Yesterday I got an email from a friend who has the opportunity to give a talk to some archival studies students. They wanted to know what I (and others) would tell students about trends in the field (specifically digital archiving) and what kinds of skills and knowledge they would need. These are the three areas I wish I could tell my younger self to pay attention to, and learn about, and focus on as I became a new professional archivist.

Manage your data

I mean this both practically and philosophically. [The question-asker] already mentioned learning to use Excel and OpenRefine, which is what I would recommend too; learning how your data is formatted and stored, how it is manipulated, how it can be migrated and changed over time, is key to being a good steward for your archives. This means considering use, of course, but also longevity and stability – you need to understand and consider data formats, interoperability, universality, escape routes (i.e. how to export your data out of a system). Managing your data means standing up for your archive’s agency over that data, and that can be a hard line to toe when you’re up against institutional pressure to adopt certain technology solutions. Our data is our work.

Share widely and be receptive to sharing in turn

We’re a small community, especially those of us who do digital work. We’re all grappling with similar problems, even though the scope and scale of the problems might change from archive to archive. When you are working, don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to your colleagues at similar workplaces about how they’re dealing with data migration, or outreach, or copyright. And be a reciprocal sharer – be open to questions, be supportive, talk about your work in some public way. Your successes are important, but so are your failures. This profession is so small that the mistakes you make might never have been made before, and by sharing them you are sharing something valuable – you’re not sharing an embarrassment, but a learning moment.

Acknowledge that your work impacts people other than yourself

Archives, and archival work, is inherently personal, subject to all the biases and opinions that we hold in ourselves. Recognizing that we bring these things to our work, no matter what work we do, is difficult and important. I strongly think that Tara Robertson’s Not All Information Wants to be Free is vital reading for every archivist, and since you’re going to be speaking from the place of a digital archivist, I think it’s highly appropriate to emphasise our ethical and moral duties as well as our technical ones, and how our decisions (i.e. in the case of Tara’s piece, digitising and making available a magazine) can have harmful – even disastrous – effects on the subjects of our records. Kim Christen also spoke about this at Access last week – Ruby’s tweet captures the sentiment.

Since [the question-asker has] this chance to share, you might want to consider mentioning those archivists who are really challenging our profession to be better – Jarrett M. DrakeMichelle CaswellStacie WilliamsBergis Jules; flipping through the posts at On Archivy might be a good place to start. I think we’ll be a better profession if we consider the ethics of our work just as often as the means.

*Thanks go to Dean Seeman, Head of Metadata at the University of Victoria Library, for articulating the concept of agency over data in his talk with Lisa Goddard at Access 2017.

Data agency, sharing, and ethical digital archivy

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