Challenges to a new Digital Archivist
I’m Krystal Thomas, digital archivist with Special Collections at Florida State University. I am new in my position, just starting this past summer. I am not new to the world of digital collections, but as I have learned quickly in my new position, each institution has its own processes and procedures for handling its digital collections over time. As my days are still finding their rhythm, I thought it would be more useful on this the Day of Digital Archives to share some of my lessons learned on starting a new position and learning a new institution’s ups and downs with digital projects.
Florida State University has had active digital collections for a decade and more at this point. During that time, many people and departments have influenced and been involved in the development, publication, and preservation of digital items, which is wonderful and I am happy to see the support these programs have received over time. However, coming in as the new kid on the block, I had a lot of questions about how work had been done, how decisions had been made, and where all of this work was now. As I found during my explorations, these answers weren’t always easy to find. Sometimes, it was simply there was no documentation to look over, while other times it was that the people who could give me the answers had left Florida State long before I was hired. From my research gathering, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned in inheriting a digital collections legacy and what you should be doing and/or thinking about to properly help the people who come after you in the digital archivist role.
Why did you choose this collection? Why did you choose only three boxes of that collection? Why did you name the files that way? Why didn’t you use the source field? Where are the TIFF images now? I have a million questions about how digital items were created and cataloged in the past but can’t find the answers anywhere. Document every decision you make for a digital project for your benefit, as well as the benefit of the people you are working with and the people who will come after you. This also helps in understanding partnerships you may establish with other entities. FSU participates in several digital preservation programs, but we currently are working to re-establish our relationships with them as there is little to no documentation about how FSU used them before.
Your decisions might not be as obvious as you think
This advice goes back to the “document everything” mantra but deserves its own line: no one is a mind reader, and no one coming after you will be faced with the same set of challenges, resources, and expectations again. There were probably very good, logical reasons why you made the decisions you did when it comes to a digital collection you are working on, but if you don’t record those somewhere, no one–not your supervisor, intern, or even you ten years down the road–will know that and be able to explain that to others moving forward.
Hindsight is 20/20
As an institution moves forward with digital collections, it will learn a little more with each project undertaken. It will gain expertise, and its last project should be better organized and better presented than its first. Hindsight is, after all, 20/20, but if there isn’t an active plan to be recording and sharing the information learned on each project with those involved, how will we learn? Project Management literature says once a project is completed, whether it was a success or not, a team should look back over it and see what they learned and then record that information. Digital projects should be handled the same way. Whether you completed all 2,000 items or ran into a glitch halfway through so the project was never completed, you still learned something of value and that hindsight should be put to good use.
Some times what everyone else is doing won’t work as well for you
When digital projects were started, everyone was looking at everyone else for how to do things which was great and is one of the best ways to learn, but there still has to be a thought process involved. Just because one institution does their digital projects one way does not mean that way will work for us. Each institution has its own set of factors determining how its digital projects are going to work; it is not a one size fits all, and that’s OK. Look around and borrow one process here or one standard there until you’ve developed the right digital process for your institution’s goals and culture.
Don’t make the same mistakes all over again
All of the above leads up to the fact you don’t have to make all the mistakes all over again. A lot of those challenges wouldn’t exist if more of the people and departments involved in the digitization process had communicated more effectively with each other as they worked on projects. A better communication structure would have meant a lot more of what had been done before would have been recorded, creating a self-sustaining institutional memory for this type of work at FSU.
Think outside the box
Keep in mind that you don’t have to do it the same way as before and if you want to help improve the systems and create new ones, get creative and think about how to solve the problems in ways people haven’t before. One of the best things about working in the digital world is creative solutions are always there if you just take the time to think through how they will work and fit into the long-term strategy.
Moving forward in my position, I want to make sure we are documenting our work and learning from our mistakes to create a strong digital collections program moving forward. It will be a challenge but I’m looking forward to it!