Monday, August 17, 2009

SAA 2009: Electronic Records Section meeting

Downtown Austin, as seen from the 19th floor of the Hilton Austin Downtown, at approximately 1:15 AM on 16 August 2009.

The Electronic Records Section actually met last Friday, but I held off blogging about it because of time presssures -- something had to give -- and because I was waiting for Cal Lee, who speedily delivered a great presentation, to place his slides online. The slides aren’t up yet, but want to finish blogging SAA 2009 before my memory dims. I’ll post the link ASAP.

Cal’s presentation was entitled “Addressing the Messiness of Electronic Records Acquisition”; there was a subtitle, too, but I couldn’t quite catch it.

Cal started out by noting that archivists are professionals, which means that they have special privileges because their decisions and actions reflect a distinctive body of expertise and because they are expected to use said expertise in service to the public. He then asserted that digital curation, which brings together archivists and other professionals, itself constitutes a distinct body of expertise. Digital curators seek to:
  • Understand and attend to the intentions of creators and “primary users” of digital materials.
  • Avoid unnecessary lock-in (i.e., use of proprietary file formats and systems) and free materials that have been locked in.
  • Promote discovery of digital resources.
  • Promote sense-making.
  • Creating succession plans and taking other steps to ensure that resources are preserved over the long term.
In fulfilling these responsibilities, digital curators seek to act in the public interest by:
  • Doing their work in socially responsible ways -- which is not the same as doing the tasks listed above.
  • Not making a priori assumptions about who will perform specific digital curation tasks.
  • Practicing “respectful and informed ignorance” when working with creators and end users.
  • Bringing their own informed questions and answers to discussions concerning the creation, management, preservation, and provision of access to digital resources.
Cal then focused on the particular challenges of working with archival electronic records created by individuals, who often hand over entire hard drives, scatter portable media throughout boxes of paper records, participate in online communities they don’t own or control, and outlined three main strategies for dealing with personal electronic records:
  • Getting: when archivists get data on computers or discs hidden in boxes, they must extract usable information from the media without inadvertently altering it. Cal noted that tools and techniques developed by digital forensics experts can be of great use to archivists who need to recover data when layers of technology fail or are no longer available, capture information that is not always readily visible (e.g., user account information, temporary files), and ensuring that their actions don’t irreversibly alter essential characteristics of the records. The digital forensics literature is extensive (the Internet Engineering Task Force’s RFC 3227 is a great starting point), and there are plenty of training opportunities and other events and open-source and commercial software packages available. However, using these tools will bring to the fore questions about the ethics of recovering hidden data that the creator never intended to disclose.
  • Grabbing: the rise of Web 2.0 technology means that many forms of individual documentation and expression now have a social, public dimension. Web 2.0 service providers, not individual users, determine the terms of use, and information may be lost when a provider goes out of business, merges with another firm, loses data due to insufficient backup procedures, or suffers a malicious attack. Grabbing (i.e., copying) material found on these sites is going to be the only way to preserve it, and archivists should keep in mind that it likely won’t be possible to provide seamless access to all of the information created by a person, in large part because creators like fragmentation; a person’s digital “papers” might consist of pointers to her online presence from the Web, her e-mail or the storage media used by her computer, and other items.
  • Guiding: Archivists will take custody of only a small fraction of personal digital papers, but creators will almost certainly ask us how they can get their data out of the cloud, evaluate terms of service, and preserve their files. Moreover, as professionals we have an ethical obligation to assist them. In an effort to meet this need, Cal is editing a forthcoming publication, I, Digital: Personal Collections in the Digital Era. Cal is also active in the Personal Digital Archives Working Group (PDAWG), an informal group that is still in the process of forming. The group will focus on developing and documenting tools for curators of personal digital collections and individuals seeking better control over their own digital materials, drafting of several guidance documents, and engaging research communities that use or may use personal digital materials. The Digital Curation Exchange will provide Web space for the group, which is looking for members and welcomes observers.
I’ve been thinking that archivists have a lot to learn from the field of digital forensics, and I’m glad that I’m not the only one who sees its potential for our work. Moreover, as several of us pointed out in the discussion that followed Cal’s presentation, community-based archives and lone arrangers have a pressing need for the sort of easy-to-use tools that the PADWG is developing. I’ll be watching the work of this group quite closely.


Courtney said...

Given your interest in the interplay between archivists and digital forensics experts, I thought you might be interested in checking out this research project at SLAIS at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver:

I was involved in it for the first two years, but have since graduated.

L'Archivista said...

Thanks, Courtney! I've bookmarked this site.