Wednesday, March 25, 2015

RAO Hot Topics Blog Series: Exploring Solutions to Providing Access to Born Digital Materials

By: Mary Manning, University of Houston, SAA RAO Section Past Chair

While great attention has been placed on best practices (although somewhat nascent) established for accessioning, processing, and preserving electronic materials, it seems that comparatively very little attention is given to how we provide access to these materials. Solutions for access to born digital materials lag behind. Yet these resources are preserved and processed precisely so they can be used by researchers, just like their analog counterparts.

What are our colleagues doing to provide access to born digital materials? What are the largest barriers to providing access? Are best practices for born-digital access taking shape yet? If so, what are these best practices? Is there a roadmap that archivists can follow to guide them to their desired destination of providing access to these valuable resources?
There are two groups that I know of who are working hard to answer these questions. The first is a research study while the second is an RAO working group.
A research study being conducted by the research team of Rachel Appel (Bryn Mawr College), Alison Clemens (Yale University), Wendy Hagenmaier ( Georgia Institute of Technology), and Jessica Meyerson (University of Texas at Austin) comprise the first group. These archivists note that archivists “lack empirical data that might empower those working with born-digital materials to map the landscape of born-digital access efforts and to work together to design future access solutions.” They hope to begin to help fill that gap by documenting existing trends, challenges, and forward strides in providing access to born-digital materials—in terms of both policy and practice.
Through a mixed-methods study (a survey conducted in fall 2014 and semi-structured interviews conducted in spring 2015), they aim to gather data and uncover insights about what types of institutions and professionals are working to provide access—and where, when, and how. They hope to highlight not just what those institutions and professionals have accomplished already or what they're tackling right now. Their study also “endeavors to capture the landscape they envision for access in the future.”
Anonymized data from the study will be made available to the profession, along with analysis of current trends and possibilities for further research. During a session at the 2015 SAA Annual Meeting, the research team will share a brief analysis of the findings and facilitate a hands-on hackfest to begin designing achievable best practice models for access. SESSION 110, Born-digital Access Hackfest: Collaborative Solution-Building for Current Challenges, is scheduled for 8/20/2015, 11:00:00 AM to 12:00:00 PM, and the research team hopes to see you there. I know I will be there.
The second group working to answer the questions is the Access to Electronic Records Working Group, which is co-chaired by Rachael Dreyer and Amy Schindler. Greg Kocken is the leader of the initial research subgroup, Alexis Adkins and Jarrett Drake are the leaders of the bibliography subgroup, and Stacey Lavender is the leader of the survey subgroup. The RAO Steering Committee approved the formation of the working group in June 2014, with the charge to investigate and share current best practices for providing access to electronic records.
The initial research subgroup went to work immediately as the work of the other bibliography and survey groups depends heavily on the initial research group’s findings. Members investigated current best practices, current strategies/technologies, and challenges. The subgroup’s work included surveying the professional literature from 2002 to 2014 from the U.S., Great Britain, and Australia to identify current technologies in use to provide access to electronic records.
The bibliography subgroup is working on an annotated bibliography and has been considering where and how to present the bibliography online, access points, the audience, scope, and other questions. The subgroup has already found that with the limited resources addressing access specifically, their work will dig into related works and broader topics to compile the parts related to access.
Additional information about the Access to Electronic Records Working Group’s efforts is available at
As the research study group noted, to date, we, as a profession “lack empirical data to empower those working with born-digital materials to map the landscape of born-digital access efforts and to work together to design future access solutions.” However, this research study group and the RAO working group are making great strides mapping out that landscape, by gathering, analyzing, and making available information to the rest of us looking for solutions for providing access to born digital materials.

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