Remote Transfers and Site Visits for Born-Digital Collections: Reflections from the Field

This post was authored by the following members of DLF’s Born Digital Access Working Group’s (BDAWG) Remote Transfers and Site Visits subgroup:

Annalise Berdini
Eddy Colloton
Steven Gentry
Elizabeth-Anne Johnson
Margo Padilla
Shira Peltzman
Darcy Pumphrey
Dana Reijerkerk
Sara Rogers
Laura Schroffel


Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has tremendously impacted all aspects of archival work. In response to the changes caused by this global catastrophe, members of the Digital Library Federation’s Born-Digital Access Working Group (BDAWG) Remote Site Visits and Transfers subgroup have spent the past year learning more about how archival workers have been using or exploring remote acquisition and site visit workflows.

After designing an initial set of discussion questions and recruiting participants via a survey, subgroup members conducted three moderated discussion sessions via Zoom between March 19 and March 25, 2021. A follow-up “Ask a Question” session was also held in early June 2021 for those who wanted to either continue conversations that had started in previous sessions or address novel topics. Ultimately, 28(1) archival workers from the United States and Canada joined these four sessions and discussed questions that focused on remote appraisal and acquisition workflows that participants had considered, implemented, and avoided, as well as participants’ expectations of their donors’ role in appraising and transferring archival material.

Following the conclusion of the “Ask a Question” event, members of the Remote Site Visits and Transfers subgroup reviewed each session’s transcript and identified several themes to report out to the broader community. This post discusses those themes in greater detail, which include:

  • The continued necessity of communication with all stakeholders (e.g., colleagues and donors).
  • Being flexible when working with donors to transfer material.
  • De-prioritizing strict adherence to best practices and instead focusing on donor-friendly efforts.
  • The issue of the scale of born-digital acquisitions.
  • Participants’ mixed feelings regarding pre-accessioning appraisal work.

Communication and Relationship Building for Transfers

Unsurprisingly, communication with donors and offices of transfer remained essential to the process of acquisition during the pandemic, if it did not become even more important due to restrictions around in-person work. Participants discussed transfers and reviewed records over Zoom, over the phone, over email, and often used a combination of all three in order to facilitate acquisitions. One theme that emerged across all of the guided discussion sessions was the need to walk donors through any donation and transfer documentation. Online forms, even those with good directions, were sometimes confusing for donors or difficult to use on mobile devices. However, for one participant, the shift to online forms “didn’t have the hurdles…[they] expected”, although they mentioned that forms with pre-filled buttons and dropdowns seemed more successful than those requiring written answers.

One participant identified the PAIMAS standard as helpful in determining how to engage with donors on email exports: normally, they would sit with a donor in person and bring a USB drive, but the pandemic gave them an opportunity to test out new workflows where they would instruct the donor over Zoom and phone on the technical steps required to transfer content. Because the pandemic provided an opportunity to establish future remote transfer workflows, they now have better information on how to facilitate good communication during a remote transfer. The participant was pleased that they could now confidently facilitate international transfers, for example.

An important lesson about communication that arose during the sessions involved the templates we sometimes create to guide donor discussions. One participant created an initial template based on a test transfer early in the pandemic, but the donor they tested it with was versed enough in technology to understand questions about file formats and operating systems. Going into another donor discussion with that same template, the participant found that they had to make changes on the fly—to move on from specific questions about file formats because the donor was struggling and ask about general software instead. This experience led them to adjust their discussion template workflow by saving multiple versions for different donor situations. Knowing how to adjust communication styles with different donors has led to better success for many of the practitioners we spoke to—especially without having the fallback of being able to look through content before transfer.

Across all of our discussions, the concepts of “the path of least resistance” and “getting through the day” were common. Despite wanting to acquire and transfer born-digital records according to the highest standards, for our participants, the reality was that this was usually not possible or even not preferable. For many of them, donor experience and donor relationships were more important than spending time trying to get a donor to download, install, and use a tool like Bagger in order to preserve the material’s technical metadata. As one participant noted, “born-digital material requires so much extra work on behalf of the donor anyway…making the transfer step as simple as possible seems like a good way to go.” Many participants have been especially successful with remote donations coming from existing cloud storage accounts, feeling that transfers through cloud-based services like Dropbox or Google Drive were good enough and that they did not have the time, resources, or a suitably tech-savvy donor base to try a transfer method beyond tools already known by most donors.

Relationship building to facilitate transfers was not only important in regards to donors. For some of our participants, it was as important, if not more so, to build strong relationships with institutional information technology (IT) departments. IT partners can be key to creating new workflows, including those for remote transfers. One participant mentioned that due to institutional firewalls, they have to go through their IT department to acquire materials through Google Drive. Another participant also ran into issues establishing a Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) connection due to a firewall and were unable to get it to work even with IT assistance. Having communication channels in place and existing relationships with IT colleagues makes having these crucial conversations easier.

Donor Experience

We found that many participants in our sessions were concerned about the variations in experience with born-digital material among donors, acquiring archivists, digital archivists, and other archival staff. Planning the acquisition of born-digital material that meets the needs of these parties as well as the policy needs of one’s institution is complex and requires differing approaches from donor to donor. Actions like filling out forms or signing a deed of gift may need to happen electronically or on paper depending on the donor’s level of expertise and comfort with digital material and tools.

During our sessions, archives workers mentioned a variety of tools they used with donors, depending on the donors’ expertise. Google Drive and Dropbox seemed to be the most common transfer solutions, with external drives often utilized for larger transfers. Some other methods used by participants were using Zoom’s remote desktop capability to explore a donor’s computer and ready files for transfer, getting donors to use SFTP to transfer material, or simply sending a donor an empty hard drive and asking them to transfer their material onto it.

We also discussed the amount of preparatory work different archives ask donors to do with their digital material. As mentioned above, having conversations about the material before the acquisition process even begins can be helpful in getting a sense of the material’s needs and the donor’s comfort level. Developing a standard series of questions about file formats, operating systems, and physical media (among other topics) that are routinely asked of donors may be useful, though as discussed above, even this level of discussion may be beyond some donors. Some institutions ask donors to zip their donation or package their files in the BagIt standard using a tool like Exactly. Some assist donors with creating a cogent file structure and do some arranging on the donor’s computer before a transfer takes place, or ask donors to do some of this work. The practicability of all these options depends on the donor’s time, willingness, and capacity to assist in the transfer of their material in this way, and on whether someone in the archives has the ability to provide technical support to the donor when needed.

Doing this work also requires a level of expertise with digital tools from both the acquiring archivist who is in principal contact with the donor as well as from the digital archivist (in the case that these are different people). In some institutions, the acquiring archivists far outnumber the digital archivists, making knowledge transfer about born-digital archival material a challenge. Our respondents recommended that communication begin between acquiring archivists and digital preservation staff as early in the acquisition process as possible so that the maximum amount of knowledge transfer and education between the two parties can happen. As more and more donations come to the archives via electronic means and the process becomes more routine, these conversations will change, but it is important to share information about the tools used for electronic records transfer and the workflows involved in the transfers themselves.

Finally, we found that acquiring born-digital material by any means necessary is better than not preserving this material due to rigid expectations about the donor’s expertise. As discussed above, the “path of least resistance” and similar concepts were mentioned frequently in the sessions we held. When planning and executing the acquisition of born-digital material, archivists need to be flexible in the information and preparatory work they ask for, and play to the capabilities of their donors. Often this flexibility means that reinventing the acquisition wheel is unnecessary. Accepting born-digital content on physical media remains a safe, familiar, and reliable practice for many of the discussants. One participant indicated a policy threshold where an acquisition would be considered too large to be completed as a digital transfer. Indeed, most practitioners felt physical media was better suited for larger scale acquisitions, due to the security of the medium and the ability to assert control over the content.

Issues with Scale

Many participants expressed concerns with implementing standard and/or consistent workflows when the quantity of incoming materials ranged from a few assets to hundreds and more. Currently, many institutions still purchase or loan out external hard drives to donors for transfers. Digital transfers were desired by many, but few institutions actually acquired materials in this way. Many said that they wanted a way to streamline the transfer process for large batches of files, ideally with cloud-based transferring or through SFTP. One participant stated that they download file copying software on the donor’s computer, while another installed similar software on the external hard drive they lent out to donors.

Place of Appraisal

Participants’ responses to our questions about appraisal centered on several prominent themes. With regard to how they performed appraisal, some participants talked about using Zoom’s screen sharing and remote desktop tools to complete this work. One participant—who works heavily with audiovisual material typically received via hard drive—emphasized that “screen sharing allows for better appraisal of those hard drives before we actually get them,” highlighting the value of this tactic. Some participants commented on the need for strong relationships to facilitate appraisal, particularly with their curation colleagues, although challenges (e.g., a lack of time) were also noted. These examples point to some participants’ belief in the value of appraisal prior to accessioning material, even during these challenging times.

However, appraisal was also described by some participants in a more neutral or even strained tone. For example, one participant noted that appraising material alongside donors could be challenging because their donors typically transferred removable media to the archives once said media could no longer be easily read. Others expressed frustration or fatigue with appraisal in general, with one participant emphasizing that “electronic appraisal is…just absolutely overwhelming” and that “it’s easier for us right now to just take it all in…and reject things after the fact…[rather than]…build a proper robust archival quality appraisal on the front end.” This sentiment, which was echoed by other participants (e.g., one participant’s comment that “it’s almost easier…to take the files…and then do appraisal”) suggests that additional work can be done to make appraisal workflows more palatable, especially in light of scale-related issues (noted above).

Conclusion

Many themes and discussions referenced in this post will be familiar to readers. It is not exactly a new conversation that archivists are struggling to find ways to work with limited resources, limited staff, limited time, and donors unfamiliar with best practice technologies, and of course these issues affect the way we transfer and review materials while working remotely. We were hoping to start a conversation about how practitioners were meeting these challenges, and we are gratified to have helped spark some of those conversations. As many attendees noted, it was helpful simply to hold the space to have a dedicated discussion about remote transfers—to hear about common problems and learn alternative solutions from their peers. It was particularly inspiring to see attendees across all of the sessions share their resources with each other to try to address these common problems. Also important to many was simply knowing that others were going through the same challenges and that most of us are approaching them the same ways. There was a broad expectation that the COVID-19 pandemic would force practitioners into a fully digital future, but in reality it brought to light a scale of capacity where digital transfer became one tool among many.

We would like to see more research into this area and hope to hold a wider, more formal survey on the topic of transfers in the future.

(1) This number does not include DLF BDAWG subgroup members who actively participated in these sessions.

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