The Best Practices Exchange (BPE) is an annual conference for librarians, archivists, and information professionals “with a focus to manage, preserve, and provide access to digital government information.” Held at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg from October 19th-21st, the conference brought together 72 attendees from around the country to discuss victories won, challenges faced, current trends, and, you guessed it…best practices. The sessions covered a range of topics, including digital repository platforms, cloud-based preservation storage, digitization projects, copyright, and web archiving.
Each day began with a plenary speaker, then individual sessions filled the mornings and afternoons. Many sessions were based around projects or programs undertaken at individual organizations, which gave us an in-depth look at how specific institutions are tackling all of the challenges inherent in managing digital content.
One such session focused on the Texas State Library and Archives Commission’s (TSLAC) acquisition of former Texas Governor Rick Perry’s electronic records. Presented by TSLAC’s Electronic Records Specialist, Mark Myers, the presentation covered the project from the beginning, February 2014, when TSLAC learned that they would be receiving Governor Perry’s records, to present day, when content has been uploaded, though issues remain. In addition to processing the collection, TSLAC also needed to select a digital repository for its booming Texas Digital Archive. Myers explained the process of research, testing, and assessment, with Preservica Cloud Edition ultimately coming out on top.
Myers walked us through the Preservica site and showed us some highlights of the collection, then introduced us to some issues they’re working on. Firstly, when your former Governor is running for President as you’re processing his records, it means the collection may receive some special attention. This gives some extra incentive to ensure that the collection is handled well. Myers also spoke about the issue of having limited internal IT support. The staff handles most of the issues themselves, with varied levels of expertise, which is something libraries and archives know all too well. Lastly, he acknowledged some of the usability concerns that they are working to remedy. When demonstrating their repository site, we saw that it took about six or seven clicks to get to an actual item in the collection. Additionally, the site is currently best searched rather than browsed, which deters some users. I appreciated that Myers was honest about where their site stood; and the issues they are working hard to fix. It was a great example of how much work goes into creating this kind of valuable resource as well as some of the important considerations we should all take into account when organizing digital material.
Another informative session was Carol Kussman’s talk, titled “Building Digital Preservation Workflows without a ‘Keystone’. ” Kussman, a Digital Preservation Analyst at the University of Minnesota Libraries, began with providing some background on digital preservation practices at the University of Minnesota; and then discussed the establishment of an Electronic Records Task Force. She shared specifics about budget, staff participation, and timelines. They, too, needed to test and assess tools for digital preservation; the staff tested twenty then narrowed it down to four that they would use for various purposes. The team chose Data Accessioner, TeraCopy, DROID, and HashMyFiles; Data Accessioner and DROID for collecting metadata, Data Accessioner, DROID, and HashMyFiles for checksums, HashMyFiles to eliminate duplicated files, and Data Accessioner, DROID, and HashMyFiles for establishing folder structures. This was an eye-opener for me. Using four tools for these tasks seemed like a lot, but when Carol broke down how each functioned, it made sense to use them in conjunction with each other to create more efficient workflows for the purposes of this project. One of the challenges Kussman and her team faced was that the details of these projects take time, especially when staff is developing this in addition to other ongoing projects and heavy workloads. She also discussed remembering the “gotchas”; or the quirks inherent in each tool or system that you have to remember when working with them. For example, Data Accessioner does not capture all file formats, so staff has to be mindful when working with that tool. A conclusion that the team drew from this project is that consistency is key. That includes consistency in project development, such as team meetings or time allotted to research/testing, as well as consistency in the final workflow plans.
BPE also sets aside time for “Birds of a Feather” sessions, which follow the un-conference model in which an attendee proposes a topic, then others can join in for an informal discussion. I participated in a session on electronic document workflows with ten other librarians and archivists that work with digital state government publications, as I do at the State Library of Massachusetts. What I particularly enjoyed about this type of session was that it allowed every person to contribute and participate, which created many personal connections amongst the group. Because of the smaller sized group, we were able to both have a very productive conversation about problems we face when working with electronic state publications, and also learn from what each library is doing to remedy these problems. I hope that the “Birds of a Feather” session established a conversation that will continue outside of the conference.
Wednesday’s final plenary speaker was Jackie Esposito, Archivist at Penn State University, who spoke on archiving digital content. As much as she discussed working with materials themselves, she also shared advice on attitudes and perspectives to adopt when delving into digital preservation projects. Tips such as developing an internal mandate, determining measurable objectives, and establishing time frames were excellent starting points for anyone engaging in such a project. Another beneficial piece of advice was to create a team or work force with common goals and similar commitment, but with different viewpoints. Including diverse viewpoints will strengthen the final product.
Esposito also touched on the importance of preserving digital content for the foreseeable future, and also implementing workflows and systems that help your institution now rather than waiting for the “right” or “best” answer. When handed a new task, job, or project, it’s understandable that you want to find the right answer—and sometimes, there is one. Other times, there isn’t, and Esposito gave us permission to work in spite of that. In the case of digital preservation, nobody can predict what that landscape will look like in fifty years. However, we can do our best now to select useful systems and develop ideas that preserve items for as long as we are able to—and then it’s important to remain flexible as things change. This idea of “good enough preservation” has existed for years, but it is a helpful reminder that doing something is better than doing nothing.
Some other highlights of the conference included a reception in and tour of the State House of Pennsylvania—a beautifully restored building in the heart of Harrisburg. From the stunning murals in the House and Senate Chambers to the plaque where Teddy Roosevelt stood when dedicating the building, getting an inside look at the State House was a wonderful part of the conference experience. Tours of the State Archives and State Library were also included, and social time was mixed in-between and after sessions. One of my favorite parts about having the conference held in the State Museum was that sessions were often held alongside museum exhibits, including a black bear who watched over sessions in the Susquehanna Room and an elephant in the Delaware Room.
Because of its smaller size, BPE offers the ability to more fully engage with colleagues, learn from projects taking place around the country, and participate in meaningful conversations around what we can do as information professionals to protect digital content. I highly recommend attending! BPE typically takes place in the fall, and next year’s location is TBA. For more information, check their website.