Appraising digital archive collections – some final thoughts

During our JISC Transformations project I have posted a couple of times (here and here) about the work I have been doing to appraise one of our personal digital archive collections. As our project comes to an end I thought it was worthwhile writing one last post to sum up the work I’ve completed with a few thoughts on appraising digital archives.

 

Firstly, although I haven’t completed the work, there are now 4.9k records of which I have marked just 500 for definite retention – the remaining records still need to be checked. This means we are currently planning on retaining just 6.5% of the collection – and this is likely to fall further. As this is a hybrid collection, it has, on many occasions, come to mind that we may not retain any digital records and the archive collection will comprise only paper records. This realisation has made me think more closely about the appraisal of digital collections; in particular the need to do it soon after acquisition and the current lack of practical guidance that is out there for archivists (and record creators).

 

Although there are a number of good reports out there providing guidance on digital collection management – the Paradigm handbook and the AIMS White Paper have been particularly helpful throughout my work – much of this guidance relates to implementing best practice for the future. However, as with paper collection management, best practice doesn’t always happen. General guidance states that we should develop better relationships with our potential depositors and work with them over a number of years to take snapshots, or to appraise and organise digital archives before they come to the archives. But every archivist will know that, irrespective of the format, sometimes best practice just goes out the window. There will be those garage clearances after an individual has died, or the mad rush as an organisation closes, or a person clears their office. These instances arise all the time and this will not change with digital collections. So as archivists we need easy to follow procedures that all we can all follow, either as part of a large team or as a lone archivist with little or no support. And, to be honest, even though we know that we need to work with IT, the reality is that whatever procedures we introduce, we will need to be able to follow them without that technical support.

I certainly don’t think that the method I adopted is necessarily the best one, and in a few years time I will probably look back and think ‘why did I do that?!’ but for now it was the best option available to us and, on the whole, it has worked. I would like to be able to provide how-to guidance on what I did but at this stage it really was on a trial basis. What I can say is that Karen’s Printer Directory extracted all the descriptive metadata from the collection and by importing the data into Excel I was able to work in a programme that I knew how to use. It also made checking the collection for absolute duplicates, systems files and externally created content much easier.  From there it was literally the case of working my way through the spreadsheet pulling out sections that I knew we did not want to keep. It is not a task that you can do for long periods of time, and at times, Excel simply couldn’t handle the amount of data that had been imported into it. The spreadsheet now has four sheets (in hindsight separate files would’ve been better). The first contains descriptive metadata for the whole collection, the second absolute duplicates, the third a list of the appraised collection, and the final sheet contains a list of files in obsolete formats that we will be meeting with the depositor to discuss.

 

As I have been working my way through the list I have been making notes on groups of records which, although are saved all over the place, are what we would term part of the same series. The main ones are: employment, presentation and speeches, overseas visits, involvement in professional bodies, as well as  a number of individual research projects. This list is now forming appraisal decisions as I work my way through the remainder of the collection. I should state that they are not ad hoc decisions  but reflect the person’s paper collection and significant areas of work completed during the period that the collection covers. By the end we should have a small digital collection that we can add to our repository and make accessible to researchers through adequate listing. It will also mean that we are sure we are using resources in the most efficient way by preserving only what needs to be retained – one of the key projected outcomes of our project.

 

The fact that we have retained just 6.5% of the collection (so far) and 2% should probably be retained but is currently in an obsolete format, goes to show just how important it is that archivists appraise digital collections as soon as possible after acquisition. Richard Cox of the University of Pittsburgh, School of Information Sciences has written an interesting article on Appraisal and the Future of Archives in the Digital Era. He warns that archivists have in the past been reactive rather than proactive regarding appraisal as developing planned and analytical approaches is too much for busy archivists to cope with. The result is strange and poor appraisal decisions. He states that although there has been a lot of discussion around appraisal it is now time to create practical schemes. I tend to agree with his position, although I hope that I have done the collection I have been working on justice.

 

I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has similar (or completely different!) experience of appraising digital archive collections to learn about your experience and hopefully begin to create much needed guidance on this area of work.

 

 

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