Chris Grygiel reports on his one-year journey as one of the 2018-2019 RLUK/ TNA Professional Fellows:
As digital archivist in Special Collections at Leeds University Libraries, I saw the advert for the Professional Fellowships scheme early in 2018 and thought it would be a great way to push forward some ideas I had about our digital preservation workflows at Leeds.
I was interested in the scheme providing me access to the range of networks, practitioners and skills across the archive and digital preservation sector, and a way to work on some of my skills through a continual professional development workplan. I was also keen to build on those communication skills required when I spoke to donors, depositors and researchers, and I hoped to feel more confident presenting to a wide range of groups.
Titled ‘Curating, mapping and presenting modern hybrid collections’, my fellowship focused on three collections held at Leeds which would allow me to address each of these element in detail:
The Curation strand focused on the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS), a collection which has a range of deposits and accruals of varying size, format and content. This section aimed at working with BSHS to standardise the material we receive and using the outcomes to inform our work with other collections and donors/depositors – establishing guidelines for how we deal with these in the future.
Mapping addressed the Simon Armitage collection. We received a digital accrual to the poet’s paper collection, I looked into the ways we might extract metadata from the deposit to fast-track the cataloguing workflow.
Finally, the Presenting strand looked at the Zygmunt Bauman collection, the ways in which researchers might want to access this hybrid collection, and the ways in which we can better facilitate digital humanities research.
A good starting point for my work on depositing guidelines was examining some of the deposits from BSHS, identifying discrepancies and establishing the relationship between paper and digital. I quickly moved on to discuss these with BSHS, learning about their records management methods and identifying some clear targets in moving towards regular and standardised accruals.
In terms of analysis, metadata extraction and arrangement, I had been dabbling in BitCurator for some time but the fellowship provided the opportunity to engage with it more fully, mapping out and establishing a workflow for processing deposits – extracting metadata and identifying data sensitivities to better inform the cataloguing process.
By establishing an outline of a workflow I was able to discuss cataloguing practices with a wider group of colleagues in Special Collections. These discussions consisted of practical questions such as:
How would we expect the extracted metadata to populate catalogue records and can this process be automated?
How important is archival hierarchy to users if they use searches and filters to find material?
How do we record duplication and do we de-duplicate?
What do we do with intra-media duplication (paper and digital copies)?
These discussions progressed throughout the fellowship and began to form the basis of a digital cataloguing manual that will evolve as we deal with increasingly varied material.
An important aspect of the fellowship was visiting the host organisation. In my case this was the National Archives (TNA) and in February I made the trip to London for a few days to meet with my mentor, Jone Garmendia. As head of cataloguing at TNA, Jone has oversight for the way they catalogue materials coming into the collections so I was interested to learn more about the processes TNA use and how these could inform my fellowship and workflow.
The visit was incredibly productive; Jone had arranged meetings and introductions to many members of staff. This meant I could break down some of the issues I was facing to make better use of TNA staff expertise. Jone made herself available for repeated discussions about broad concerns or specific issues I had in some of my work. It was a very worthwhile few days and meant I returned to Leeds with fresh ideas and impetus.
The first few months after visiting TNA was largely spent developing a more thorough approach to metadata extraction. I had encountered discrepancies between the metadata extracted by different tools, particularly around some of the content of the Bauman deposit and through further investigation I developed a method of extracting more metadata to be parsed and thinned during cataloguing – my thoughts here were that, the more information an archivist has, the more confident they can be in their decision making.
I made a second trip to London in August to visit a few different organisations, this time with more of a focus on how organisations have been dealing with personal digital and hybrid archives. My first stop was to see Jonathan Pledge and the interdisciplinary team working on the British Library’s digital cataloguing project. Here we discussed some of the workflow plans I had developed over the fellowship, particularly the enhanced metadata extraction outlined above.
During my time in London I also visited James Baker and Thorsten Ries, academics at the University of Sussex Humanities Lab. Baker and Ries posed challenges to some of the assumptions I had made in my workflow and offered advice and guidance on ways I could make it more robust, streamlined and responsive. Both these later visits really helped me to refine my workflow outputs and the metadata extraction work I had been developing.
My final outputs from the project were focused on establishing practical digital preservation workflows at Leeds and completing a range of documentation. This included descriptions of those workflows for wider Special Collections staff, documents relating to donor negotiation helping me to explain the complex processes involved and collect valuable information about potential data sensitivities. These documents had been evolving over the duration of the fellowship, particularly those concerning donors which had their genesis in the dialogue with BSHS in late 2018.
To conclude, the fellowship has provided me the opportunity to focus on establishing the basis of our digital preservation workflow, and given me the tools to talk to donors about their material and what we do with it. I have presented to various groups with different levels of understanding of digital preservation, culminating in a talk at the ARA conference in late August. These have made me significantly more comfortable with public speaking, and networking at various events.
Looking forward to future work here at Leeds, the documents and workflows I have developed will prove invaluable in working with donors and in dealing with deposits. The arrival of Marco Brunello, our ‘Bridging the Digital Gap’ trainee, will give me an excellent opportunity to test documentation, policies and procedures to ensure they work effectively. Finally, the metadata extraction work I have been developing should provide some useful results for my colleague Caroline Bolton who was awarded a professional fellowship focusing on collections as data for 2019-2020.
In all, my experience of the fellowship has been great. It has been a fantastic opportunity for me to build on some of my skills, and learn some new ones, and has been a great way to engage with my work in a structured way ensuring that I stick to targets and deadlines.