Fellow Reflection: Jess Farrell

Jess FarrellThis post was written by Jess Farrell, who received a Focus Fellowship to attend this year’s DLF Forum.

Jess is the Project Manager for BitCuratorEdu and Community Coordinator for the Software Preservation Network. Previously, she was Curator of Digital Collections at Harvard Law School Library, Assistant Archivist at McDonald’s Corporation and Armstrong-Johnston Archival Services, and Project Archivist at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. Jess received her MLIS from the University of South Carolina (2011) and BA from the College of Charleston. She coordinates the Digital Library Federation’s Born-Digital Access Working Group and is the current Chair of the Electronic Records Section of the Society of American Archivists.

The Comfort of an Echo at DLF 2019

When I attended my first DLF Forum in 2016, it stood out as a space I wanted to keep engaging in because presenters weren’t afraid to ask big, critical questions and discuss social justice issues, and the space felt like it was genuinely trying to be accessible to as many different types of people as possible.

But as a digital archivist, it didn’t stand out as a space where I could engage deeply with issues related to born-digital preservation. I decided that DLF was where I would come to better understand labor practices and how to approach my work with care, but not for improving my skills as a digital archivist or for models of digital archiving projects. And that was fine – we are fortunate to have other professional development options in this field that cover those topics!

Fast forward to 2019, and this year I had a very different experience with the program. I’m no longer in a digital archivist position, but I was thrilled to hear some of the things that always kept me up at night as a practicing archivist echoed back to me across many sessions. I never liked that library administrators often fetishized digitization as improved access, collection growth as necessary and good, and digitization as an ideal way to grow collections. The labor required to actually make digitized collections discoverable doesn’t align with modern archival processing practices (MPLP), and requires re-processing, reviewing, and additional description generation. This work is often invisible, undervalued, and usually just not done, thus creating large amounts of content that are inaccessible by anyone who doesn’t already know that they exist. Because this labor was usually not accounted for enough, if at all, by administrators, digitization budgets – the most poorly planned of which are more like just reformatting budgets – look fairly efficient. As a digital archivist biased toward privileging born-digital collecting, preservation, and access, I was often frustrated at how it was often possible to get support for a digitization project to generate new digital collections, but usually impossible to get support to maintain existing born-digital collections.

In addition to my bias toward supporting born-digital collection management processes above many other library services at our present moment in time, earlier this year I became further disenchanted by the great digitization project when I started to examine our practices at a Climate Teach-In. De-growth is the only thing that can make preservation at GLAM institution sustainable at this point – full stop. We absolutely cannot continue to collect and preserve unappraised or poorly-appraised digital material, both because our planet depends on it and because we are never going to have the staff to manage the content; we can’t be good stewards of it. We are likely to lose more of what we have now if we continue reactive digital collecting practices and building digital backlogs.

These are all thoughts from the past few years that I felt were validated at this year’s DLF Forum. I heard implications, not just in my own head, that perhaps we should slow down on creating new digital collections and consider diverting attention to born-digital preservation, curation, and appraisal. Over and over I heard people understanding the digital backlogs we’ve gotten ourselves into and what that could mean for long-term access. I really enjoyed Digital Double Bind: Exploring the impact of More Product, Less Process (MPLP) on digital collections, where more than one represented institution was halting digitization to figure out how to improve processes and ultimately access and usability. I also greatly enjoyed The Story Disrupted: Memory Institutions and Born Digital Collecting. Before I came to the session, I mustered up the courage to ask some questions about testing our assumptions that growing our digital collections is a goal…and to my delight, other people articulated my thoughts much better than I could have. It was one of the best open discussions that I’ve attended at a conference.

I heard one phrase in each of these sessions that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. The first is “stable material” in questioning what it might look like to prioritize work on “unstable” material (i.e., born-digital, AV, software, etc.) over “stable” (material for which preservation is well understood and well-executed). The second is “acceptable loss” when acknowledging that we will lose some of what we’ve collected due to climate change.

I was glad to see a much richer conversation on preservation this year, whether it’s due to a broader membership that includes more archivists, digital librarians having a stronger understanding of archives than ever before, or just a general trend in thought that I’m happy to finally see myself reflected in. I’ll give myself a little credit for building some community around these topics. For the past two years I have been co-coordinating the Born-Digital Access Group – thanks to Ashley Taylor for being my partner in crime 2017-2019 and then Alison Clements since August – which focuses on providing access to born-digital material, recognizing preservation as a necessary part of the process. And this year our group released our first two deliverables for comment through December 15 – a levels of access guidelines to help library, archive, and museum workers make decisions about modes of access; and a set of Access Values that will guide our work and our research interests moving forward.

I truly felt like I have been growing into and with the DLF community, and am so glad the DLF Forum Focus Fellows programs supported that growth this year!

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A monthly round-up of news, upcoming working group meetings and events, and CLIR program updates from the Digital Library Federation. See all past Digests here. 

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