Demystifying Born Digital

OCLC Research Library Partnership

This project focuses on enhancing the effective management of born-digital materials as they intersect with special collections and archives practices in research libraries.

Building on Ricky Erway's essay, Defining "Born Digital" (.pdf: 35.1K/4 pp.), the outcomes of this project will be a series of brief reports on the following issues:

  1. Technical baby steps for those who have acquired born-digital materials on physical media but haven't yet begun dealing with them due to lack of expertise, time, fear, money, etc. This is intended to help curators start getting materials under control without doing any harm to the originals.
  2. A call for a network of hubs to enable cost-effective outsourcing of the transfer of various types of physical media, particularly obsolete formats. We seek to reduce the need for everyone to figure everything out on their own, and instead set up a network of expert sites that have the necessary equipment and experience.
  3. A fleshing out of tools and resources to help with basics of transferring content from media to a more manageable form.
  4. The skills and experience that archivists bring to the management of any type of born-digital content that might find its way into a research library, whether or not it would be considered "archives" or "special collections." This will make sure that archival approaches are neither ignored nor reinvented but rather are applied and adapted by non-archivists when managing born-digital content.
  5. Working with donors of born-digital materials. This will help archivists et al. do as much as possible up front to ensure that rights, restrictions, and technical issues are addressed prior to acquisition.
  6. Closely related to the skills and experience piece, thoughts on the relationship between "born-digital" and "special collections." Impetus for this is the general confusion about which born-digital contents "belong in" special collections.
  7. A relatively short annotated list of the best resources, guidelines, and software for managing born-digital collections.






As revealed by the Survey on Special Collections and Archives project (published as Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives (.pdf: 1.5MB/153 pp.)), management of born-digital materials in academic and research libraries remains in its infancy. Among the indicators: one-third of survey respondents cite it as one of their three greatest special collections challenges, less than half have assigned responsibility for this activity to an organizational unit, only a third of those who have collected any material know how much they have, and born-digital management is the number one area in which education and training are needed.

Half of the gigabytes of material reported are held by only two responding institutions; more than 90% is held by thirteen. At the same time, 80% have collected at least one born-digital format in special collections. It is plausible to surmise that much collecting is ad-hoc and reactive. The most commonly-stated impediment to born-digital management was lack of funding, despite the fact that we know very little about the relevant costs. Lack of expertise was the second most common impediment.

Polar-opposite opinions can be heard across the research library spectrum regarding the intersections between "special collections" and "born digital": some believe that born digital is entirely the responsibility of special collections, others that there is no role whatsoever for special collections. A nuanced approach is necessary.


The goal of this activity is to characterize the skills and expertise that archivists and special collections librarians bring to the table in the born-digital context, establish the relevance of those skills with regard to particular types of born-digital material, and provide a very basic roadmap for beginning to implement management of born-digital archival materials. Research libraries will thereby begin to gain the confidence necessary for taking initial steps to launch a born-digital management program that can be scaled up over time.

Early evidence of impact is the success of the SAA Jump In Initiative, which was inspired by the report, You’ve Got to Walk Before You Can Run: First Steps for Managing Born-Digital Content Received on Physical Media. Twenty-three archives completed an inventory of the physical media containing born-digital content in their collections.  This is an important step in getting started to responsibly manage these materials. To learn more, see our First Steps for Managing Born-Digital Content Report Inspires SAA Jump In Initiative news announcement and read Ricky Erway's post, Jumping In to Born Digital.


The essay, Defining "Born Digital" (.pdf: 35.1KB/4 pp.) addresses aspects of this in presenting a brief taxonomy of types of material ranging from data sets and Web sites to digital manuscripts and photographs, among others. Building on this work, we will explore the array of skills and expertise held by special collections librarians and archivists that are crucial to effective management of born-digital materials and how those skills pertain to the various types of digital material.

Further, the scope of publications and research relating to born-digital archival materials (generally referred to in the archival literature as "electronic records") is vast, but most work focuses on very specific problems and solutions, many of them dauntingly complex. Sophisticated understanding of requirements and implementations exist in far more governmental and corporate archives than in academic institutions; the latter must quickly play catch-up. No simple roadmap exists to help special collections and archives in research libraries take the first steps to implement born-digital management: we will provide one.

OCLC Research staff will work with an informal group of advisors, each of whom has particular experience and perspective on these issues. Initial conversations have confirmed that these colleagues have much to offer in helping us define and elucidate the most relevant points.

Another group has launched a SWAT (software and workstations for antiquated technology) pilot, based on the report, Swatting the Long Tail of Digital Media: A Call for Collaboration, to test whether archivists are willing to outsource the transfer of content from media they can’t read in-house—and whether service providers can satisfy their needs.  To start with, the group has divided into two groups to address issues that need to be resolved before the pilot can begin.

The group addressing the terms and conditions under which such work would be done consists of:

  • Fran Baker, chair — University of Manchester
  • Jim Austin — University of York
  • Kelle Bachli — University of California, Los Angeles
  • Dave Thompson — Wellcome Library

The group addressing the technical requirements for content transfer consists of:

  • Mary Elings, chair — University of California, Berkeley
  • Jim Austin — University of York
  • Matthew Kirschenbaum — University of Maryland
  • Matthew McKinley — University of California, Irvine
  • Stephen Torrence — Museum of Computer Culture


Most recent updates: Page content: 2014-08-14


Jackie Dooley

Team Members

Ricky Erway

This activity is a part of the Mobilizing Unique Materials theme.

We are a worldwide library cooperative, owned, governed and sustained by members since 1967. Our public purpose is a statement of commitment to each other—that we will work together to improve access to the information held in libraries around the globe, and find ways to reduce costs for libraries through collaboration.