Born-digital collections

Born Digital Collections: an inter-institutional model for stewardship (AIMS)

Archives for the 21st Century theme: A co-ordinated response to the growing challenge of managing digital information so that it is accessible now and remains discoverable in the future.

Summary of the project

The AIMS Project was funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It brought together the universities of Hull, Virginia, Stanford, and Yale to process and preserve a range of born-digital material held by the institutions and make them discoverable using Hydra, a Fedora repository-based solution, which other institutions can freely install. The grant enabled each partner organisation to appoint a digital archivist and a software developer based at Virginia.

The institutions were already working together on the Hydra project, which is still developing common tools for multi-purpose functionality, including library and archival, relating to the Fedora digital repository. The University of Virginia was responsible for managing and planning the project.

The Hull collections selected were the Socialist Health Association and the papers of novelist and screenwriter Stephen Gallagher. They were chosen to look at issues surrounding papers of both an individual and an organisation and were expected to contain a range of file formats. Their willingness on the part of the depositor to take part in the project was also critical.

How did AIMS break new ground in collections management?

It was the university's first explicit attempt to examine the issues surrounding born-digital archives through a practical research project. Prior to the project, Hull University Archives had only one or two discrete born-digital items and no distinction was made for this material amongst its policies or procedures. In the course of processing the collections, archive staff at Hull developed skills, knowledge and experience required for managing born-digital archives that is shaping the institution's policies and strategies for both handling the material and relations with depositors.

A difference between traditional archival practice and that tested in the project is the need to manage the digital object and the need for care to ensure that key metadata including date file created etc is not accidently lost or altered in the transfer process. Unlike paper, the simple act of looking at the files can make a difference - so any consultation of the born-digital files to identify, describe and determine appropriate access restrictions are conducted on a copy of the data.

Hull also reviewed the practical and meaningful level of cataloguing needed to facilitate access, bearing in mind the sheer volume of born-digital material and the potential for the content of the born-digital to be searchable in its own right.

What impact has the AIMS project had on the born-digital material?

Hull has processed both of these born-digital collections, including consideration of issues surrounding the arrangement; one as a complete hybrid catalogue with integrated paper and born-digital content. The process also identified material for deletion and potentially sensitive material.

How will depositors benefit in the longer term?

Hull has updated its terms of deposit to include aspects relating specifically to born-digital archives and has begun to ask each depositor if they have born-digital material. The experience allowed Hull to better understand depositors' concerns and this will help them with future negotiations. It also highlighted the need to work even closer with depositors to explain why we need to work differently with digital material than we currently do with paper. The archives are considering moving towards gaining Trusted Digital Repository status that they hope will further reassure their depositors, in a similar vein that BS5454 does with our physical repository.

What other innovative activities did the AIMS project undertake?

Hull repurposed an old PC as a digital forensic workstation to handle born-digital archives and this is placed in a prominent position in the cataloguing room and highlighted in public tours. The AIMS project organised an international un-conference (in Charlottesville, Virginia) which is a participant-driven meeting that seeks to look at issues in a refreshing and dynamic manner.

Were there any unexpected outcomes from the AIMS project?

The project did take a different turn to that originally forecast as the partners could not identify any suitable tools for the arrangement and description of born-digital archives. They therefore defined and scoped out how such a tool might work themselves. Stanford then developed a prototype and the partners are exploring how they can complete the development and testing of what would be an open-source tool called Hypatia.

Offering user access to the born-digital collections through a public interface has been delayed since the Hull Fedora digital repository cannot yet ingest a large-scale import of 10,000 files in one go. This will be resolved in the near future and the planned user group consultation and testing will then take place.

What did Hull learn from working with the project partners?

Hull learnt the benefits of collaboration, even when the principle outcome might be to develop a solution that is organisation specific. The partnership gave Hull an insight into what others were doing and allowed for open exchange of information that otherwise may not have been shared so freely.

Has the project resulted in any longer term partnerships?

As a result of the project, Hull will remain in close contact with the United States universities and has developed good working relationships with a number of other organisations, including the LSE, John Rylands Library and the Wellcome Library.

How is expertise and learning gained in the project being shared with other staff?

There have been a series of sessions with other staff at the Hull History Centre - trying to identify issues that most concerned them regarding born-digital archives. Staff were also consulted about the proposed Hypatia tool for the arrangement and description of born-digital archives.

How is expertise and learning gained in the project being shared within the archive sector?

The project team has written a series of blog entries about the project process. Hull contributed to the AIMS White Paper that seeks to help define good practice and provide information and guidance for archivists working with born-digital archives.

The digital archivist has attended more than 20 events in the UK and USA to disseminate experiences and to encourage others to embrace the challenge of born-digital archives.

How will Hull take forward what it has achieved through the AIMS project?

There is now a very close working relationship between the archives staff and those responsible for managing the university's Fedora digital repository. Digital archives are now recognised in the university library's strategic plan for the next two years.

This is an Archive Pace Setter Scheme case study.