Acquiring and Appraising Born-Digital Material at the Minnesota Historical Society

Sarah Barsness

Sarah Barsness

Sarah Barsness is a Digital Collections Assistant at the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), where she works to process, store, preserve, and provide access to MNHS’s born-digital collections. Sarah holds a BA in Anthropology and German as well as an MA in Library and Information Studies with an Archival Science focus, both from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. When she’s not at work, odds are pretty good that you can find her at the local comic book store or craft shop.

The following is an interview by the Acquisitions and Appraisal Section with Sarah on her work at the MNHS acquiring and appraising born-digital material.

Tell us about your current position at the Minnesota Historical Society.

SB: My job is focused specifically on digital preservation, but in that role I also advise and work with other staff on digital collections from the point of acquisition to providing public access. I also help with the ongoing work of maintaining digital infrastructure for our collections (including space management on our network or creating backups). My time is balanced between working directly with collections, policy/procedure development, and keeping abreast of developments and best practices in the field.

How are you involved in acquisitions and appraisal work in that position?

SB: At MNHS acquisitions are brought in by curators, who traditionally are responsible for all the appraisal work. When it comes to digital collections, I work with the curators on appraisal, processing, providing access, and planning for preservation; I am able to provide technical expertise to help the curators consider non-content-related appraisal issues, such as file format, media condition, size, and the like.

Can you walk us through a “typical day” in your job appraising digital content?

SB: When a curator has a new collection with a digital component that they think is worth accepting, we generally sit down and take a look at the content and format together. We discuss how the digital content fits with the rest of the collection, any restrictions that might inhibit online access, and any potential preservation issues. If there are preservation concerns, such as an unusual filetype or an unstable storage medium, we take a look at our options and weigh the required resources against the value of the materials. Together, we make an appraisal decision and develop a processing and preservation plan for the materials.

What are some unique considerations when appraising born-digital content vs. other formats?

SB: I’ve found that the fundamentals of analog appraisal hold true for digital appraisal as well, but there are some differences of degree and emphasis. Each digital file you accession will likely require a greater commitment of time and money than a similar physical object, for example, so we’ve found that it’s very important to carefully consider the resource implications of a digital accession at the point of appraisal, probably more so than with analog collections. We’re working on developing and implementing a tiered preservation scheme so that we can commit more resources to our most important materials and fewer resources to less valuable ones.

Describe one of the biggest challenges you encountered appraising born-digital content, and how did you approach it?

SB: One of the biggest challenges we face is that of working with digital materials at a large scale. Appraising large and heterogeneous collections can be very difficult; they can have layers upon layers of organizational structure that are difficult to penetrate, and file navigation systems (like Windows Explorer) aren’t built to allow you to view everything at once. To help us get a handle on these large collections, we often use characterization and de-duplication software to help us get a better understanding of the size, nature, and arrangement of the accession.

Is appraisal of born-digital materials ever collaborative? If so, how do you work with colleagues to determine appraisal criteria and appraise content?

SB: Collaboration is a huge part of born-digital appraisal for us! The curators who bring in digital materials are experts on the content of the materials, and I contribute information about the technical aspects of the digital objects; together, we are able to balance resource requirements and preservation issues with the content of the collection and how it fits in our collecting policy. The curators also have a better understanding of materials related to the digital components of a collection, such as accompanying analog materials or previous accessions from the same donor.

Are there guidelines that can help us develop our own appraisal criteria, or develop best practices?

SB: There are lots of great resources out there, and many institutions are trying to work together to tackle some of these issues; groups like the National Digital Stewardship Alliance and websites like the DigiPres Commons have been doing a lot of great work to pool knowledge and set some best practices for the field. Digital Preservation Coalition has a wonderful section on acquisition and appraisal in it’s newly revised Digital Preservation Handbook, which is a must-read resource for anybody working with born-digital materials. I also regularly refer to the Library of Congress’ Sustainability of Digital Formats webpage, which offers a lot of helpful information about preservation concerns and preferences for various kinds of digital materials.

Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share about appraising born-digital material?

SB: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure of yourself when it comes to appraising digital material, regardless of your level of computer proficiency. There are just so many unknowns when it comes to digital material and how (or even if) it can be saved for decades to come. Don’t let that uncertainty keep you from acquiring amazing collections that happen to be digital, because we’ll never be able to preserve the things we don’t try to save.

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