Libraries Wrestle With Question of Preserving, Accessing 'Born-Digital' Collections

May 27, 2011 — Libraries like the University of Virginia's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library house the papers and manuscripts of famous authors and historians. But what happens when such individuals donate hard drives and diskettes instead of physical papers?

Both software and hardware are changing at unprecedented rates. As floppy disks and operating systems become obsolete, librarians are left to wonder: "How will we access this stuff?  And how will we preserve it for future generations?"

U.Va. received an $870,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in October 2009 to explore new ways to preserve what librarians are calling "born-digital materials." Formally called "Born Digital Collections: An Inter-Institutional Model for Stewardship," the grant is a collaboration between U.Va., Stanford, Yale, and the University of Hull in the United Kingdom.

Bradley Daigle, director of digital curation services for the U.Va. Library, said that this problem is especially challenging "because there is no way for any one person to have mastery."

As part of the grant, the U.Va Library sponsored an "unconference," a loosely organized meeting of the minds, May 13-14 at the Omni Hotel on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall. Here, Daigle said that the library brought together 25 men and women from the U.S., Great Britain and Canada to brainstorm ideas and share their most up-to-date research on preserving born-digital materials.

The conference focused on four main areas: policy, outreach, and tool and curriculum development. The latter is especially important, Daigle said, so that libraries can teach students and future scholars how to navigate born-digital materials.

Computer technicians, he explained, are generally "software people" or "hardware people," meaning that while one person may know how to rebuild a computer from 1990, that same person probably doesn’t know how to navigate the software used on that computer.

The field of digital preservation is organized into three groups, Daigle explained. Curators go out and talk to authors and poets, encouraging them to save drafts of their work instead of constantly saving and overwriting their work. This way, scholars can track changes in the manuscripts, and see the creative process at work.

Digital archivists "bring in the work and try to manage it," he explained. Scholars are interested in more than just the finished product, of course; digital archivists must also find ways to archive emails and other unconventional documents.

Finally, the last group of workers "must make sure that the content is available to scholars in the future." It is imperative that digital materials be usable in the future, as technology continues to grow and morph.

One of the possible solutions, Daigle said, is to create a computer within a computer. He said that technology specialists are working to find ways to recreate the exact content of an author's computer within another larger, library computer. In the future, he said, computer scientists may be able to "recreate the entire scholarly environment," by determining what windows and documents an author had open during the writing process, or even what song he or she was listening to on iTunes.

The nature of this work requires born-digital preservation to be a very collaborative process. At the U.Va. Library, for instance, Daigle said that librarians and scholars work closely with information technology specialists to make sure all of the library's goals are met.

Martha Sites, associate university librarian for technology and the deputy university librarian, said born-digital materials are still only a small percentage of the University's overall holdings, though they have been trickling in since the 1990s. "We've only just started collecting in this area over the past couple years, so the percentage is very small," she said.

U.Va.'s AIMS grant from the Mellon Foundation will come to a close in September, but the work in digital preservation is hardly over.

"We are wrapping up, but the need is ongoing," Daigle said. Though the grant will expire, the U.Va Library hopes to continue to be a pioneer in the digital age.

"Libraries must change and grow to meet this need," Daigle said.

— By Samantha Koon

Media Contact

Rebecca P. Arrington

Assistant Director of Media Relations Office of University Communications