Rioghnach Ahern

Rioghnach Ahern

Last updated on 19 April 2018

The post was written by Victoria Sloyan, Archivist at the Wellcome Collection

Last November, the Collections Information Team at Wellcome Collection and Dr James Baker from the University of Sussex organised a workshop to bring together researchers and archival professionals to explore methods for providing access to born-digital archives.

Wellcome has been acquiring born-digital records for over a decade. Initially, the focus was on encouraging donations of digital media and getting hold of the material. Once records started to arrive we turned out attention to making sure they were kept safe and adequately preserved. We then began cataloguing in earnest, leading to all kinds of questions being considered about arrangement and description: is there an original order? How will researchers expect to navigate and use born-digital records? To what extent is the metadata embedded in digital files sufficient for research use? Many of our decisions were based on best guesses, recognising that we didn’t fully understand how the catalogue records or the born-digital records themselves would be interrogated and used by researchers.

Now that we’re got workable procedures in place for acquisition, preservation and cataloguing sorted (though refining and improving is a constant process), we’ve turned our attention to access. Until recently we were not making born-digital records available to users. We have now started making records available on an ad hoc basis, but we’re keen to develop a more systemic and scalable access structure.

However, we’ve found ourselves in a born-digital chicken and egg situation; we have been slow to progress the development of an access system because we lack evidence of user requirements, which we haven’t been able to build up because we have not been providing access to users.

It was while we were pondering this conundrum that Dr James Baker from the University of Sussex got in touch. He was interested in the work we’d done to catalogue born-digital archives and was keen to see if we had other mutual interests we could explore. The result was the workshop held in November 2017.

The full report can be read here. Wellcome’s main takeaway was the need to revisit our cataloguing approach. Access to records is closely tied to the initial discovery of these records and it became clear that some of the assumptions we made when developing our initial cataloguing procedures seem to be misplaced.

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