Going slowly into the digital world

November 21st, 2013 by Cathleen Miller

It seems it is always a matter of how to begin.  If we wait for the infrastructure to be in place, we will never start.  If we wait to know enough and have solid standards in place, we will never start.  There are millions of excuses.  We have more pressing projects.  We have to process our backlog.  Whatever it is that holds us back, many of us (by “us” I mean small institutions) have waited to move into digital preservation and curation.  My institution has been no exception.  We have minimal support for our initiatives from our in-house IT department, and most of us have only a broad brush stroke kind of understanding of what is needed to create and maintain a successful digital preservation program.

Believe me, I’ve done a lot of reading and even spent an amazing week last summer at Rare Book School with Matthew Kirchenbaum and Naomi Nelson learning about born-digital materials.  Still, I feel the “I don’t know enough about this” voice hammering away in my brain as I work with others in special collections to develop good metadata standards and think about how we manage all of this digital material we’re planning to create.  And then there’s the stuff that we already own sitting on floppy disks in our stacks.

Oh, god…what about that 8 inch floppy disk?  The anxiety about all of this can be a bit much for a timid archivist’s heart.  (Yes, that timid archivist is me.)

Luckily for us, there are some really great resources available that bring it down to the babiest steps.  SAA sponsored the Jump In Initiative this year to encourage institutions to just start surveying our collections for extant digital material: http://www2.archivists.org/groups/manuscript-repositories-section/jump-in-initiative.  This page includes a link to Ricky Erway’s report “You’ve Got to Walk Before You Can Run: First Steps for Managing Born-Digital Content Received on Physical Media”, which walks you through the steps of surveying your collections.  I did this last summer, and then promptly put it down.  Other things came up.  I had lectures to host, books and manuscripts to buy.  Now, however, I am pushing myself to get back in the saddle of preservation.

One great and terrifying push was being asked to test out BitCurator.  As soon as I said yes, I thought, “Why did I do this?  I don’t even understand the technical description of what hardware I am going to be receiving for the test.”  The excellent thing about making this leap is that it pushed me to acquire an external floppy drive to read disks in our collections.  I even got a drive for memory cards.  I haven’t yet purchased a 5 1/4 inch drive, but I guess that will be coming soon after.  Small steps, my friends.  It’s all I can do right now, but I’m committing to the small steps, which will eventually lead to a comprehensive policy and plan for preservation of born-digital materials here at the Maine Women Writers Collection.

Maine Women Writers Collection

Another push to think about digital preservation was the launch of our Digital Commons site DUNE:DigitalUNE.  While not the most ideal software for interactive display of archival materials, we are working with it to make more of our collection materials available digitally.  It is an exciting prospect to think that people are able to page through the Annals of the Cobweb Club from the Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat papers online, giving the poor crumbling book a bit of a break.  Of course, we still hope that researchers will come to check out our collections–these digital surrogates certainly do not replace the experience of handling original materials–but I am grateful that our digital materials will broaden our reach in significant ways.

We are just beginning to populate DUNE.  Soon, you will be able to page through one of Sweat’s photograph albums that documents how the McClellan House looked during her years living there.  We will also be making all of our old conference programs available on the site.  Soon, I hope to build pages that display materials from the Marie Peary Stafford papers.  We are almost there–just a few copyright and use statements to write and a little quibbling over metadata to go!  All of this is preparing us for a larger project that will involve collaborating with other institutions to make Sarah Orne Jewett’s correspondence available digitally.  We have crept toward the digital universe ever so slowly here, but the momentum is building.  We are finally taking the steps needed to effectively steward our collections in this digital environment, and I am both exhilarated and terrified of making some huge mistake.  Thankfully, I am not alone.  Collaboration is precious.

Sometimes you have to make your own map

July 13th, 2012 by Cathleen Miller

The gift of being away for a week at an amazing seminar learning new things every minute of the day is that, then, you get to come back and figure out how to use what you’ve learned.  This week has been a strange mixture of catching up and being uncertain where I actually was before leaving to go to Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.  Mid-week, I felt myself swimming in the sea of “where exactly do I start?” and decided to make myself a map.

It started as a large piece of paper with all the things I currently do, how they relate to the core functions of the MWWC. Then I began to see that no paper could contain the chaos of my mind.  I have sailed along like this successfully, doing what was in front of me, trying to make changes when they seemed necessary, and trying to maintain some consistency through it all, but coming back here reminded me that I cannot live life in the cloud.  I must work with the data I have here, on my desk, on the shelves, in the manuscript room. I’ve got to make better order of my days.

Like many of us, leading a full digital life as well as a full analog life, sometimes I find myself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information to which I have access.  I could spend entire days in a week simply answering email, and yet there is much more work to be done.  I know that I am not alone.

I decided, since I started working as curator of the Maine Women Writers Collection, that I want us to be out in the world more–with a robust online presence as well as a broad reach within our community in Portland, Maine. There are so many fantastic women blogging and tweeting and interacting in ways that are not even possible in our on-the-ground-everyday-lives.  It’s easy to get lost in it all because it is endlessly fascinating.  Even the extremely mundane details are engrossing because of the ways that these interactions speak to our evolving relationship to information and data sharing, to our conception of privacy and the blending of public and private personae.

One of the most useful and clarifying exercises that we did on the first day of Born Digital Materials: Theory and Practice was to conduct an interview with a “potential donor” about their digital life.  It was fascinating to see the ways that people related to computers, in general, and the social aspects of new media, specifically.  I found myself describing my split digital personality–how I have two facebook pages, two twitter accounts, two blogs, with separate circles of friends, followers, and readers.  Others in my class eschewed all social media. Some blended their personal and professional data fully.

This exercise was designed to get us to think about the ways that donors are creating information, and to consider how we want to approach collecting that data within our organization. So back to all of the women blogging and tweeting and collecting friends and followers…  As an archivist, I am completely enthralled as I observe all of the ways that authors are using the web to build audience and market themselves.  There are a lot of reasons for this–one being that most publishers don’t have much money for promotion these days.  No one is out there printing broadsheets about your new book and hawking it to the reading public.

Just today, on twitter, I observed one author casually mentioning her book, another retweeting others’ tweets about the merits of her book.  And you know what, it works. I looked up both books and plan to read, if not buy, both.  This is why social media is an important practice for archivists to document–well, one of the many reasons.  But it is why those dealing with literature need to be paying attention.  To many, I know that twitter is a completely incomprehensible waste of time–I used to be one of those people–but I would argue that it is one of the many social tools that are reshaping the ways that we think, write, and do work.

So, thanks to Matthew Kirschenbaum and Naomi Nelson, I will be thinking about collecting differently.  I feel equipped, too, even at a small institution with fragile IT infrastructure, to begin to deal with the digital media we currently own.  I’m not sure exactly where I’ll get a machine to read 8 inch floppy disks, but I’ll talk to our IT staff to see if they have any legacy machines laying around.  I’m starting small.  I began a digital survey.  I’m going to research web-harvesting services.  I’m going to develop a donor interview form that will include questions about digital materials.  I’m going to keep learning what I can, reading the literature that is coming out about digital preservation.

All that brings me back to the new map, which was warranted by the amount of new information that I’d just crammed into my already busy brain. It seemed like the way to proceed this week was to figure out what I really care about in my work, and try to build my daily schedule around those things so that they serve as my anchor in this sea of possibilities.

Now I have a new map, albeit a somewhat corny one, to follow.  Let’s call it a map of love.  One of my favorite quotes from our Rare Book School B-Dig class occurred toward the end of the week when Matt Kirschenbaum was talking about his work on the electronic literature/artist book/time bomb Agrippa.  He said “love will find a way.”  Meaning, that if you care about a project, you’ll find a way and the resources to get it done.  I know that I’m going to have to hone in on that love in order to make things happen here, but I am feeling bolstered and hopeful about the possibilities.  I’m especially grateful to have had a week at UVA to meet a room full of engaged, thoughtful people, and to think about priorities and possibilities.  I am exceedingly lucky and full of all kinds of love.