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Changing Good, Better and Best Practices 2011/08/15

Posted by nydawg in Archives, Best Practices, Digital Archives, Education.
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One of the most pressing challenges Digital Archivists and Information Managers face in the Information Age is the discovery of “Best Practices.”  According to Richard Pearce-Moses’ invaluable “Glossary of Archival Terminology”, Best Practices were “Procedures and guidelines that are widely accepted because experience and research has demonstrated that they are optimal and efficient means to produce a desired result”.  But in the Information Age where technologies and technical standards are continually changing, formats are constantly improving and upgrading, and all kinds of functional and administrative variables are impacting our archives and collections, best practices plays a very important role in archivists’ daily lives. Since the future is unknown and, for the most part, unknowable, digital archivists need better “Best Practices” as we try to prepare yesterday’s and today’s collections for tomorrow’s and 2020 users.

In an age of bit rot, link rot, vendor and software lock-in, media and technological obsolescence, non-backwards compatibility, proprietary encryption and compression, algorithmic searches, data deluges, digital dilemmas and other variables, it’s important to keep in mind that today’s “Best Practices” may seem quaint and will likely be irrelevant in five years or fewer!

Here’s a few examples of recent attempts to describe “Best Practices” for Digital Archives and Collections and for Digitization.

University of Maryland. Best Practices Guidelines for Digital Collections, 2007.

NARA. Guidelines for Digitizing Archival Materials for Electronic Access, 2004.

NISO. A Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections” 2007.

So how has this changed in the last four years?! Well, for example, the announcement and release of the iPad has caused many organizations (including YouTube), to change their strategies and processes in order to encode in multiple digital video formats so iPad users can also access collections  (read: not Flash video).   This may seem to be limited ONLY to flash video, but a little research quickly reveals that some Digital Asset Management (DAM) databases (including Fedora) rely on Flash, and that many “records” originally created in MS PowerPoint have not yet been converted or captured in an open (non-proprietary) format.

In my opinion, one of the serious problems we face is our archival description systems and schemas (e.g. DublinCore, VRA) are inadequate for many essential (technical) fields which must be attached to assets with descriptive metadata (e.g. resolution, frame rate, color scheme, encryption, codecs, operating system, etc.).  Historically, Best Practices taught us to describe objects in a simplified way to streamline access for many stakeholders and researchers.  But when we use the same “Moving Images” term to describe video running the gamut from digital and analog video and different formats (16mm, 35mm, Super 8) of film, as well as DVD, VHS, CD-ROM, Quicktime, QT H.264, Flash video, RealMedia, Ogg Vorbis, and others, we run the risk of making our archives fully inaccessible to future users who may not have a way to access those old video formats in equipment not yet built.

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