If we build it they will come: collaborative development of born-digital archives

In many ways, enabling the discovery of born-digital archive materials should be easy. The material is already digital, and quite often in a format that is accessible by others. There are many ways in which content can be delivered over the web and thus made discoverable. And yet…  And yet whilst there have been huge inroads into making distinct archive collections available and discoverable over the past few years, often through specific project support, there remains uncertainty about how best to manage born-digital collections in a sustainable manner that facilitates their ongoing discoverability and use across collections.

This presentation will explore two reasons why this may be, and propose insights into how they might be addressed. Firstly, the picture is not as simple as might be imagined.  Managing the multiple formats of born-digital collections, assessing what needs to be archived across the data provided, describing the items selected, agreeing privacy/access terms with the depositor, etc., and then implementing all of this within appropriate software systems has not been straightforward, with many solutions currently addressing specific parts of the workflow. Secondly, why has this not been straightforward? In part, the precise needs are still being defined, but many individual archives have struggled to implement full solutions on their own, affected by resourcing and skills issues in tackling the issues involved.  How can pooling our resources help us to achieve our goals?

Parallels can be drawn from developments over the past decade within academic libraries, many of which work in close partnership with their institutional archives. Academic libraries have had to address a number of trends in that time that have led to a range of successful collaborations, where the libraries have recognised that they can provide better services by pooling their resources and working together.  However, the ways in which this pooling has taken place has varied, and lessons can be learned by archives in identifying novel ways of coming together to achieve broader goals around born-digital archives.

Key to understanding how to collaborate has been to recognise where there is value in pushing services, in part or whole, above the direct control of the organisation involved. Within academic libraries many of the collaborations have been related to technology development and service provision, where there are economic, practical and, of course, technical benefits to either working on a combined solution or in outsourcing (collaboration through mutual use of commercial services to sustain the service provision concerned). In dealing with born-digital archives, which implicitly require technical innovation and development, could archives benefit from coming together? In some ways they are – a number are buying commercial systems and working with the supplier to improve these over time – but in other ways there has been little to mirror the collective efforts of libraries.

The aim of the presentation was, and is, to stimulate debate about how archives can best collaborate to achieve mutual aims, recognising at what levels we can most effectively work together and, perhaps more importantly, what we can usefully cede responsibility for towards achieving a greater goal.  How can we learn from other areas? And how can we collaborate with the academics to best serve the needs of research and teaching and thereby highlight the value of the born-digital collections archives are now being asked to manage?

Following on from the presentation, it is proposed to convene a Google Group to specifically foster a conversation on how we might better manage born-digital archives and the digital preservation concerned. Details will be circulated in early 2015. We are also interested in investigating whether an existing network or online group could be used to progress discussions or collaboration. If you are interested in such a conversation, please contact Chris Awre for further information, giving details of networks or groups of which you are already a member.

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