{Lets get digital}, talking about NDSR NY Symposium

Last Thursday, I attended {Let’s Get Digital}, a symposium hosted by the National Digital Stewardship Residence program (New York) for Preservation Week. (And thanks, also, to Brooklyn Historical Society for hosting and Archives Round Table of Metropolitan New York (A.R.T.) for sponsoring!

The symposium opened with an overview of the NDSR program by 2014-15 resident, Vicky Steeves (resident at American Museum of National History, now working at NYU Libraries). It was great to hear how not only are the residents getting an incredible amount of experience and opportunities to grow within the organization and within the field (and given support to attend/speak at conferences, integral to the success of an emerging professional) but ALSO how much the digital preservation field is benefiting from the work being done by the residents (again, within the organization but also reaching far beyond just their individual organizations, an overall positive ripple effect throughout the whole field). Thanks, Vicky!

Carmel Curtis, resident at Brooklyn Academy of Music, discussed her learnings during her residency. Her residency’s primary project involved setting up a digital preservation policy for record retention. How long do you keep things? What do you keep? When can you throw something out? This is easier to comprehend when dealing with physical materials, but digital materials need a structure in place, too.

She had ten tips (and ten Clueless gifs):

  1. Work with IT
  2. Talk to as many staff as possible.
  3. Don’t shame people while investigating how they work
  4. Plan how you will record/transcribe (or if you will)
  5. Pick a format
  6. Base policies and standards off of the language of the staff
  7. Determine time
  8. Get legal advice (if you can)
  9. Limit who can transfer data to the archive per department (or however)
  10. Make note of the information stored in the databases or in other systems.

Genevieve Havemeyer-King also spoke on her experience as NDSR at Wildlife Conservation Society and setting up a digital preservation policy for the institution. She mapped the NDSA level of preservation to their functional requirements and developed a checklist. Matching all of the requirements together helped them come up with an ideal system for managing their assets now and into the future. Different organizations will have different needs, which is why doing this work is so important (and taking the care to do it right).

Rachel Mattson, Manager of Special Projects at La MaMa Archives, and Poorna Swami, Development Associate at La MaMa, held a workshop-discussion to talk about diverse ways of getting funding for your organization. Especially helpful was revealing what parts of their grant proposals received criticism from the grant reviewers — being vulnerable and open about successes and failures can help the field overall. I think a lot of times it depends on the batch of grant-reviewers you receive. Rachel said they were rejected for not paying a high enough wage, but I’ve also seen grants get rejected for having too-high salaries (when they were not very high at all). This is me speaking, not a recap of the talk, but more transparency would go a long way in helping grant authors know their audience and know what kind of projects to pitch. Something frustrating about grants is that they all have different rules/policies/reviewers and it’s unclear, even if you know what has been funded in the past, to know if your project is a good match.

One of Rachel’s points was to take a holistic approach to funding — there are grants, but there are also individual donors (small and large) that can help fund projects. Find people who care about the work of the organization (and have money to donate) and grow a donor base through them. Having also worked (for a little while) in development (the money kind), I thought about the importance of “friend raising” — start the conversation early on with philanthropists, ask to be introduced to their friends, hold events that really show off the importance of the work being done by your organization so they will want to support it.

A major resource pointed out by Poorna was Foundation Center, which lists people who have funded specific organizations. It is a paid platform, but access is free at their office or any of NYPL’s research or branch libraries.

There was some good discussion and a question about dealing with accounting, which I think brings up another important part of writing to win grants — what happens if you do win the grant? It’s important when writing and when thinking ahead to your organization’s annual budget that there is a lot of work that goes into dealing with having the grant that may not be written into the grant, even if your grant is a cost-share with your organization. In my experience, there are a lot of reports. There’s a lot of weird things that happen that were not planned. And sometimes people leave or other issues come up that complicate the original plan, so it’s important to know how to be agile and work around issues that will come up during the funding time.

Mary Kidd, NDSR for New York Public Radio, gave a talk on working with one of my most nostalgia-inducing formats, the MiniDisc. The talk was about how they are a preservation nightmare, but they are a warning to whats coming with regards to the kind of proprietary software we deal with now (like smartphones) and how access to data can be made difficult through “software firewalls” in addition to the technical, hardware problems that already come up. Mary was only able to access data on NYPR’s MiniDiscs because open source software built to solve the problem had been developed in the early 2000s.

This software was made because Linux users wanted to be able to access their MiniDiscs, which were only compatible with Windows machines. I think it’s important to think about how this open source software was made not with preservation in mind, but because of the problem with access when the software was still actively being developed and purposefully being restricted to one operating system instead of using open protocols.

After this talk, Carnegie Hall’s Kathryn Gronsbell (with support from Genevieve Havemeyer-King) held a workshop on using BagIt. First she talked about what this tool did and then explained why it’s useful to use this tool even though the tool’s actions are overall very simple (creates a folder, creates checksums). One major point was “Why would you do it yourself when you can automate it?” BagIt can fit into automated workflows so institutions don’t have to spend people-hours manually creating these organized structures before putting them into long-term preservation storage. I didn’t personally make a bag during the workshop (been there, done that) but it was still fun watching Kathryn make bags and sprinkle in some command-line tips on the fly when files weren’t opening.

So many great talks! But onward…

Next was a panel all about web archiving. I was getting a little fatigued during this marathon of information at this time, but was cool to hear about Archive-It and WebRecorder, think about how they are similar/different and can be used in different ways, NYARC documentation on web archiving, and Rebecca Guenther speak on how standards for web archiving were developed. WebRecorder is a real game-changer for the field and look forward to seeing its continued development (and very happy about their recent grant for a couple more years of development). Thanks Morgan McKeehan (NDSR at Rhizome) for giving a WebRecorder demo and linking us to some great web-archiving tools

The final talk of the day and most anticipated talk (for me, not just because it was the last talk) was Dinah Handel talking about open source software for audiovisual preservation! My favorite thing, as obvious by my resume and how I spend my free time. Dinah is an NDSR at CUNY TV, a broadcast production archive. Dinah truly had to speed-read through her talk and it was difficult at times for even me to keep up, someone who already knows about this stuff. But she provided a link to a transcription of her talk text so we can all review it later. Yay!

What I find so great about Dinah’s talk is that she makes it clear that she didn’t have experience in this at the beginning of her residency, and that any person with the will to do so can also learn how to do the things that she is doing — things that seem “too hard” or “too complicated” or “too technical.” Having similar experience, I feel similarly and fight really hard to break down these stereotypes but they linger on.

Her first tip was that she started to learn how to write scripts by reading scripts written by others. This is a great way to learn how to do things! Just try it out until it works. I’ve heard a friend of mine say “Lines of code are free.” Compiling is also free. It doesn’t cost you anything to just keep trying.

Dinah also went through a script she (presumably?) wrote one line at a time. This is my favorite way to learn new things and similar to Saron Yitbarek’s “Code Club” strategy. Trying to explain the complexities of audiovisual files and issues with archiving is such a challenge, and hard to do with limited time, but so glad it can be done in such a kind and friendly way.

And that was the event! I enjoyed hearing about the work and progress from each NDSR, a sort of mini-thesis-defense for the program, as they are all wrapping up their fellowships next month. I hope this program continues to receive funding and support, and I hope the future batches consider doing symposiums as well!

Resource for the talks are available on Github: https://github.com/dinahhandel/NDSRNY2016_Symposium