Archiving Digital Content at Schlesinger Library, or “Terror Nova” – Amy Benson

Amy Benson lecture at Simmons co-hosted by ALASC and SCoSAA

Amy Benson is the Librarian/Archivist for Digital Initiatives at the Schlesinger Library, one of 73 Harvard libraries. The Schlesinger focuses on the history of women in America, and Amy talked to us about digital collections: the process of creating, managing, and preserving them, and the challenges.

The first collection they worked on digitizing was women’s travel writing, for an interested vendor. Next was the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Collection, which is now fully digitized, and currently they are working on digitizing the Radcliffe College Publications. All of these collections, for the most part, are analog – papers, letters, books, photos, etc. (The analog-to-digital process is, relatively, the easiest, according to Amy.)

Other types of digital collections involve capturing and preserving web content, and born-digital content. Born-digital content is especially tricky:  material comes in various physical formats (diskettes, flash drives, CDs, DVDs, cartridge tapes(!), hard drives, etc.) and multiple file formats – and then there’s e-mail (“Thinking about processing e-mail at the individual message level is a little bit crazy”). Sixty-five collections at the Schlesinger include born-digital material: it’s on more than 1900 individual media storage devices, each containing any number of files. “You begin to see we’re in a big mess,” Amy explained. Then she rephrased, “Well, not a big mess – an interesting time….There’s no shortage of things that need to be figured out in the world.”

Amy spoke about trying to expand scope of collection, but acknowledged that selection was a challenge. Radical feminists on the web, for example – Which ones do you pick? How do you know which ones people will want to use for research? Donor agreements must be worked out, both for materials already in the collection and for new acquisitions, and all incoming born-digital material must be tracked.

Another challenge in managing digital archives is deciding what to keep. And, once that’s decided, how do you preserve it? (In the Schlesinger’s case, items can be deposited into Harvard’s Digital Repository Service.) Once items are selected and preserved, how can patrons access them? “The thing that’s cool about my job is figuring out how to do all of this,” said Amy. She also mentioned the importance of documenting the process to guarantee authenticity of the final product – assuming that the end user doesn’t just give the institution the benefit of the doubt that the item is an exact copy of the original.

Essentially, digital archives are the same as any other archives: selection, accession, preservation/storage, and access are the key elements of the process. “In some ways it’s the exact same thing – you just have to do it through a computer,” said Amy. However, because the technology is new and constantly changing, and because each archives has specific needs and goals, there doesn’t seem to be a go-to set of best practices. So, what do you need to be a digital archivist? “A willingness to experiment and a love for computers.”

On mistakes and loss: “Some stuff is already lost forever. There’s actually going to be a big black hole in the ’80s…”

Interesting links:

MIT’s FACADE project

Harvard’s Web Archive Collection Service (WAX)

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