What I learned in Maryland from a small historical society in Missouri

What did I learn from our project? The real question should be what I didn’t learn from our project.  I found the Wentzville Community Historical Society to be facing similar problems as other institutions of their stature, but I also noticed that they were unique in where the collections currently stood.  They don’t have a website (yet). They don’t have a singular storage space to call their own.  They don’t have a variety of digital materials (yet). And, they have a president and members that are eager to take on digital preservation.  If I were to boil down everything that I learned this semester about the Levels of Digital Preservation, bit-level preservation, file fixity, and all the other technical jargon that I never thought I would need to know, I would explain the following points  to any institution looking for advice on how “to do” digital preservation before I tried to explain bits, fixity, and beyond.

Know what you have and picture what changes you want.

It is critical to know what it is you have and what it is you are trying to preserve.  Whether this knowledge is from a working with acquisitions or from a detailed inventory, you have to know what you have before you can move any further.  One of the most challenging parts of this project was my inability to actually visit the Wentzville Community Historical Society.  While Lois, the President of the society, painted an excellent picture of their holdings and the state they are residing in, email descriptions just aren’t the same as seeing collections in person.  Even a rough inventory could have made it easier to mold my suggestions for a more catered preservation plan and policy. So, to any institution looking to start a digital preservation project, learn about what it is you are going to preserve and if you don’t already have an inventory, make one. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just make one. And while you’re at it, make a copy of what you have.

Planning is essential.

Once you have your inventory and know what and why you are preserving, make a plan, not a policy, a plan.  The next steps plan was an incredibly helpful assignment for thinking out how to make suggestions toward reaching Level 4 of the LoDP by the NDSA.  If you know what you are aiming for, like Level 4 or even Level 1, you should think about some of the basic options you have already available to you and create a plan on how to utilize those resources.  I found that already having my next steps plan made it significantly easier to write my policy, and I don’t doubt that institutions would also find a plan helpful prior to writing a new policy.

Start somewhere.

After working through this project and making suggestions, I have a strong urge to go to Missouri and help to implement some of those suggestions.  Planning is great, but without action, the plan is only an ideal.  So my biggest take away from this project is you have to start somewhere (physically, not theoretically.)  Once you know what you wanna do and how to do it, you should just start. Use what you have and jump in.  I’ve always been on the fence about MPLP and even started the semester with a cynical view of adapting that practice to digital preservation, but this project has shown me that the minimum can be sufficient.  You don’t need thousands of dollars worth of software or indestructible hardware.  You need two storage spaces, a cursor, and a finger to click the copy then paste command. But most of all, you need the faith to just start.

Question: What was your favorite thing to do or what was you biggest surprise from this class?

Wentzville Final Report

9 Replies to “What I learned in Maryland from a small historical society in Missouri”

  1. Hi Jen, it was interesting to hear your evolving thoughts on MPLP. In the last year or so I’ve given a lot of thought to MPLP and how it relates to what (if anything) I bring to the table as a professional. I’ve kind of adopted a somewhat circular workflow model that is inspired by MPLP. Essentially I end up doing multiple passes over the same material to gradually improve things. The first pass is just meant to do the bare minimum in order to establish access. Then, as the time becomes available I will return to the same item later to improve the quality of metadata. So far this has been the best compromise I’ve been able to find to meet the timelines of my communications supervisors and the few self-professed “sticklers” in knowledge services.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on it.

    1. Andy, I think your circular approach is probably the way to go. Another of my professor always says “there are perfect collections and there are finished collections.” We have to use what we got (especially time) and do what we can to get our materials out there. BUT we shouldn’t do a crappy job first cause then you just make problems for the future. So circular workflow is probably the way to go. Thanks!

  2. You’ve done a nice job of bringing this project full circle, Jen. You make it clear why we asked the questions we did upfront. What are you collecting? What do you want to collect? The importance of those questions is easily bypassed when an organization has a ready-made answer. You also draw attention to something I appreciated in the “next steps” phase of my project; you don’t need deep pockets to do digital preservation.

    1. Thanks, David! Budget was probably my main focus for my project. After hearing about other’s institutions and their tight budgets and workforce, it really hit me how underfunded our profession is and we need cheap ways to do what we need to do.

      I also was on the lookout for cheap ways to work with my own collections so when I’m famous and all that, I’ll be an archivist’s dream! (Kidding at the highest level, I have no desire to be famous.) But I would like my grandchildren and their children to look at all my crap and say, oh that’s why we still have it (and be able to open the file.)

  3. I liked this summary, Jen! I agree that the Next Steps plan was incredibly helpful in crafting the policies and also in better visualizing what dig preservation at our specific organizations would look like. It made things less intimidating. I also think a document like that could be more understandable and easier to read by laypeople. I’m sure a lot of people hear the word “policy” and their eyes start to glaze over (myself included).

  4. Echoing what Tricia said, but I agree with you point on preservation plan before policy. I feel like the problem with starting with a policy (besides, as Tricia said, the tendency it has to make people immediately lose interest) is that it can be really abstract. Thinking over some of the ones we read this semester (like HathiTrust) a policy can be as generic as “yeah, we agree that digital preservation is important and we are going to do what these other people said we should do.” How do you implement something like that? Plans are great because (if done well) they are tangible and actionable. Policies have their place and its an important one, but I agree that you need a solid understanding of what you have and what your next steps are before you zoom out to the big picture.

  5. Great write-up and your copy and paste comment at the end made me laugh. I was able to do an on-site visit to my organization and I agree it really does make a difference. I’m glad I had an initial virtual call with them to prepare myself for the scope of the content but I left that initial call unsure of what to do next. I suppose I could have asked for pictures or video of the space that they were working in, but it was nice to be able to walk around meet the staff in their own environment. I think it just answered questions I didn’t know I had about what they needed.

  6. I think your reflection did a great job of summing up “Good Enough” digital preservation — it’s not sloppy, but it’s not Level 4 Gold Standard. It takes care of the materials and it mitigates risk enough that if something awful happens, there’s one other copy.

    As someone who got to visit their partner site, I totally agree that it helps. I had a very different picture of the file organization when we talked on the phone and did a complete 180 when I actually saw the files. It was in that moment that I truly understood the value of an inventory! I think it’s another reality of the profession that sometimes you don’t have the kind of access you need to but you work around it.

  7. When I first started this class, I would not have considered “know what you have” to be a part of digital preservation, and yet I realized this is probably the most significant first step my organization can take. With my organization, there were multiple inventories and it wasn’t always clear where to find them, and some materials seemed to have slipped through the cracks and not have been inventoried at all. I was surprised to find out that this would be an important part of my digital preservation efforts, but in retrospect, this is something I should have anticipated. If someone had asked me to list all my digital files scattered across various computers, thumb drives, hard drives, etc., I wouldn’t have been able to do it either. More than once, I’ve had the experience of coming across a USB drive and thinking, “Huh…I wonder what is on this?” Organizations often seem to work the same way, just on a larger scale. For whatever reason, people (including myself) often don’t think of digital records as needing the same sort of care and attention as physical objects or paper records, and so it becomes easy to forget what you have or lose track of things.

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