Launching a Digital Preservation Program as a Solo Archivist

Mike Satalof
Archivist and Digital Collections Librarian
Bard Graduate Center

Bard Graduate Center (BGC) is a graduate research institute in New York City. Founded in 1993, it examines the decorative arts, design history, and material culture through academic programs, research forums, and exhibitions. As part of a small Library staff, and as its first archivist, I have found rewarding opportunities and challenges in planning, advocating for, and—finally!—beginning to acquire and preserve the institution’s born-digital collections.

In 2014, soon after the BGC’s 20th anniversary, the Library began undertaking an initiative to roll out a modest institutional archive. Though at the start of this initiative our familiarity with digital preservation concepts was low-to-moderate, we knew it would be important to build in sound policies and infrastructure to preserve born-digital materials. To solo archivists taking on such a project for the first time, my advice would be to take an approach that fosters a shared sense of purpose with your stakeholders; think broadly in gathering information about how your institution’s digital assets are created and managed; and aim for a scale within the limitations of your resources.

We made communication an essential part of this project from the beginning, focusing on outreach and advocacy while preparing for an institution-wide inventory. To make our case and propose a game plan, a Digital Preservation Committee was called, including stakeholders, departmental representatives, and IT. During the inventory process, I held more than 20 meetings with staff from 13 different departments to compile technical data about their digital materials, recording information such as file formats, size, and storage locations. I found that along with gathering data, these “bring out your dead” meetings were also useful for gathering the stories behind those digital files directly from the staff members most familiar them: Which were of especially high value? Which were lost when a long-time employee left? What kind of anxieties did staff feel about managing, storing, and preserving their department’s electronic records? Combining institutional memory with an in-depth inventory provided a detailed map of the landscape of our digital assets and informed the next phase: prioritizing for preservation of materials most at risk.

With the inventories completed, I reported back to the departments with findings and recommended next steps, including a series of proposed pilot preservation projects. We aimed to identify “low hanging fruit”—high value digital materials already in danger of becoming lost or unreadable, including exhibition records, publications, public programming materials, and thesis projects. While planning several discrete pilots, I also began drafting policies to formalize our archive and its mission.

To plan for a digital repository, we were able to secure funding to hire a great part-time digital archives consultant to provide recommendations for a repository that could be managed at our scale (a solo archivist and small institutional IT staff). The consultant and I worked with IT to identify a solution under $5,000 that could be administered by a lone archivist and monitored by IT with little maintenance. We selected a three-copy solution with a server that would be used both to store collections and serve as the “drop-off” point for other departments to transfer digital materials to the archives. The consultant and I produced workflow documentation for the accessioning, transfer, processing and description of materials (in ArchivesSpace), and he provided a script that leverages the LoC’s BagIt tool to monitor file fixity. With IT’s assistance in setting up the server, I have been able to begin processing and preserving pilot collections this fall, with hopes to complete processing and revise documentation in the coming months.

One interesting thing that emerged as I completed the inventory was the number of staff members raising questions about records management and especially feeling unsure about how to take on some of these seemingly-overwhelming tasks (like cleaning up a large file backlog of project files or creating procedures for disposition). While a large-scale records management program is beyond our scope, it became clear that for many departments, these issues represent a more tangible priority than getting materials into an archive. I have tried to provide some records cleanup recommendations in response to specific questions, and it is clear that records management training will be a key activity that the archives is in the best position to offer as a service. In the future, I would like to explore outreach to staff and faculty through best practices workshops and an online documentation portal (via Google Docs), and by providing individualized consultation on request.

I’m grateful that this project has been well received and to have the support of administrators, library colleagues, and allies in other departments who have given thoughtful direction to our still-nascent archives. In a role that allows me to work with the institution’s many different constituencies, I am eager to make sure the archives is inclusive, transparent, and trusted as a repository for the record of their most important achievements and efforts—digital or nondigital.

Thanks to the LART for providing a wonderful platform for solo archivists to share our experiences and resources.

Slide for: Preserving in Digital Formats: Challenges and Solutions in Small Archives, SAA Annual Meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, August 3, 2016.