In May, Marissa Vassari and I presented a poster at the 2017 Annual Meeting of The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) in Chicago. Check back soon for a posting about our poster experience.

In this post, I wanted to discuss why I flew out to the AIC annual conference early in order to attend a workshop on digital file structure entitled “Examining the Composition and Structure of Digital Collection Objects: Strategies and Guidance for Ongoing Management and Preservation.” Although this workshop may have stood out as an oddity against a schedule full of photograph conservation, collections care, and environmental monitoring lectures, this workshop helped inform how I am thinking about my larger role in preservation at the RAC.

The workshop, presented by Bertram Lyon and Porter Olsen, looked at digital object composition and file system management from the preservation angle, often drawing comparisons directly to conservation practice. For example, Bert (who is a senior consultant for AVPS) compared digital file composition and content to cellulose structure. I cannot exaggerate how much this connection drew in the audience of conservators and helped us connect to the course material. It was this approach that peeked my interest in the workshop in the first place.

Back at the RAC, I want to engage in a meaningful conversation about digital file preservation with my colleagues. As it became apparent in the workshop, I need a better understanding of how a digital file functions at its base level. I have to understand that a digital file is a stored segment or block of information available to a computer program and that it was constructed according to a specific format specification. I also need to understand how systems read file structure. During our morning exercises, we looked at file systems and metadata versus what information is in the file and walked through what happens when we run old files through new systems that are “seeing” this information for the first time. As we moved through concepts, we used larger and larger file formats to see how principles scaled up from text documents to the TIFF and WAV files (which with many of us in the workshop are charged with preserving.) As the morning session continued, the concepts on the screen started to click with what I already knew and by the time lunch rolled around, I found myself with some newfound confidence in the subject.

The afternoon session focused on external media and file systems. Honestly, before this trip I had never considered how file systems were constructed. Therefore, I did not know that different types of file systems record different sets of metadata. This is important to consider because it complicates the process of migrating data between file systems. Such data migration falls outside my work responsibilities. However, Porter (a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland) connected our profession’s responsibility to the long-term security of our collection material. As a result, it became clear to me how much I need to consider such factors in order to weigh in on the preservation of the digital records currently in our collections, but also the ones we are going to acquire.

I am very fortunate that I do not have to go it alone. Several of my co-workers at the RAC think about these concerns and are already well into the conversations about our organization’s approach to digital file management and preservation. What this workshop taught me is that I can go at my own pace and gain the foundation I need. As I learn, I can see many of those concepts at work through already established workflows at the RAC. As the range of digital files and carriers that we accept into our holdings grow, so do the programs we use to work with these files. It is important to stay up on current practices. One cannot fully serve the preservation of any object if they do not understand its format’s inherit properties and needs. This goes for digital material the same way it goes to photographs and other materials we collect and care for.