Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Square pegs in round holes

There is really nothing like trying to explain best practices and limitations to lay people to clear your thinking on archival and library processes.

Yesterday I was interviewed by a group of MBA students out of UCLA. They were curious about how archivists and digital librarians approach their large digital projects, including how we create metadata. They are hypothesizing a content (or digital asset) management product which would go through audio or audiovisual materials and pull rich subject metadata out of those objects. Not to toot my own horn, but since I've been working in libraries and then archives and then libraries and then metadata and then archives, I feel like I know quite a bit about how products work or don't work for digital projects of many types.
(I informed them that the QC on the backend would be substantial (especially since you're throwing all these subject terms into a relational database!) and that's something a company would need to be upfront about or no one would touch it.)

But these people were babes in the proverbial woods, seriously. They asked me if I thought it was "important" to be able to get my data out of a proprietary system. HAVE YOU EVER MET A LIBRARIAN BEFORE. Yeah, it's moderately to extremely-goddamn-important to be able to use this data in applications beyond your proprietary system.

But the reason I'm writing about this is because of one thing that we talked about in particular, and it came out of the discussion about flexible metadata. They asked me if I'd like for my DAMS to work directly with an ILS or federated searching agent or union catalog, without my intervention. So I thought about it, because yes, that sounds great to me, but...there is a problem. I almost never put single digital assets into a catalog.

I use ContentDM. It works fine. But like many digital asset management systems, it deals with single objects. On the other hand, the lion's share of my cataloging and sending off to various places happen with collections of items, with descriptions rarely getting down to the granularity of a digital object.

Suddenly the immense problems in digital archives came into focus (and I admit, I kind of laughed hysterically while explaining this to the poor baby MBA students): creating digital records for digital objects bogs us down because our work is designed to ignore single objects.

I know we have a ton of workarounds for this problem--digitizing a whole collection (or most of it), creating finding aids that integrate links to digitized items, etc--but seriously this is such a huge, huge fundamental problem. My traditional archival practices and procedures and ideals, if I am expected to couple them with parallel digital and physical collections, simply don't work very well. If they work at all. No wonder so many archivists are pulling their hair out trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. The square peg fits but only if you take a saw and make the hole a lot bigger.
"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.