files are easily accessible now, Koebler raises the alarm on the false security of standard files and formats.  His article wraps up pretty optimistically with the belief that other companies (he specifically mentions Mozilla and Google) will pick up Flash for rehabilitation and/or conversion.  However, I’m still left with that uncomfortable nagging feeling in my gut.


How do I guarantee the long term sustainability of a collection that is 1) usually maintained by a novice moderator from outside the field based on the semester, 2) collected from a broad audience of fledgling interviewers with little knowledge of file formats and preservation, and 3) spans a variety of file formats that will continue to expand because of the nature of our acquisition process?  It’s a daunting task if I stop to think about it long enough.  The more I evaluate the archive, the more I question if I am equipped with enough digi preservation know-how to begin the process effectively!  That’s the reason I appreciated “The NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation: An Explanation and Uses.”  I found the table, which is divided between levels of protection on one axis and categories on the other, to be extremely pragmatic and useful for professionals of varying status in the field.  It is customizable and sets out reasonable expectations.  Additionally, the language utilized in the Levels is fairly user friendly for professionals outside the digital curation field.


The first time I looked at the Levels, I thought that it would have been useful in one of my previous roles as a digital preservation intern.  Nothing had been digitized from the physical archive when I arrived.  My task was to find storage, create web access, and digitize as many documents as possible in four months.  Being only an intern, I felt completely ill-equipped to handle such a task.  Furthermore, it became clear that what I viewed as digital curation was not necessarily what the leadership understood it to be.  The Levels would have helped me down the path following Level 1 (“Protect Your Data”).  Additionally, the Levels absolutely would have been useful to review with leadership as noted in the article (“Use: Validate preservation guidance given locally”).  


I wish I had seen this article sooner, but there’s still time to apply these guidelines to the current project!  As described in the portion of the paper on “Using the Guidelines,” the Levels can assist us at the Center in designing a sound digital preservation plan starting at Level 1.  If nothing else, I can create a precedent for maintenance of the data.


In general, I share the optimism of the field.  “The Smithsonian Interview Project: Questions on Technical Standards in the Care of Time-Based Digital Art: Ten Insights from Artists and Experts in the Field” offered up multiple affirmations such as “Preservation is Possible” and “Embrace Uncertainty and Take Action,” which both should seemingly end with exclamation points and made into inspirational posters for digital curators everywhere.  The theme of the interviews was to focus on the preservation of digital art, but could also be applied to the unconventional art described by Rhinehart and Ippolito in Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory as well as to the time stamped file formats waiting in tiny digital archives.  


One of the major points that struck me dealt with the curator consulting the creator of the art/artifact.  This just makes logical sense.  Why wouldn’t you?  Yet there are so many times when we overlook the obvious, get caught up in red tape through the acquisition process, or make assumptions about the preservation of the item (as is noted in the article).  In the case of the Center, we could be proactive and firm up submission standards which would help us to collaborate with the students documenting these stories.  This would mean extra time on our part as it would involve not just creating the standards, but also helping the students and professors understand what they mean and how to follow them.  Furthermore, what happens if we still receive submissions in varying file formats or are unable to contact the person who documented the story as has happened in the past?      


There’s no way to answer all of the unknowns of the rapidly changing digital curation world, as was indicated by the Smithsonian interviews.  However, like Rhinehart and Ippolito noted, it’s imperative that we change our methods and stop trying to preserve the wide array of art and digital media that we have in the 21st century the way that we’d preserve art and media from the 17th century.  The point is we will make mistakes.  Ultimately, however, that’s a good thing!  We have to learn and test the waters by making those mistakes.  The best we can do is our best.  Out of that will come progress for the field, but it will take time.  
One thing is clear in digital curation, however- there’s hope for all of us, even if we don’t fit in the standard archival box.  

4 Replies to “Introductions and Thoughts on Digital Curation”

  1. At the Center, have you considered format migration as a part of ingest? Instead of having the many different formats for still images, videos, audio, etc., you would migrate all images to one format, all video to another, and all audio to a third. It would be more work for you in the beginning, but less overall work to maintain the files and guard them against format obsolescence.

    1. Absolutely! The director and I were just discussing that today.

      For the future- I’m going to begin writing a standardization form for incoming interviews. As part of that plan, we’ll actually be going into the classrooms that are collecting oral histories and talking about how to submit to the archive. The hope is that in the near future, we won’t have to worry about migrating the files again and again.

      As for what we have right now- yes; I think it is imperative for us to choose one format for each type of media. That’s something we’ll be working on over the next few months.

      Do you have any suggestions as far as what might be the best option for audio files?

      1. I think the knee-jerk response is always to say that the biggest file size is the best; from my experiences working with audio engineers, most use WAV files for final mixes (i.e., what gets put on a CD and given to the musicians), but most of them record at a much higher quality, and so even that is compressed at some level.

        However, for something like an interview, I think that a compressed format (MP3, preferably 320 kbps) would be appropriate, unless the file contains something like music, where you might want to keep the small details of the audio as audible as possible. The words and voices at a more basic level are what are most important, and for most people today, the slight compression of an MP3 will not be distracting (particularly in comparison to streaming audio like listening on Spotify or YouTube).

        A while back, when Tidal came out and was offering WAV files as part of their plan, NPR did a little “test” for listeners to see if they could actually hear the differences between the files. Worth a listen!

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