In the past month, Hillel and I have published a series of four blog posts discussing the Rockefeller Archive Center’s rationales and approaches to recent research, analysis, and interventions to update our digitization processes. These interventions have resulted in some major improvements to how we create, manage, and make available digital surrogates of our archival records. In my Reimagining Digitization Using Service Design post, I shared how increased researcher requests for digitized content during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a comprehensive research project to better understand redesign our processes, resulting in actions to increase the observability and transparency of our onsite digitization workflow by making units of work smaller, change our on-demand digitization file structure and naming conventions to facilitate machine actions that will improve long-term preservation and access, and introduce automation and scalable cloud-based architecture to receive, preserve, and make available archival records that were outsourced to vendors for digitization.

In this fifth and final post of the series, I’d like to take a step back from technical details to contextualize these process changes in terms of bringing our digitization program in line with our organizational values. Taking the time to research and understand the problems we need to solve, atomizing units of work, increasing automation, and improving sustainability are all strategic actions that support our values of embracing change, collaborative learning, accountability, centering people in our use of technology, and pursuing excellence in stewardship.

Embracing Change, Collaborative Learning, and Accountability

I don’t think there’s much value in changing things for the sake of change. I’m not interested in pursuing new tech or overhauling systems and processes for an abstract ideal that new things are inherently better. I’m also not interested in moving fast if I’m going to break things or disrupt them with the assumption that disruption will automatically bring positive transformation. In my position as User Experience and Accessibility Analyst, my role is to help the organization research, design, and update solutions that equitably, ethically, and inclusively improve the user experience for both our staff and external users, and that means embracing the kind of change that helps us adapt to new circumstances and ways of thinking to meet emerging user needs.

In reimagining our digitization processes, we’ve made a lot of fundamental changes that were necessary to meet the emerging needs of remote researchers and to address the degradation of the staff user experience from friction points that inevitably result from a lack of process maintenance over time:

And there are more changes coming! So to be able to embrace all of this change, we want to move at the speed of trust with communication, transparency, and accountability; users should be partners through participatory design activities, the provision of feedback mechanisms, and continued consultation and research participation so that they can help shape new processes and ensure that proposed solutions actually fix the problems they are designed to address. This is why we started with and based the changes we’re making on our service design work that centered the staff users who actually do digitization work.

Centering People in Our Use of Technology

The Rockefeller Archive Center value that “We Center People in Our Use of Technology” is a guiding star for the work of the Digital Strategies team, and central to this work of reimagining digitization processes. Centering people means empowering them through their engagement and use of our systems and by advocating for ethical applications of technology. As Hillel articulated in his post on increasing automation for our outsourced digitization pipeline, automating repetitive, tedious, and error-prone tasks that our colleagues were previously doing manually is about recognizing and valuing their labor and expertise. Machines can take care of things like renaming and moving files, creating derivatives, searching for files with predictable identifiers, and copying/moving data between systems. Designing and implementing processes that delegate these rote tasks to machines leaves more humanizing labor to our colleagues to do the things machines can’t/shouldn’t do.

With increased process efficiency and transparency, the experience for our researchers also improves. The change to make orders more atomic means they are completed sooner, and digital content is delivered and/or made available online to researchers more quickly. Similarly, our recent change to charge a digitization fee to researchers by file instead of by page means that the cost per order is immediately available to users, and our colleagues aren’t spending time counting/estimating numbers of pages in folders to provide cost information and copying that data into our billing system.

Centering people means we seek targeted optimization and automation not to replace humans with machines or erase their critical expertise from the process, but because their critical expertise and humanity should not be wasted on tedious tasks that make the experience of doing the labor of digitization and research worse.

Pursue Excellence in Stewardship

Finally, I want to talk about the organizational value that “We Pursue Excellence in Stewardship” in the context of this work. Hillel previously tied the work of the outsourced digitization pipeline to this value by noting that knowing where and how many digital files we store can help us reduce our environmental impact, and that limiting the depth and complexity of locally maintained hardware by using a cloud-based solution facilitates better stewardship of technical expertise and equipment. I want to dig into and expand on this value of responsible stewardship further and discuss how our digitization program supports it.

If we look to the SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics, with which I see the Rockefeller Archive Center values in conversation with and in support of, “preservation”, “responsible stewardship”, and “sustainability” are core values that relate to stewardship. We strive to be good stewards of the records in our care, be transparent, accountable, and ethical in how we distribute our resources, and to support sustainable practices that are mindful of environmental and social harms that can be perpetuated in archives. In our digitization program, there are multiple strategies that support aspects of conscientious stewardship:

  • We digitize records at the file/object level instead of digitizing only specific pages or items within a file that a single user needs for their research. This promotes long-term preservation of records by decreasing repetitive handling of records. It also facilitates easier digital management, preservation, and distribution of those records and their metadata in the future, resulting in broader, long-term, and more equitable access with no associated fee.

  • We have increased process efficiency through workflow updates, project management systems and techniques, improved documentation, task automation, and strategic digital infrastructure design to optimize file storage and maintenance. These changes all increase environmental sustainability by reducing redundant machine actions and storage space for duplicate files. They also enable us to be in better alignment with digital preservation best practices that improve disaster preparedness. And finally, more efficient processes mean a better use of our resources, which connects back to centering people in our use of technology.

  • We are improving documentation and transparency both internally and externally. This facilitates clarity and accountability and, again, helps us be strategic about how we allocate our resources. We’ve begun to update our internal documentation in ways that have already improved staff cohesion, ease of training, and I hope a sense of empowerment for people doing digitization work. Once finalized, we’ll be sharing our updated documentation on our public documentation site for anyone to access. This blog post series is the beginning of sharing what we’ve learned in terms of both research approach and process details with allied professionals, and we’ll be engaging in other forums to share and connect with the wider professional community in the coming months.

Final Thoughts: Design is Iterative

As I stated in my first post on how we used service design methodologies to identify problems: “applying solutions to unknown problems causes more problems in the future.” This is true at the beginning of a big project like this one to reimagine and redesign a program, and it continues to be true as we make major changes and improvements to that program. It’s inevitable that we aren’t going to get everything right the first time, and processes require maintenance. In that first post I described our research approach as: “we started by listening and understanding, brought in data and analysis, gave structure, sequence, and visual representation to gain process insights, and then moved to ideation and defining future strategy”. That same approach continues iteratively as we make changes, and it helps us continue to center care for people in the work that we do.

We should continue to listen and understand (and create diverse, equitable, accessible, and inclusive environments to make that possible), gather data that help us analyze what is working and what is not, and use the resulting increased transparency to continue designing and strategically implementing solutions. We must give ourselves the time to ask questions and identify problems, continue to connect outward to learn from each other, and share that learning with folks who have fewer resources to be able to take that time.