SAA 2017: Session 211 Soft Skills for Hard Tech: Tech Support, Tech Knowledge, and Tech Literacy in the Archives

In advance of the 2017 Annual Meeting, we invited SNAP members to contribute summaries of panels, section meetings, forums, and pop-up sessions. Summaries represent the opinions of their individual authors; they are not necessarily endorsed by SNAP, members of the SNAP Steering Committee, or SAA.

Guest Author: Jane Kelly, Historical & Special Collections Assistant, Harvard Law School Library and MSLIS Candidate at the iSchool at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

The SAA conference session “Soft Skills for Hard Tech: Tech Support, Tech Knowledge, and Tech Literacy in the Archives” raised four big questions about how archivists can address their tech needs while working with colleagues within and outside the archives field. Although there are many tech skills that archivists ought to have in order to complete their own work, the ability to communicate with IT staff, researchers, and administrators is equally important.

Each panelist addressed one major question:

Dara Baker, Archivist, FDR Presidential Library and Museum-NARA

What basic tech should be required for all archivists and what should remain the purview of IT?

Some of the basic skills that archivists ought to have surrounding technology center on the ability to communicate effectively with your colleagues in IT. For instance, archivists should be able to explain the differences between a basic business use case for a system versus an archival use or need. If you’re working on email archiving, you’ll need to be able to explain why the Microsoft Outlook “archive” option is not sufficient for archival purposes. Knowing how to communicate also requires understanding the systems that you’re working with. Dara laid out a number of skills that archivists should have in order to do their work and communicate effectively with their IT group.

  • Skills that archivists should have:
    • Build websites using pre-packaged systems: LibGuides, WordPress, etc.
    • Ability to work in different operating systems: Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.
    • Knowledge of basic code:
      • HTML, CSS, XML, and ability to recognize which is which
      • Ideally, some kind of database language such as MySQL
      • The next generation (and that probably includes ours!) should have some knowledge of how to program (Ruby on Rails, Python, etc.) in order to use APIs and manage open source resources
    • Online searching and database use
    • Systems administration and admin rights to systems you use
    • Knowledge of business use for a system versus archival use
  • Tech that IT should be responsible for:
    • Database management
    • Operating system updates, migrations, etc.
    • 24 hour help desk activities
    • QA for system-related issues
    • Email systems
    • Etc.!

Marta Crilly, Archivist for Reference and Outreach, Boston City Archives

I know I’m not doing this [working with new/challenging technology] alone. How do I connect with other archivists who are doing this work?

Improving your tech skills can be a daunting task whether you’re early in graduate school or already out in the workforce. Not to worry, though! There are a number of strategies you can explore in order to address any gaps you may discover in your skillset.

  • Set up a tech bootcamp with some colleagues.
    • If you know you’re facing similar issues as other professionals or students, find a time to meet in person in order to work through a set of problems. Marta and some other government archivists worked together to try to solve problems they all faced in a system all of their repositories used. Over the course of an eight-hour, in-person meeting, they worked through questions each person brought to the meeting. After doing this they were better able to approach the vendor with questions and problems that they had with the system in question.
  • Share documentation via email, a Wiki space, or any other way that works for you.
  • Open lines of communication (email, Gchat, Slack, etc.) with other archivists so that you can ask questions of people who are working on similar problems as you.
  • Remember you don’t have to know it all. You can ask for help, and you might be surprised by how willing other people are to help you.
  • Learn how to ask questions the smart way.
    • Always try to find the answer yourself before asking someone else for help. Google and Stackoverflow.com are your friends!

Mark Myers, Senior Electronic Records Specialist at Texas State Library and Archives Commission

How do I break past the standard IT customer service model that starts with: “did you turn it off and turn it back on”? How do I communicate archival needs to a non-archives audience?

It’s admittedly very frustrating to bring a problem to IT and be met with “did you try restarting your computer?” when you’ve already done some troubleshooting. When you need to communicate with IT, be sure to keep in mind what the IT staff does at your institution and the varying roles people have within IT. They may be required to ask you that computer restart question no matter what you say to them, so don’t take it personally if it feels like they doubt your knowledge. It’s important to be able to use their terminology, understand their motivations, and really hear what they’re saying. Additionally, we can often be separated by our common language—we use the same words to mean very different things. “Archive” does not mean the same thing to non-archivists as it does to us!

  • When communicating with IT, remember that:
    • IT maintains technology and systems, not the records within those systems.
    • IT focuses on maintaining storage devices, systems, and security.
  • Join committees, be part of the team, and get yourself in the room. Make your needs part of the conversation, even if that involves pushing in a little bit at the beginning.
  • Learn how to write a good support ticket. Send screenshots. Tell IT what you’ve already done to try to fix a problem.

Margaret Peachy, Digital Archivist, Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives

How do I manage expectations of what technology can do? How do I approach this with different audiences (e.g. researchers, administrators, etc.)?

Working with technology can be challenging even when you’re working with people who you think should “get” archives. Researchers, administrators, and other staff within your department may need help understanding what different systems and tools are capable of. Be aware of this so that you can manage expectations appropriately and ask for resources—whether it’s time, people, money, or a combination of the three—effectively.

  • Translation and support for researchers:
    • Be able to clearly explain the difference between digitized and born-digital material.
      • Make sure you can answer why some material has restrictions.
    • Know how to explain how to view files: text, images
    • Is specialized playback required? Why?
    • Email archives: do you know how to teach researchers how to use a program necessary to access material?
    • Know how to explain the differences (and reasons for) access on the open web vs. mediated access vs. via Box
    • Downloads/reproductions
  • Translations for administrators:
    • Differentiate between digitized and born-digital material
      • Why different types of staffing are required for this work?
    • Asking for storage: how much is needed, what level of security
    • What is machine labor versus human labor
      • Know how to explain the human labor required to get the machine labor to do something in an automated fashion
    • Making arguments for specialized software and hardware, especially for born-digital processing programs
      • Know how to justify the cost of out-of-the-box proprietary software and the need for support for an open source program
  • Know your audience: don’t overly complicate or dumb down your use of technical terms and explanations
  • Work with public services staff to communicate with researchers. Make sure they have all the information they need to do their jobs effectively.
  • Tackle immediate needs: make focused requests of administrators with clear use cases
  • Document! Write up your tips and tricks! Use the IT ticketing system so you have a record of what you’ve asked for and received in the past!

Overall Takeaways

  • Translation: understand that archivists may use the same language as IT professionals but our understanding of those words may be vastly different. If an answer to your question sounds weird, ask follow up questions until you receive an answer that satisfies your needs.
  • Sense of humor: have one!
  • Knowledge of your collections: this is one of your great strengths. Don’t forget that you have it and bring a lot to the table as a result of that. You need to be able to share important information about your collections with people who don’t have that knowledge.
  • Flexibility and patience: be aware of IT staffing constraints, the IT ticketing system, and IT’s standard operating procedure.
  • Quality control at all levels is important: make sure you’re getting what you really need
  • Document, document, document!
    • Use your IT ticketing system to keep a record of requests/problems/solutions
    • Rewrite technical/support documentation if it doesn’t currently serve your needs. (And share it with others using the same systems!)
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