Digital Stewardship: The one with all the definitions

My residency project at the Folger focuses on digital stewardship and preservation practices at the Library. This has, to my delight, involved getting my hands dirty with the Folger web collections and also allowed me to interact with a variety of digital assets being created by the Folger. Now that we’ve reviewed the basics of web archiving, I’d like to talk a little bit more about digital stewardship and digital assets.

Digital stewardship, digital preservation, digital asset… what’s it all mean? The concepts are simpler than you might think. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: digital information is sensitive. To remain accessible and usable for current and future users, digital information needs to be carefully managed through digital stewardship practices. Digital stewardship encompasses all activities related to the care and management of digital objects over time. Proper digital stewardship addresses all phases of the digital object lifecycle: from digital asset conception, creation, appraisal, description, and preservation, to accessibility, reuse, and beyond. This includes everything from choosing a well-documented and widely accepted file format when creating a new object to choosing the right metadata schema to describe the object properly, not to mention storing multiple copies of the digital object file in a variety of locations to combat threats of data loss or corruption. These latter steps, taken after the object is created and described, generally fall under the category of digital preservation. Digital preservation involves processes related to the protection and technical stabilization of digital assets to facilitate continued and future access and usability. 

Both of these concepts have one thing in common: they are created and implemented to protect the value of digital assets. So what constitutes a digital asset and how is that different from a digital file? A digital asset is a digital file, but what makes it special is that it is associated with information outside of the file: metadata, which maintains the object’s value and its ability to be discovered and utilized. Examples of digital assets can include digital audio, video, images, presentations, spreadsheets, text documents, and so, so many more. They come in all different formats and sizes and each require specialized preservation strategies. Folger users are familiar with Folger digital assets already. The Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection, contains over 70,000 hi-resolution images of items in the Folger collection. These images are digital assets.

My specific research at the Folger has focused on born-digital assets created by the Library. Born-digital means that the object was created in digital form. This definition therefore excludes content that has been digitized or reformatted from a previously analog version. The born-digital assets which I have been analyzing are located in the Folger Theater and Production departments.

There are a multitude of valuable digital objects that are created during the production process: designs, audio recordings, image stills, etc. The simplest way to get a handle on what digital assets are being created in these departments was to generate an inventory which provides basic information like: what types of assets are being produced, what file formats are associated with these assets, their size, location, and hardware or software requirements. All of this information, when compiled together, offers an insightful glance into the digital preservation environment which these assets might require. For instance, this glimpse into our inventory shows us that the Theater department has a number of WAV audio files on their hands and that any preservation processes generated should address these assets appropriately:

File Format Inventory

A sample from the results of the digital file format inventory created for the Folger Theater. This sample showcases a number of WAV audio files.

This high-level profile of our digital asset holdings will be imperative in supporting digital stewardship policy and workflow development.

As we move forward in investigating the proper procedures for the care and handling of our digital objects utilizing gathered information, I urge you to do the same with yours. We are all creating digital assets which are valuable for a number of reasons, from professional to personal, on a daily basis; it is vital to keep stewardship and preservation needs in mind. There are a number of resources to help you identify the needs of your personal digital collections. For instance, The Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) has authored a guide for personal digital archiving. Additionally, the UK National Archives PRONOM file format registry offers a wealth of information about the thousands of file formats which you might encounter during your digital adventures over time. And if you’re interested in creating your very own personal file format inventory, you can access DROID, a free and open-source digital object identification tool, also created by the UK National Archives, which is the tool I utilized in generating the Folger digital asset inventories. 

While digital information is sensitive, it doesn’t have to be scary. It just needs a little TLC! And understanding what types of materials you have on hand is the first step in calculating a proper plan of action.

Author: Jaime McCurry

JAIME MCCURRY is a resident Digital Archivist embedded at the Folger Shakespeare Library as part of the 2013-14 National Digital Stewardship Residency program, a nine-month grant-funded program created by the Library of Congress and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Under the direction of Eric Johnson, Director of Digital Access, she is working to establish local routines and best practices for archiving and preserving born-digital content collected and created by the library. Her primary duties include the management of Folger web archiving initiatives in addition to evaluating institutional digital media stewardship and preservation needs. Jaime holds a B.A. in English Literature and a Masters in Library and Information Science, both from Long Island University.

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