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Shaping our collective future

Demystifying Born Digital

Ricky Erway /

Special collections and archives play a key role in the future of research libraries–providing rich content that supports research, teaching and community engagement. However, institutions face significant challenges when working to capitalize on this value. To help address these concerns, OCLC Research conducted two surveys of special collections and archives over the past few years—one in the U.S. and the other in the U.K. and Ireland—in which over 80 percent of respondents indicate the need for education or training regarding born-digital materials.

Jackie Dooley, the principal author of the two resulting reports, concludes that “born digital” is:

Undercollected | Undercounted | Undermanaged | Unpreserved | Inaccessible

In response to this conclusion, OCLC Research launched an activity called “Demystifying Born Digital.” The intent of the project is to encourage the effective management of born-digital materials by distilling the best information available into a form that would be less daunting to those just getting started. The intended audience is those with little archival experience, technology support or guidance.

The first task was to address the meaning of “born digital.” OCLC Research published the essay “Defining ‘Born Digital,’” which delineates nine types of born-digital content and identifies some of the risks and issues involved in their care. For complete details, see the “Defining ‘Born Digital’” essay.

Next, an advisory group of experts was assembled that consists of some of the most experienced voices in the field—professionals who have written extensively on the various aspects of managing born-digital content. These experts were challenged to help OCLC researchers distill their collective knowledge into the very basics needed to get started.

OCLC Research is publishing this information in a series of short reports.

The first report, You’ve Got to Walk Before You Can Run: First Steps for Managing Born-Digital Content Received on Physical Media, tackles the first two steps in establishing control over born-digital materials: conduct a physical inventory and transfer the content from media that you can read in-house. For each, a few clearly stated steps were provided.

The phrase “media you can read in-house” begs the question, “What about the media you can’t read?” The second report, Swatting the Long Tail of Digital Media: A Call for Collaboration, addresses that topic. Not every library or archive can gear up to read each medium. The report encourages outsourcing those you can’t read to entities that can, whether that be other archives, a computer history museum or a commercial service provider.

While there was a good response to these early documents, a boost came when the Manuscript Repository Section of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) launched the “Jump In” Initiative. This initiative issued a challenge for archivists who hadn’t yet started to deal with born-digital content on physical media in their collections to start by conducting the inventory recommended in our First Steps report. Thirty-four institutions stepped up to the challenge and 23 completed it. A wide-ranging discussion about the experience took place at the SAA annual meeting in August.

“It is encouraging that a community is forming that is willing to talk about the challenges and share tools, successes and lessons learned about managing born-digital materials.”

It is encouraging that a community is forming that is willing to talk about the challenges and share tools, successes and lessons learned about managing born-digital materials. This community is clear about its needs for more guidance. Our team has received pleas from the “Jump In” participants and from other early implementers for additional details, which resulted in the report, Walk This Way: Detailed Steps for Transferring Born-Digital Content from Media You Can Read In-house, which was co-authored by my colleague, OCLC Research Diversity Fellow Julianna Barrera-Gomez. This report provides more in-depth guidance on approaches, tools and other resources for completing this part of the process.

The OCLC Research team has also heard a lot of ideas for future reports, including how to handle born-digital content that doesn’t arrive on physical media (such as email files or documents on networked storage). There are a few more reports planned to help in prioritizing, processing and preserving—and we’re eager to hear more about what additional information the community wants. While completing each phase of this project may seem like a milestone, it is actually just a stepping stone that moves us down the path toward providing access to born-digital materials, which is really the whole point.

Get access to all of the “Demystifying Born Digital” reports on the OCLC Research website. You can find out more about the background of this important project, read related reports and share your thoughts with us.

“Demystifying Born Digital” Advisors

  • Nancy Enneking, Head of Institutional Records and Archives, Getty Research Institute
  • Riccardo Ferrante, Director, Digital Services, Smithsonian Institution Archives
  • Ben Goldman, Digital Records Archivist, Pennsylvania State University
  • Gretchen Gueguen, Digital Archivist, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia
  • Matthew Kirschenbaum, Associate Director, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), University of Maryland
  • Christopher (Cal) Lee, Associate Professor, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Veronica Martzahl, Electronic Records Archivist, Massachusetts State Archives
  • Matthew McKinley, Digital Project Specialist, University of California, Irvine
  • Naomi L. Nelson, Director, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University
  • Erin O’Meara, Archivist, Gates Archive
  • Chris Prom, Assistant University Archivist, University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign
  • Gabriela Redwine, Digital Archivist, Beinecke Library, Yale University
  • Seth Shaw, Assistant Professor, Clayton State University
  • Rob Spindler, University Archivist and Head, Archives and Special Collections, Arizona State University Libraries
  • Susan Thomas, Digital Archivist and Project Manager, Bodleian Library, Oxford University
  • Dave Thompson, Digital Curator, Wellcome Library
  • Jennifer Waxman, Senior Manager for Preservation & Access, Center for Jewish History

About the Author

  • Ricky Erway

    Ricky Erway

    Ricky is a Senior Program Officer in OCLC Research. She works on topics related to digitization and is also involved in the Research Information Management program, guiding several working groups as they investigate how academic libraries can better serve their institutions' research missions.