It takes a village to save a byte

In 2014 MTG Hawke’s Bay, the region's museum, theatre, and art gallery, received their first offer of a born digital collection. The collection consists of around 1000 digital photographs and plans of the former Hospital Building on Napier Hill taken prior to its demolition. This is a significant Hawke’s Bay photographic archive which the MTG Hawke’s Bay wanted to acquire and make accessible. However, their concerns about managing the collection initially led them to consider passing it on to the Alexander Turnbull Library. But as this collection was of particular significance to Napier and the Hawke’s Bay region, it really made more sense for the collection to stay in Hawke’s Bay. Instead, we decided to use this as an opportunity to share and spread our knowledge of working with and managing born digital collections.

Arohaina, exterior west view, 2013, gifted by Todd Property Group Limited, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangiArohaina, exterior west view, 2013, gifted by Todd Property Group Limited, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi

External west view of Midgley, Russell ward block of original Napier Hospital building, 2013, gifted by Todd Property Group Limited, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangiExternal west view of Midgley, Russell ward block of original Napier Hospital building, 2013, gifted by Todd Property Group Limited, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi

After some initial discussions between Sara Browne, Collections Team Leader at MTG Hawke’s Bay and the Turnbull Library's Digital Collections Strategy Leader Mark Crookston, everyone decided that the photographs should stay in Napier with the MTG Hawke’s Bay and that the digital archivists at the Turnbull Library could help the Collections Team with some training on the basics of working with born digital material.

Room 5, ground floor, physical medicine surgical theatres in original Napier Hospital building, 2013, gifted by Todd Property Group Limited, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangiRoom 5, ground floor, physical medicine surgical theatres in original Napier Hospital building, 2013, gifted by Todd Property Group Limited, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi

With the support of Te Papa’s National Services Te Paerangi, I traveled to Napier as part of the Expert Knowledge Exchange program and spent a couple days with the Collections Team. This was the perfect chance for us to share some of the Library’s practical experience with other New Zealand cultural heritage institutions.

The Collections Team is responsible for the care of all Hawke's Bay Museums Trust collections, which includes museum collections, a fine art collection, and archives, so the team is skilled and knowledgeable when it comes to caring for heritage materials in a number of formats and just needed some guidance and advice on setting up a workflow for born digital material.

I wanted to ensure the team understood some of the key principles of working with born digital collections, the necessary steps in transferring and securing born digital material, and some of the available tools to help get the job done.

What is Born Digital

When we talk about “born digital” what we mean is material created digitally and with no analogue original. Email, digital photographs, manuscripts, letters, and other documents that were created using a computer, tablet, smart phone, or digital camera are all examples of “born digital” material. This is in contrast to digitised content, including scans of diaries, letters, or digital images of photographs, maps, etc. that were originally analogue. Digitised material was already being created and managed by MTG Hawke’s Bay, but this would be their first born digital collection.

Why is treating born digital collections different?

At the most basic level it’s not. We should collect and build our collections regardless of format. But when it comes to transferring born digital collections to institutions and caring for and managing that digital content, born digital materials can be fragile in ways that paper based items are not and things quickly get a bit more complicated.

Principles for Working with Born Digital Files

One of the biggest issues with born digital files is the ease with which we can irrevocably change both the content and metadata of the files. With that in mind there are a few key principles we need to follow. These include: do no harm, either to the digital files themselves, or the physical media they come on. By physical media, think everything from floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, to USB flash and external hard drives.

Next: avoid unintentional or irreversible change to source media or content. This means ensuring that you don’t accidentally damage the media while trying to read it, or change or delete any part of a file. Avoiding unintentional change is closely related to the first principle of do no harm and essentially means handle both the physical media and the files with care. Since it is easy to change either the content or the metadata of a digital file, understanding how to work with digital files in a way that avoids doing this is especially important!

Closely related is the idea of not doing anything that might preclude another or different action in the future. We are constantly learning when it comes to digital preservation, and our best practices today might be radically different than our best practices in twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years. Yet we have a responsibility to think in those kinds of time periods. Based on what we know and have learned so far, we can presume that our best practices are likely to evolve and change over time. For these reasons we want to establish workflows and practices that don’t negatively impact our ability to care for digital collections into the future.

Using one of the ATL’s forensic writeblockers to view the files. A writeblocker acts as a one way bridge between the media and your computer. You can copy files, but it prevents you from accidentally making any changes to the original files on the media.Using one of the ATL’s forensic 'writeblockers' to view files. A writeblocker acts as a one way bridge between the media and your computer. You can copy files, but it prevents you from accidentally making any changes to the original files on the media.

As important as those principles are, remembering not to let those guidelines scare you to the point that they get in the way of action is equally important. Digital collections need to be managed; unlike paper-based collections, leaving digital contents on old media in a box in a cool, dry place is not enough. Even if we make a few mistakes along the way, it’s more important that we begin taking steps to gain control over and care for our digital collections. Documenting everything you do and all the steps you take while working with born digital collections is one way to guard against getting into trouble when working with digital files.

With these principles in mind we spent time learning not just about some of the available tools, but also some of the ideas behind why we use them. Much of our work was guided by OCLC’s excellent set of reports, Demystifying Born Digital. Our conversations included discussing the tricky concept of fixity, figuring out what exactly a checksum is and why it’s important, and learning about some of the tools we can use to generate and verify checksums. Together we explored the files using the DROID software program which helps with file format identification and appraisal. We even managed to find a file with a missing file extension in our photograph collection.

By the end of our two days together, the MTG Hawke’s Bay Collections Team not only understood the basic principles of working with born digital collections, but had a set of tools in place and experience using them. Even better, we developed some draft workflows for managing born digital collections in the future and worked together as a group to process their first born digital collection. That collection is now secured, documented, and ready to be catalogued. In the coming months, once cataloguing is complete, these photographs will become available to researchers through the MTG Hawke’s Bay website.

MTG Hawke’s Bay Collections Team working on the collection. 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 MāoriMTG Hawke’s Bay Collections Team working on the collection. 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

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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Richard Foy July 29th at 9:11AM

This is so cool!!! Great story and great details about the challenges of managing a digital collection. Thanks.