Art & Media - Born Digital Archive scenario
Acquisition of a born-digital archive collection
Tate Archive acquires material on British art from 1900. Our aim is to document the British art world in a broad sense, and we collect material relating to artists as well as other art world figures and institutions such as critics, curators and galleries. The Archive contains a wide range of different types of material, including correspondence, writings, diaries, notebooks, and sketchbooks. Increasingly the Archive is beginning to receive this type of material in digital form - for example, written material may now arrive as word processor files rather than typewritten or manuscript documents.
Image: A laptop acquired by Tate Archive as part of the papers of the critic David Sylvester (ref: TGA 200816)
The Archive has established workflows for acquiring and managing non-digital material, based both on the requirements of Tate and on professional archival practice. However, existing workflows do not cater for all of the specific needs of digital material. While the Archive is guided by the same processes when acquiring and managing digital material as with non-digital material, the characteristics of digital material mean that the Archive requires new methods of working and new tools. The scenario developed by staff at Tate provided an opportunity to explore these issues by outlining a possible workflow for the the acquisition of born-digital material by Tate Archive.
The scenario began by looking at the first discussions between the archivist and a potential donor of material. This is familiar territory for archivists, who are used to meeting donors and discussing any material that they may own. As well as considering the suitability of material for the Archive, archivists also have an advisory role and often provide basic advice on the care of archival material before it comes to the Archive. The need for such advice is perhaps more urgent when it comes to digital material, as the short lifespans of digital storage media (as well as issues of software and hardware obsolescence) mean that digital material cannot survive for as long as non-digital material without some form of intervention.
Assuming a donor wishes to offer material to the Archive formally, an archivist then needs to conduct an assessment of the suitability of the material. This assessment is used by Tate’s acquisition committees to make a decision on whether the material should be accepted. This decision is based not only on the content of the material and how well it falls within the Archive’s collecting remit, but also on any costs associated with the acquisition. Costs include storage, conservation work, and cataloguing time. This process is the same for digital and non-digital material, but the specifics vary. Archivists will need ways of assessing the content of digital material, as well as estimating costs for its storage and management over time.
Once material has been accepted for acquisition into the Archive, the archivist needs to come to a formal agreement with the donor for the transfer of the material. This agreement needs not only to define what material is to be transferred, but also to set out any special conditions for how it is to be managed. The nature of digital material raises a few issues that do not have an exact parallel with non-digital material. For example, it may prove possible to recover deleted files from the material given to the archive, which raises ethical issues for an archivist. An agreement should be reached with the donor on how these should be treated.
Following the transfer of the material to the Archive it needs to be processed for storage and prepared for cataloguing. For non-digital material, this process has often included such actions as quarantine, re-packaging, and an assessment of cataloguing needs. The same process applies to digital material, but the details will differ. For example, quarantine will now involve a virus check, and re-packaging will mean moving from the original storage media to secure storage. Planning for the long term preservation of digital material will also require information on the composition of a digital archive that has no exact equivalent in the management of non-digital material. For example, archivists will need information on file formats, operating systems, file sizes and fixity information. As well as preservation planning, this information will also be used during cataloguing, which is the final stage of the scenario.
The scenario remains a work in progress, and is being used by the project to explore a number of issues surrounding the preservation and use of digital objects in an archival context. It provides an example of a user community with specific needs, and will help to formulate and test the models being developed as part of the project. It may also provide a context within which the tools being developed, such as the Pericles Extraction Tool (https://github.com/pericles-project/pet), can be evaluated.
John Langdon, TATE - Archive Curator (email@example.com)