Unstuck in the Mud: Concrete Tasks for Forward Motion

Last time, we talked about the first steps we were taking to identify the workflows and procedures that need to be teased out and codified as official policies for Special Collections born-digital materials. Over the last month our group has been revising existing policies and drafting new ones where necessary. Given the title of the post, it’s important to point out that one way to prevent getting stuck is to accept that first drafts can be rough-and-ready. It’s too easy to get hung-up on word choice and formatting when writing formal policy language—the key is to just start writing and iron out the details later.

Another common sticking point for working groups is the existence of (real or perceived) external dependencies. “We can’t finish our work until they finish theirs!” The Born-Digital Working Group consists of two active subgroups, Tools and Policies/Procedures, supported by a less-active Administrative group for when higher-level support is needed. As we drafted policies, it became increasingly obvious that many decisions depended on input from the Tools group and on the larger institutional capacity for digital preservation. What file formats can we safely claim to preserve? What physical formats are we equipped to work with? The Tools group was facing a similar quandary: How could they firmly select tools without knowing the workflows (i.e. procedures) and the policy requirements that the tools need to meet?

Although the sub-groups were partly created to avoid the difficulty of finding large blocks of time compatible with diverse schedules, there was no helping it—the two groups had to spend some time together to solve these issues. With deadlines looming, we scheduled a joint meeting for April 1, informally dubbed “The Conclave.” No one was allowed to leave until we resolved the problems and had clear tasks to see us through to our All-Hands meeting in May.

Some of the topics we discussed included a debate over the creation of disk images and how we can clearly articulate the implications of this process to donors; the need to determine more precisely what file formats we will commit to migrating over time; and the identification of multiple work spaces for files that would ensure the appropriate levels of access. Perhaps the most helpful exercise was a detailed walkthrough of the BitCurator workflow, led by Porter Olsen and drawn on the whiteboard by Joshua Westgard. Doing this clearly illustrated where each group needed input from the other, allowing us to break off and tackle specific problems for 30 minutes before reconvening to wrap-up and assign concrete next steps.




One of the outcomes of this three-hour discussion was a realization that we need to more clearly define the goals of a Special Collections born-digital records program. Drawing on previous surveys of staff needs and expectations we have begun to concisely define the staff and system needs for working with these materials. We have also been coordinating more closely with Jennie Knies in the UMD Libraries’ Digital Stewardship unit to translate the collection requirements into technical requirements. This will be used by our IT developers to examine software and tools. The goal is to make sure that we have documented our full vision, regardless of technological limitations (or possibilities).  Our development team will then work to identify the best way to implement this within the context of our other requirements, and our existing systems.  We have created a spreadsheet that attempts to tie all of this information together, linking requirements, potential tools, workflow stage, policy, and priority.




We will all come together as a group in May to see what we have accomplished over the course of the semester. Sometimes it seems like we have been spinning our wheels, but the Conclave helped pull us out of the mud and sharpened our focus and priorities for the future.


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