A (born digital) health check

Born digital is big

The material and content being created by New Zealanders, and collected by New Zealand Aotearoa cultural heritage organisations is increasingly born digitally. Born digital refers to content created digitally or electronically, and without an analogue original or equivalent. Born digital material includes digital photographs, digital documents, digital manuscripts, electronic records, static data sets, dynamic data, digital art, digital oral histories, digital audio and video, and digital media – but not, for example, a scanned image of a physical photo.

Collecting, managing, and preserving born digital collections creates new challenges and opportunities for New Zealand’s cultural heritage organisations. This work often requires learning new and different technology skills, and the use of specialised computer hardware and software.

Word cloud of very digital words.

At the same time, as more and more people are empowered to communicate, give voice to their thoughts and ideas, and create new art and science using digital technologies, we have an opportunity to collect a more diverse and representative (digital) cross-section of New Zealand.

Surveying the environment

The National Library has had a digital collecting program for over fifteen years. In the last few years, we’ve had more requests for advice and assistance by other organisations. However, we had little non-anecdotal evidence or data about the levels and kinds of born digital collecting already taking place in New Zealand.

Some classic 3.5 inch floppy disks.

So in 2016 we undertook an environmental scan of the current state of born digital archival and special collections material across the country. We only looked at archives and special collection material: material “in any format, held in archives and special collections, whether these collections are held by libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, or other institutions.” (Jackie Dooley and Katherine Luce, Taking our Pulse, 2010).

Read the full survey report

We wanted to uncover data about how prepared and positioned the GLAM sector is to collect and preserve these collections in memory institutions, and measure New Zealand’s progress against international benchmarks.

The survey revealed that while the vast majority of survey respondents are collecting (or expect to soon be collecting) born-digital material, far fewer have the policy, staffing, and infrastructure in place to care for these collections.

A key theme running throughout responses and across institutional type and size was a lack of staff with the knowledge and expertise to manage born-digital archival material.

What we found

Highlights of the survey include:

  • The vast majority of New Zealand cultural institutions hold born-digital archival material (81%) and even more (86%) expect to be collecting and managing born-digital material in the next two years. 100% of university libraries report they expect to be collecting born-digital content in the next two years.
  • Survey respondents identified lack of staff expertise as their main impediment to collecting and managing born-digital materials, and ranked building staff expertise as their highest requirement for future born-digital collecting.
  • The majority of New Zealand institutions are collecting or are responsible for born-digital archival material, but only 32% reported having a plan or strategy already in place.
  • 53% of institutions have one or fewer persons responsible for working with born-digital content.
  • 70% of respondents reported users requesting access to at least some of their born-digital collections.

How does New Zealand Aotearoa compare?

Much of this survey was inspired by work done by OCLC. That project, led by Jackie Dooley, undertook two in-depth surveys of Special Collections: the 2010 OCLC survey of Special Collections and Archives in the US and Canada and the 2013 OCLC survey of UK and Ireland Special Collections and Archives. A third survey, commissioned by Europeana in 2015 (pdf, 1MB), looked at digital collections in European cultural heritage institutions.

MTG Hawke’s Bay Collections Team working on a born digital collection during a training.MTG Hawke’s Bay Collections Team working on a born digital collection during a training in 2015. From left: Sara Browne, Team Leader, Collections; Linda Macan, Collection Assistant; Nicola Zaaiman, Collections Assistant – Photography; Gail Pope, Collections Assistant – Archives. Not shown: Dena Hale – Kaitiaki Taonga Māori.

While a direct comparison is difficult as both the design and survey populations are different, it can be helpful to at least check in with where we are in relation to other parts of the world. All the surveys revealed similar levels of collecting when it comes to born-digital content.

While New Zealand reported the highest levels of born digital material, this survey was also the only one to focus specifically on born-digital archival material. It is likely our sample is weighted toward those already collecting or otherwise holding born-digital content.

Percent of survey participants who reported holding born digital material, by location. US/Canada: 79%. UK/Ireland: 65%. Europe: 60%. New Zealand (this survey): 81%.

One of the main findings from the OCLC reports was that archives and libraries were struggling when it came to collecting and managing born digital materials.

According to the reports, born-digital collections were “undercollected, undercounted, undermanaged, unpreserved, and inaccessible.” This quote could easily be used to describe the findings from our survey of the current state of New Zealand’s born-digital cultural heritage in 2017.

Finding out more

In the past several years, in response to the OCLC survey findings, a number of valuable reports and guidelines have been written and collected on the Demystify Born Digital website. We recommend this site as an excellent starting point for any organisation in New Zealand looking for guidance.

If you’re a practitioner in a New Zealand cultural heritage organisation and you’re looking to increase your digital capabilities, knowledge, and skill in handling born-digital materials, training is just around the corner.

The Library has partnered with ARANZ and LIANZA to provide two pilot digital capability workshops, which will introduce you to the basic principles, resources, and tools for working with born digital archival material. The workshops aim to give you the tools to establish workflows and procedures, helping your institution successfully manage common born-digital materials.

Join us in Auckland on April 27, 2017

Or in Dunedin on May 4, 2016

By Jessica Moran

Jessica Moran is a digital archivist and currently Digital Collections Services Team Leader at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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