Rocky Mountain Born Digital Fever: Site visits in Denver and Boulder

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As a mid-career professional in the LAM community, I have learned the value of site visits as a practical method for researching the tools and workflows of other digital archivists, within and outside of academia. While conference sessions and workshops provide an awareness of current trends in the profession, informal discussions outside of the convention room can foster close working relationships and inspire collaborative ventures, yielding the most bang for one’s buck. Site visits take this a step further, though, by offering an opportunity to see the inner workings of another repository in real time, from which one may gain a better understanding of the whys and hows in order to determine what, if anything, can be applied to their own work, something often difficult to envision in a more traditional classroom-based learning environment.

On July 14th and 15th, I conducted four site visits in Boulder and Denver to learn how other LAM professionals in Colorado are processing born digital content in their repositories.

I began the first day of my trip meeting with Kate Moomaw, Assistant Conservator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Denver Art Museum (DAM), to learn more about the museum’s born digital holdings, particularly the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Design Archives, part of their Architecture, Design & Graphics collection. Both DAM’s Native Arts and Modern & Contemporary Arts collections include born digital content as well but AIGA contains the largest and most diverse number of media formats and file types, thus serving as an excellent use case for the preservation and cataloging of born digital records across the institution.

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Founded in 1914, AIGA is a professional organization for design advocates and practitioners. The AIGA Design Archives consists of over twenty thousand selections, dated as early as 1924 to the present day, from AIGA’s annual juried design competitions. Design Curator Darrin Alfred, Kate Moomaw, and Sarah Melching presently a paper last year titled “Exploding sodas, shrinking fruit, and yesterday’s CD-ROMS: Content and Conservation of the AIGA Design Archives at the Denver Art Museum” at a design conference in Germany.

DAM houses a portion of the materials while the rest are still with AIGA or have been transferred to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University’s Butler Library. Included among approximately twelve thousand objects in the AIGA Design Archives at DAM, are over seven hundred floppy disks, USB flash drives, and optical discs.

Last year, Kate Moomaw supervised former intern Eddy Colloton on an nine-week project cataloging and ingesting seventy unique born digital works into the museum’s digital repository. Colloton used a combination of BitCurator and Archivematica to image removable media; generate various types of metadata; identify, characterize, and normalize file formats; and create derivatives for preservation and access, which were packaged according to the BagIt specification. Colloton extracted metadata from the files with MediaInfo and ExifTool. Born digital materials were described in Lucidae’s product Argus, DAM’s collection management system.

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More details on the project, including a complete list of works that were cataloged and ingested into DAM’s digital repository are posted on Eddy Colloton’s blog.

On the second day of my trip, Lori Emerson, Associate Professor of English and the Intermedia Arts, Writing, and Performance Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU Boulder) gave me a tour of the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL). Founded by Emerson in 2009, MAL provides a space for “hands-on, cross-disciplinary experimental research, teaching, and artistic practice using still-functioning but obsolete tools, software, and hardware.”

Although MAL collects obsolete machinery and instruments of all types such as typewriters and electronic word processors to magic lanterns and phonographs, the focus of my visit was to explore the variety of legacy computer hardware. The largest digital media lab of its kind in North America, MAL traces the history of computing beginning in the 1970s, highlighting landmark moments in technology.

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MAL also holds a number of software programs, including video games, interactive fiction, and electronic literature. Their collection of e-lit includes works by poets Judy Malloy, Stephanie Strickland, and bpNichol in addition to authors Paul Zelevansky, Deena Larsen, and Ian Bogost.

I was impressed by how many of these computers were up and running for artists, students, and other researchers across disciplines. Emerson has built a lab where visitors can engage in an authentic experience with born digital content in its native environment, right down to the feel of the keyboard and mouse under their fingertips.

Coming from an archives background, it was enlightening to see firsthand the work of those in other sectors, within and outside of the LAM community, in terms of preservation and access to born digital content. It also brought me to the realization that the challenges we are all facing, including technological obsolescence and bit rot; lack of infrastructure; and fiscal support from internal or external stakeholders, could be the nexus for professionals across disciplines. Those dealing with these issues cannot continue to silo our knowledge and work within a vacuum i.e. our own distinct professional communities. Collaboration is a necessity.

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