Tag Archives: Born-digital material

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.


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.