Changing the Description

The readings this week made me enthusiastic for the future of our fields. I think that for any profession to continue to exist, there needs to be at least an awareness of the need for evolution. If we take the readings as they are, then we see that archives are embracing both “more product, less process” and digital objects.

The Way It Was and Why We Need to Change

The Owens chapter is laid out in a way that ensures the reader has the context necessary to understand exactly where the future with digital object description and organization should be. In a traditional archive filled with physical objects and records, the practice has long been to spend the majority of your time to describe a collection and arrange the records. In the “Disrespect des Fonds” article, we see an emphasis to change this approach in order to expand the ways that we can approach collections when they become digital and archivists no longer “must be sorted, ordered, and stored sequentially in space” (Bailey 2013). We do this in order to better fit the future of born-digital materials that do not require the same types of effort to make records findable and available to the public.

The truth is that digital objects, especially born-digital objects, must be treated differently from physical objects. This is because they are different. They often come with a sizable amount of metadata before a describer sees the object. While this is not necessarily the information collectors want, it provides a certain amount of pre-processing that they will not need to do, freeing up time to increase the records’ findability.

How Do We Change

Peterson’s blog post delves into the details of Archive-It, a web archiving tool. She explains that the tool organizes their records into three distinct categories: seeds, collections, and crawls. The seeds are the individual URLs (I suppose it could be any unique identifier for a digital object). Seeds will come to the collector with metadata already attached to it (technical metadata). The collections are the first level of organization for the seeds. Finally, the crawl is the complete intake. These would be equivalent to a traditional: folder, series, and collection in an archive. For instance, at my job in Preservation, we recently completed our portion of a digitization project. We were given eight boxes full of folders (seeds), from the first series titled “Day Books” (collection), from the Brooke Family Archive (crawl). These terms, or those similar to these, are good ways for professionals involved in digital curation to think about the approaches to digital objects and how we can best use them. These terms fit neatly into existing structures within the field and therefore should be easier to grasp and implement.

Placing digital objects and their needs within an existing framework for archives is a useful way to think of digital objects and collections moving forward. Not only are cultural institutions being inundated with born-digital materials, they are also creating their own via institutional records and digitization projects of any size. Users also expect access to digital records; we should work to fulfill tenets of our professions, providing access to our records and collections. Reforming the ways that we describe objects and collections to fit better into the digital world that our users expect to see will only help us towards these goals we should all have.

Do you think it is useful to consider digital objects as different, yet equally similar to physical collections?

5 Replies to “Changing the Description”

  1. Hi Leigh. Thanks for the summary. I find it useful to use traditional archival approaches as a jumping off point to discuss digital preservation because it is to a certain extent still just sorting out records. I appreciate how creation, fuzzy boundaries, sharing and duplication of digital objects creates challenges that necessitate new approaches, but there are similar challenges with paper records that we can learn from. For example, what to do with multiple drafts with slight variations within the same collection came up in our last class. When I read Marshall’s paper on digital copies, I recalled from my intro to archives class that publication was an early means of preserving documents (Jimerson, 2009). These publications created copies that could be dispersed and “place them beyond the reach of accident.” (p. 86) In so doing, copies of records could end up in other collections and perhaps include historical annotations that would give them their own context.

    I have to admit that my experience with archives has been limited to my coursework, but I wasn’t sure how to take Drake’s talk on provenance. I won’t dispute the colonial influence of how records have been created and preserved, but I think traditional notions of keeping records together were based the limitations of their being physical copies along with the burden of having to keep track of them. I actually find that potential loss of context with digital objects a problem since they can so easily be shared in isolation. Even in cases where anonymity is important, I think some sort of relationship that the record creator had to the record in question can be established – a protester as opposed to someone in law enforcement or a reporter, for example. Perhaps this is what Drake had in mind, but the self-describing potential of digital objects would seem to make documenting the intricacies of their provenance easier even when separating the records is inevitable.

    Randall C. Jimerson, “Documenting American Society.” In Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Chicago, Illinois: Society of American Archivists, 2009): 76-129.

  2. As I read your post, Leigh, I was struck by your use of the word “profession(s)” and I think that may condition my answer to your question. Maybe it’s just personal taste but I look for continuity with archival traditions in digital preservation. As you (and Trevor’s chapter) point out, we don’t need to let go of arrangement and description as frameworks, only recognize that digital objects may require different styles of approach. Your post is sensitive to the fact that different fields and professions bring different priorities to digital preservation. We’re not all (aspiring) archivists. Sometimes I forget that and assume we’re all concerned with maintaining “archival” traditions but if you’d indulge me further, I’d say that the digital preservation work we do is in line with those traditions and that strengthens the profession. My approach to my organization in our class project has been that what they do with digital objects is a continuation of what they did with analog. The mission and vision are the same but the objects and expectations of access in the digital age are different. I also think (i.e., hope) that this attitude is more useful in securing institution-wide support for this work.

  3. Hi Leigh,

    For me personally, I do find it easier to think of digital objects as different from analog. Your question reminds of what I learned in every foreign language class I took: don’t translate the new language back into your native language. Simply learn it as a new language. Your example of translating seed, collection, and crawl into analog materials actually confused me for a second. However, this could be due to me first gaining experience in this field by working with digitization and digital objects. I only started working with archival analog materials in a non-digitization context this June (when I started my job in Special Collections).

    That said, I do see the value in building new principles off of the traditional archival principles used for analog materials. It’s important for us to understand these principles when preserving digital objects, even though the natures of digital and analog materials are so different.

    1. Maya,

      I really like your example of learning a foreign language. In essence, you are learning the same principles, for archives it would be Provenance and original order, but as a new step or word. When learning how to do digital preservation, it is beneficial to redefine provenance as it relates to new media and digital objects., rather than totally scrap the traditional concept. This is probably what Drake and Bailey were getting at, but at times sounded to me like they wanted to send those traditions on a long walk off a short pier, despite creator-ship and item context being important to archival work and researcher’s interpretation. So in response to Leigh, I definitely see how digital and physical objects are similar and yet drastically different.

    2. Maya, I apologize for making my comparison confusing, but I believe I know the root of the disconnect! I was never able to get to a place where I knew my foreign language on its own. I always translated French (or any other language I was trying to pick up) into English — and no, I have not been very successful in learning foreign languages. Thank you for bringing in this other experience and background to my post!

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