Matthew Richardson and Bethany Scott 2018-01-19 13:33:46
Migrating data across systems is no small feat. Yet despite the thousands of moving parts and delicate balancing acts this task requires, it can also be a great time to rethink your institution’s practices. The University of Houston Libraries, undergoing multiple migration processes, is thinking carefully about the challenges and opportunities these moves present in an increasingly complex and interconnected digital ecosystem. Within Special Collections, archivists are in the midst of migrating finding aids from Archon, where they have been managed and published since 2007, to ArchivesSpace. As significant an undertaking as this is, archival description is not the only element in flux. A cross-departmental team is also working to migrate content, much of it digitized from the archives, from the CONTENTdmbased UH Digital Library to a new Samvera repository. As our discovery tools shift, we’re grateful that at least the physical boxes are staying put (for the time being)! It should be no surprise that these two changes, while distinct, will have an impact on one another. Linkages between finding aids and digital surrogates are nothing new in archival practice, and indeed we’d been maintaining links between our current finding aid and digital library systems at both the collection and item level for some time. However, moving to new systems provides an opportunity not only to offer connections for our users, but also to leverage data between ArchivesSpace and Samvera to increase efficiency, reduce errors, and refine internal workflows. Envisioning our finding aids within a new digital curation ecosystem quickly made it apparent that the finding aid migration project was also a data quality project. In the existing system, any mistakes or omissions by a processor were limited to that finding aid. In the new environment, however, other systems as well as metadata librarians would be depending on the accuracy, completeness, and consistency of data elements like folder titles and dates. Keeping system integration firmly in mind, we focused on data migration and standards adherence in upgrading approximately 260 finding aids and creating DACS-compliant minimal records for 100 “stub” records. A Nest of Challenges When we began testing ArchivesSpace in 2014, an Archon migration tool was available, but attempts to use it exposed the messiness of the existing finding aid data among other problems. Data in some fields appeared to be missing in ArchivesSpace, but we discovered that in many cases it had actually been left out or inconsistently applied in the previous system. For example, we had variously used two different fields for recording acquisition information, but one migrated successfully and one did not. We had a pressing need to standardize our existing data before moving forward. Furthermore, differences in data models threw another wrench into the process. Archon’s hierarchies incorporate both intellectual arrangement (like series and subseries) and physical container information into a single multi-level inventory or “Box and Folder Listing.” Not only did this mean that titles and dates assigned to items designated purely as physical containers in ArchivesSpace (including boxes, videocassettes, and audiotapes) were not migrated, but we also uncovered bizarre nesting of intellectual information inside physical containers and vice versa that did not translate to ArchivesSpace’s hierarchies of archival objects. These challenges and others delayed staff in tackling the full migration. Then a solution emerged as we worked on getting finding aids into Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO), Texas’s statewide finding aid aggregator. This process involves exporting EAD finding aids from Archon and editing them in Oxygen to conform to TARO’s EAD Best Practice Guidelines. Since we were already manually editing each finding aid for TARO, we decided to add a further review of the subordinate components in the contents to fix the nesting problems, and we standardized several fields in the front matter, like the preferred citation and the conditions governing use statement, to ensure that each EAD finding aid would be ready for migration. Migration as Motivation Although standards have been a boon to the archival and digital curation communities, the reality many of us face is that most of our collections, as well as their descriptions, predate developments such as DACS or EAD. In addition to inconsistent descriptive practices over time, some of the deficiencies we were seeing had most likely been introduced in previous transitions, such as from paper to EAD, or EAD to Archon. While it is unrealistic to think we can fully future-proof our finding aids and systems, we advise thinking carefully about how any changes made to suit the present migration might impact the next migration. Established standards can provide a crucial guidepost in this process. For any institution, there’s the question of time and cost in revisiting old work that may function acceptably even if it’s not how we’d have done it now. Admittedly, UH Special Collections has a couple of advantages in this area. Having been formed in the second-half of the twentieth century and consisting of approximately 400 archival collections, the repository’s holdings—while certainly significant in quantity and quality—are not prohibitively massive. In other words, we actually could plan to “touch” every finding aid. For some institutions, such a proposition may be unrealistic. Although the mentality that “as long as it is consistent within this particular finding aid” might have been suitable for paper guides and tolerable in a siloed online finding aid system, it has the potential to wreak havoc in a more integrated ecosystem. For us, this migration was an excellent opportunity to streamline archival description. We removed duplicated folder titles, cleaned up titles that were repeated across levels of hierarchy, and standardized the formatting for date expressions. Finally, to ensure that we applied these changes consistently across the collections as we edited each finding aid, we created a “field guidelines” document with instructions on how to format and enter information into ArchivesSpace that’s aligned both with DACS best practices and the UH Metadata Unit’s input guidelines for digital object metadata in our online repository. Enhancing Minimal Records Another common challenge for archival institutions is a backlog of unprocessed or under-described collections, and the holdings at UH Special Collections are no different. When we began our migration project, we had about 100 collections with minimal “stub” records, which often included only collection title, identifier, and extent. As is, the stub records were hardly worth migrating, nor did they comply with DACS minimum requirements for single-level archival description. To address these problems, we identified the collections with stub records in need of enhancement, divided them by curatorial area, and created a short Google form on which curators and their student workers could enter information such as dates, creators, basic scope and contents, and access restrictions. Although we are still in the data-gathering phase, this approach has the benefit of assembling data from disparate sources into a structured format. We plan to batch-import the data to create accession records, which can later be used to generate full resource records when the collections are being processed and described. Creating the minimal description form was not just useful for our migration project. We used the DACS requirements to create a new accession form, too, so records for brand new acquisitions are entered into the new system with all the required fields from the get-go, saving time down the line and ensuring that even our newest collections are discoverable and well-described. Aim to Improve While we’re right to give attention to the benefits of a new system, migration projects also provide valuable insight into the work we have already done and the processes for doing that work. Guided by standards and with an eye toward evolving curation landscapes, archivists and librarians should embrace migrations as motivation to look in the mirror and improve our practices in service of our users and our institutions. Notes A version of this article originally appeared as a poster at the 2017 SAA Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon. For more about the digital curation ecosystem at the University of Houston Libraries (Bayou City DAMS), see Outside the Box: Building a Digital Asset Management Ecosystem for Preservation and Access (http://journal.code4lib.org/articles/12342).
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.