Electronic Records Panel with Abby Adams, Jarrett Drake, and Laurie Rizzo

Contributed by Annalise Berdini

DVAG’s April 1st meeting at The Chemical Heritage Foundation took the form of an electronic records roundtable discussion. Thanks to panelists Abby Adams, Jarrett Drake, and Laurie Rizzo for answering participants’ questions about accessioning, preserving, and processing e-records. Also thanks to Christiana Dobryznski Grippe for moderating the discussion.

What are the basics needed to manage electronic records? The panelists immediately mentioned a cooperative and resourceful IT department, or at least a dedicated and knowledgeable archivist. Abby Adams, Digital Archivist at Hagley Museum and Library, explained that Hagley does not have in-house IT support, but that their IT company comes in weekly to check on the systems.

The panelists also agreed that it is important to implement retention policies and keep up with documentation throughout the life cycle of electronic records. Jarrett Drake, Digital Archivist at Princeton University, said working with records managers is helpful, as is multi-year planning and dedicated staff. Panelists agreed that high staff turnover can slow project and policy development. Finally, a sound storage system and data migration capabilities are crucial to managing electronic records.

Is handling electronic records a job better suited to a records manager? The panelists acknowledged that working with the records management department is helpful, but they all agreed that archivists are equipped for the task. The conversation then steered towards managing electronic records from other institutions, especially corporate records with long, though not permanent, life spans. The panelists stated that migration and preservation of these records can be messy if the archives is preserving them from a non-custodial position.

Does the accessioning workflow differ greatly from traditional paper record accessioning? Jarrett Drake said that at Princeton it is very similar, with just a few differences: a disk image is created of everything received, a directory print is created (large summary files), and backups are validated and created. At Hagley, Preservica is used to store e-records, and at Princeton, they are signing on as a partner with Hydra, although currently, Princeton’s generic file storage system is used. No matter what the storage system, the panel stressed that when making decisions, it is important that archivists can get the data out, if needed, that data is backed up, and that the archivists maintain control over content. Additionally, integrity checks and ensuring that the data that comes out of the system is the same as the data that went in is crucial.

How archivists can prepare for access and what can be done with obsolete formats in a collection? The panel agreed that migration and reformatting are the best options for preserving at-risk file formats and maintaining records for access. Laurie Rizzo brought up the point that this is similar with analog moving image files, which must be migrated to digital formats. While this is not always perfect, it is the best answer available to archivists who do not want to lose access to those records. Tools to break up file formats and identify those at risk are helpful for prioritizing migration decisions. Disk images were mentioned as an excellent access copy, as they cannot be altered, although they may present storage issues in terms of space (a 500 GB hard drive with 30 GB of data would still take up 500 GB of space).

Laurie Rizzo brought up the important misconception that just because a record is born digital, many expect that it will be available online. This stressed the importance of having access-only files that do not allow the users to modify data, especially since even transferring certain types of files alters the metadata. Disk images will always have correct information, making them useful for the finding aid and during processing.

And what about processing? Jarrett Drake explained that time spent on processing is very fluid and will be different for every collection, since it depends on file types, size of the data, and number of files in the accession. Creator embedded metadata makes processing easier and faster. Abby Adams explained that the level of processing will of course change the time expected, for example, MPLP could even just mean processing at the directory level. Just as with paper records, time invested in processing will depend on the use expected and level of processing necessary for each collection.

Clearly, this panel was full of rich and valuable information for archivists looking for answers to questions about electronic records, and really, we only scratched the surface. Big thanks to The Chemical Heritage Foundation for hosting the event.

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