Depositor Issues

Anthro Data DPA

Depositors to Archives

June 22, 2009

Douglas A. Black, Lisa Conathan (chair), [1] Michael Fischer, David R. Hunt, Mark Mahoney, Marlene Martin, Daniel Reboussin, Dean R. Snow (PI)


This report of a break-out group of the Anthro Data DPA Workshop addresses issues related to depositors to archives (i.e. people who are depositing, donating or selling material to archives). The topics of discussion, while they all related to this assigned theme, touched on a wide range of activities, including record-keeping as part of the research process, education and outreach to increase awareness about digital archives, and archival appraisal, arrangement, description and preservation. We propose several areas in which a central committee, consortium or other organization can fruitfully provide leadership to guide and improve digital archiving efforts in the discipline of Anthropology.

Priorities for digitizing and digital archiving

Although the methods and standards for digitizing are improving every year, we cannot currently digitize all analog records. Future technological developments may some day make this feasible, but the current cost (in terms of time, effort and money) necessitates that archives, researchers and professional organizations define priorities when embarking on a large-scale digitization projects. All digital archiving efforts must clearly define their scope at the outset of the project.

We recognize the twofold purpose of digitization projects: to preserve records (that is, prevent damage to their integrity and authenticity) and to increase access to records, by allowing new groups of researchers to use them and by enabling new ways of interacting with records that are possible only in a digital environment. We suggest the following criteria for prioritizing digitization projects (not necessarily in order of importance). The relative importance of each criterion must be decided on a case-by-case basis, considering the nature of the material, the resources available and the goals of the project. [2]

Ease of digitization: Some records are ‘low-hanging fruit’ that may take relatively little effort to digitize because of their condition, organization or description.

Format of material: Certain formats are inherently unstable and are likely to be deteriorating, e.g. magnetic tape. Material in fragile formats may be prioritized in the interest of preservation.

Fragility of material: Records that are damaged or that have been stored in less-than-ideal conditions may be fragile and subject to deterioration.

Current level of access: How accessible are the records already, both to potential researchers and to the creators of the records? Will digitizing increase accessibility?

Frequency & intensity of anticipated use: Digitization can prevent damage from frequent handling of material. While future use can be difficult to anticipate, factors such as the identity of the creator or interest in the subject matter can be predictive.

Rarity or uniqueness of subject matter: If the records document a completely unique subject area (e.g. the only known recordings of an extinct language), they may be given priority. In most cases primary data should be given preference over derivative analysis.

Material in finite custody: An archive may wish to digitize material that is to be repatriated or is only in temporary custody, assuming that such digitization does not violate any agreement with the owners of the material.

Prioritize value of material within collections: In addition to prioritizing collections, material within collections can be prioritized. In a very large collection, the volume may preclude digitizing all at once. In such cases, a representative sample or a select subset can be digitized first.

Collaborative activity

The importance of collaboration was evident throughout the workshop: Anthropologists can define priorities for the documentation of their discipline and the standards that will enable this. Archivists and scholars can work together to define best practices and encourage their use. Archivists can facilitate the accession of records to archives and ensure the comprehensiveness and efficiency of archiving efforts.

One important outcome of this workshop is an articulation of proposed goals and activities for a central leadership group. Whether it is a committee, a consortium of archives, a series of ongoing workshops or an affinity group, there are several areas of activity that would benefit from central leadership. These are outlined in the following paragraphs.

Survey the record: Before we can take steps to preserve the anthropological record, we should have some idea of the nature, extent and scope of this record. What kinds of records to anthropologists create? What are the challenges to digital archiving? How should we identify priorities for archiving (by format of records, subfield, geographic area, etc.)? Anthropologists and archivists may have very different ideas of what constitutes the ‘anthropological record.’ Researchers often think in terms of data, while archivists may wish to preserve records that contextualize the data (such as correspondence, photographs and other documentation of the research process, grant applications and research proposals and documentation of abandoned projects that did not result in published products).

Identify challenges to digital archiving: What are the challenges or barriers to progress in digital archiving? Are these challenges mainly social (e.g. related to peoples’ expectations and conceptions of archives)? Are they technical (related to infrastructure, user interfaces)? What sort of resources are necessary to undertake a major digital archiving project?

Match material with archives: A central group can help address the problem of ‘orphan’ archival material (records with no archival home). We can increase the portion of the anthropological record that is archived through outreach and collaboration. For this purpose, it would be appropriate for teams of archivists and researchers to focus on a specific domain. [3]

Adapt recommendations and standards: There are many existing standards for digital archiving. It is unreasonable to expect individual anthropologists to interpret and implement these standards on their own. A central group can identify relevant standards, adapt them if necessary to make them relevant within the context of anthropology, and work to encourage their adoption among anthropologists. [4]

Develop portals: While it is impractical to propose a single digital archive for the discipline of anthropology, it is possible to create portals to data or metadata. [5]

Preparing material to be archived: A central organization can help anthropologists prepare material to be archived. This includes recording information and describing context that could otherwise be lost or recorded inaccurately (such as the purpose of the research project and dates, places and descriptions of each item or file). [6]

Additionally, digital archives should take advantage of technological developments (especially those in the area of social media) in order to collect information from researchers about material. [7]

Education and Outreach: There is a need for outreach to scholars and other practitioners in the discipline of Anthropology to increase awareness about digital archiving. Initial steps to educate anthropologists (such as panel discussions and workshops at regional and national conferences) are within immediate reach and should begin in the next year. [8] Larger-scale efforts will take some planning, including application for funding.

One of the important goals for educational efforts is to convince anthropologists that it is advantageous to participate in and contribute to digital archiving efforts (i.e. that the archive provides contributors with a valuable service, minimally a back-up copy, and that their contributions have broad value for the discipline). We discussed several ways to frame archiving activity, emphasizing the benefits of emerging ways to interact with digital data (e.g. peer-to-peer sharing, backup service). Field Methods curriculum should also include training in data collection and management, including planning for archiving. [1] Lisa Conathan prepared this report based on the break-out session on Depositors (May 20-21, 2009) and the discussion after a presentation to the Anthro Data DPA workshop (May 21). [2] ViPIRS ( is an example of a tool that tracks assessment data for audiovisual preservation projects. [3] A collaborative, strategic approach to documenting specific topical domains is reviewed and critiqued in Malkmus, Doris. 2008. Documentation strategy: Mastodon or retro-success? American Archivist 71(2):384-409. [4] InterPARES ( ) is a major international research effort to define standards for digital records. [5] Portals can take many forms; examples include the Digital Archive Network for Anthropology ( and the Open Language Archives Community ( [6] Digital Antiquity ( provides a model for the recording of collection-level metadata when depositing data. [7] A discussion of efforts to make archival description more interactive can be found in Yakel, Elizabeth, Seth Shaw and Polly Reynolds. 2007. Creating the Next Generation of Archival Finding Aids. D-Lib Magazine 13(5/6). [8] The field of Linguistics has been successful in increasing awareness about archiving and can provide models for educational efforts. See, for example, the E-MELD school of best practices:

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