Friday, March 26, 2010

Digital Commonwealth Conference Summary

I want to begin by congratulating the Digital Commonwealth's conference staff for creating a day of interesting speakers and thoughtful dialog between colleagues. I came away from the conference with new ideas to expand the State Library's outreach work and a refreshed sense of excitement for the digital projects libraries in general, and the State Library in particular, are undertaking.

Tom Clareson provided the opening keynote address which focused on Fundraising for Your Digital Collection. The crux of Clareson's talk was that libraries need to think about the ways in which traditional grants can be repurposed to provide funding for particular aspects of digital projects. For instance, using a National Endowment for the Humanities Preservation Assistance Grant to survey library collections, which could turn up prospective collections for digitization, or using a NEH Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant to help organize and catalog collections, which will aid metadata creation. Clareson also emphasized the use of small grants as building the foundation for larger grant projects and thinking locally of potential funders, not just of the big federal resources. The talk concluded with a discussion of the functions of a grant proposal and some helpful do's and don't's when writing a grant. The number one do: describe a current condition in your community and clearly describe how your project will fill that need.

In the morning breakout session I attended From Artifact to Digital: Changes in Preservation Concerns, presented by Gregor Trinkaus-Randall and Bill Donovan. Trinkaus-Randall began by presenting an overview of the changes in traditional preservation methods, touching on security (such as at the Bodleian Library where books were chained to the shelves), the practice of silking, and deacidification, to name just a few. He also discussed the relation of information density to life expectancy, illustrating his point with a graph that showed as culture has moved from scroll to disc, the amount of information stored per inch has greatly increased, while the life expectancy of the storage media has greatly decreased. Trinkaus-Randall concluded by discussing the definition of digital preservation as defined by the American Library Association. Bill Donovan picked up the thread of digital preservation and spoke about MetaArchive Cooperative, a project between multiple cultural memory organizations to create a system of distributed digital preservation. The MetaArchive Cooperative was founded in 2004 with an emphasis on being a non-vendor based, peer to peer network that aids digital preservation through distributing multiple copies of (preferably open format) files to institutions in geographically dispersed sites. It was helpful and enlightening to hear about an institution taking digital preservation into their own hands in the goal of creating a lasting collection of digital content. Donovan ended by pointing the audience to a free resource: A Guide to Distributed Digital Preservation.

Over lunch conference goers were treated to the second keynote speaker, Roy Tennant, who discussed Engaging Users. Tennant began by speaking about discovery on the web and the two main types of users: natural affinity users and free-floating web users. The natural affinity users are those people who are, as Tennant put it, within "shouting distance" - users who may already know about your resources, or are affiliated with a group with a similar purpose to your institution. Free-floating web users are those people who find out about your resources through search queries or by following links. Tennant spoke about the importance of understanding both how people search for information on the internet and how Google crawls the web to populate its search results. After showing examples of important (and easy) ways to make web content more visible, he stressed the fact that libraries need to engage the passions of the patrons who discover their content by providing interactive aspects such as tagging, commenting, rating and reviewing. Tennant's talk provided helpful information for libraries performing at all points along the spectrum of web outreach and energized the audience to do even more for our web users.

The first afternoon breakout session I attended was Fix it or Sleeve it? Use it or Freeze it? - Conservation Assessment and Preparation for Digitization given by Priscilla Anderson. This session focused on preservation and conservation concerns surrounding the digitization process including preparing an item to be digitized, handling during the digitization process, and assessment of the original after digitization. Anderson began with the two main questions she asks about an item when digitization is suggested: 1. Is the text or image visible to the camera? and 2. Can the original withstand being handled? Anderson provided examples of when an item would not be visible to the camera (overlays, dirt, creases) and how to treat these problems prior to digitizing (removal of adhesive, surface cleaning, humidifying and flattening). She also discussed when an item might not be able to be handled (tears, brittle paper, vulnerable media) and how these problems are mitigated (mends, enclosures, scan on specialized equipment). Anderson also discussed various imaging equipment and the situations in which one might be favored over another, for example the use of an angled book scanner for volumes that cannot be opened fully. The session ended with a discussion of how storage options and locations might be reassessed once an item is digitized, with the intention that the original will be used less once a digital representation is available.

I ended my conference day by attending Metadata II given by Jim Keenan. While I was apprehensive about attending the second session without having attended the first, Keenan provided an upbeat and thoroughly accessible presentation on using XML within the Digital Commonwealth portal. The session began by refreshing everyone's memory regarding the tags used for Dublin Core and Keenan narrowed our focus to the 15 basic tags included in the metadata element set. Keenan stressed that while the Digital Commonwealth provided a tool kit and the ability to use Excel in lieu of XML, XML was not difficult to produce and that formatting your own metadata gave you increased control. He encouraged practicing making metadata records for mundane items (your pen, a flash drive) until you got the hang of it. As an example he walked the audience through creating a metadata record for our conference program, which helped put theory in to practice. Keenan also stressed the importance of starting with only a few records and going from there - don't think that you're going to put a 10,000 item collection into the Digital Commonwealth portal in two weeks. By taking your time and doing a little bit consistently, you (or your successor) will get all of those records done eventually. I left this session feeling that XML and Dublin Core were very accessible and that I wouldn't mind trying my hand at creating a few records.

The conference overall was a great experience that provided a wonderful variety of information for all different levels of experience. Be sure to check out the blogs below for more coverage of the conference and breakout sessions.

Henry Whittemore Library
Worcester Public Library

- Lacy Crews Stoneburner, Preservation Librarian