Third Thursday #4

Welcome to the third Third Thursdays Monthly Appraisal Conversation! With this regular conversation series, we hope to spark regular, continued discussion among section members and interested others about the fundamental archival action of appraisal.

The questions for this month are:

  • What are the challenges you face appraising and working with donors of born-digital materials?
  • What software or tools help you appraise born-digital content?
  • What are the top two or three resources that you would recommend for others who want to start or continue learning about appraising born-digital materials?

Thank you to those who may have already responded to our questions – and it’s not too late! Please read and join the conversation in the comments section below – we hope to keep the conversation moving today (May 19) from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm Central Time!

[Note: we did not require respondents to sign their name, so for the sake of clarity, unsigned comments are numbered.]

Mat Darby, Richard B. Russell Library, University of Georgia One of the the bigger challenges I’ve encountered is getting donors to think about and identify the kinds of born-digital materials they may have. Frequently, donors don’t even consider born-digital materials when thinking about their papers. Homing in on the records we as the archives are interested in can be time-consuming, but it is worth sitting with donors at their device of choice to get an overview of their computing environment, thinking about not only content and file structures but commonly used software, hard drives or cloud storage use, etc. This also provides an opportunity to get at how the donor’s born-digital materials relate to the paper records and vice versa.

Another challenge we’ve encountered is the perception of some donors that, because these materials are born-digital, that they are immediately going to end up online, which raises questions of privacy, potential for identity theft, and other concerns. So it becomes a matter of talking openly with donors and educating them about how we manage, process and preserve born-digital records, while also balancing any restrictions the materials require with making the records accessible to researchers in a reasonable amount of time.

When dealing with organizational records, the challenges multiply –shared drives, multiple email accounts, multiple filing systems (or none at all), etc. But as with traditional paper records, this means understanding organizational structure, identifying individuals in key organizational roles, being selective about the types of records you accept, etc.

Archivist #1: Explaining to donors that not everything should be kept – conveying archival value, or enduring value is difficult to discuss, as some donors seem to shudder at the thought that we don’t keep everything. Likewise, convincing donors that their content has value and should be preserved is a challenge.

To me, the most useful tool is TreeSize Pro. It allows you to quickly get a sense of file formats, age of files, and structure.

Practical E-Records blog has reviews of many tools that can be useful in appraisal; also, the recently-published DPC Personal Digital Archiving report is a great guide that can help archivists talk to donors about the value of their files.

Archivist #2: One big challenge is that donors don’t always know what they have. Because the files are not visible in the same way as photos, or books, they don’t necessarily have a sense of what is there.

The DROID profiling tool, which allows an export in order to get a sense of the directory structure. This allows me to adapt my appraisal approach to the files at hand.Once files are identified that need to be weeded out (for various reasons), then Preservica as a digital preservation system.

Check out the Paradigm project. Maybe also the Digital Curation Centre and the Digital Preservation Coalition.

6 thoughts on “Third Thursday #4

  1. Aaron Purcell, director of special collections Virginia Tech: I’m very interested in putting together an edited book on digital donations, to include both the theory of dealing with digital materials and their donors, and case studies of how people are adapting paper-based appraisal theory to electronic materials. When I finished up the book Donors and Archives, it was very clear that much more needs to be published on digital donations to archives. I have a short list of authors, a working table of contents, and interest from a publisher, but if anyone from the discussions or the section are interested in this project please send me an email: Thanks.

  2. These are very interesting questions. We recently acquired the papers of an elected official. Back in the day, 100 boxes was not uncommon. This collection was 4 terabytes and four boxes. The challenge is an appraisal that balances the issues of privacy and confidentiality with public access. It would seem manuscript donations would be easier due to file size but perhaps not. Also, what concerns are there for born digital photographs? Great topic and discussion!

    1. Good questions, Kenneth! We hope that we can help facilitate a space for archivists to discuss some of these concerns, questions, challenges, and opportunities. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  3. What are the challenges that you face appraising and working with donors of born-digital materials?
    I don’t work directly with donors very often — that’s usually the role of our curators, who then work with me on the technical aspects of acquisition. I personally find that it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that born-digital donations are somehow distinct and different from the analog portions that generally accompany them. In reality, though, I find that they frequently overlap and intertwine. So, when it comes to appraising the content I find that it’s very valuable to consider the content of the collection as a whole, and then to take a look at technological considerations before an appraisal decision is made. That’s why I like my role in collaborating with curators: appraisal remains firmly in the hands of the people who know the collection best, but I’m able to give them the information and tools they need to make a good decision.

    What software or tools help you appraise born-digital content?
    I find that I use characterization tools frequently to help me evaluate all the digital content at once, rather than relying on my ability to remember what’s in each folder. I use DDFileCatcher and Karen’s Directory Printer most frequently — both provide nice spreadsheets that give you an idea of the structure of the collection, and they also give you a good at-a-glance view of filetypes and sizes along with other information.

    What are the top two or three resources that you would recommend for others who want to start or continue learning about appraising born-digital materials?
    There are so many wonderful resources out there, it’s hard to limit myself to just a few.

    I would say that the DigiPres Commons ( is one of my absolute favorite resources, because it’s a clearinghouse of other digital curation resources. It might not be the easiest to navigate for someone just starting out, but it’s got a lot of rich resources in there! I frequently find myself surfing through the tool registry and the Digital Preservation Q&A when I have a problem with a collection.

    I also frequently rely on the National Digital Stewardship Alliance ( and the Library of Congress’ Digital Preservation page ( Both sites are really helpful in learning about the latest happenings in the field — I’m a big fan of LoC’s blog ‘The Signal’ in particular.

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