Friday, October 12, 2012

Day of Digital Archives: Artist's Collections

Well, this year's Day of Digital Archives ha been much more successful for me than last year (I broke my elbow in a cycling accident that day and spent much of it loopy because of the pain pills. I did type out a one-handed blog post but I don't think it ended up being coherent.) This year I want to talk about an artist's collection we've been working on for a bit at UO.

The Tee A. Corinne papers are one of the many hybrid collections we have in Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon. Tee Corinne was a lesbian visual artist, writer, and activist who explored female sexuality in her visual and written works. Upon her death in 2006 she left her entire estate, including the rights to her literary and artistic works, to the University of Oregon Libraries. Owning the rights is nice because, once we've done our initial processing and preservation work on the files, we don't have to worry about any rights issues when providing access to the digital objects.

However, before we can even start worrying about access to the materials we've had to devise a plan for working with the digital records. When UO received Tee's collection in 2006, it included a laptop and a desktop computer as well as removable media containing various works and papers. At that time, the UO did not have well-developed procedures of workflows in place for ingesting or otherwise processing digital objects. The files were pulled off Tee's computers and the various media and moved over to library servers, but nothing else happened to them for a number of years. In the meantime, there was a gap of more than a year between the time my predecessor (the first e-records archivist at UO) left and the time I was hired. The Tee Corinne e-records were left on the servers and until now I haven't been able to work with them at all.

When I started my initial assessment of the digital portion of Tee's papers, my first task was to try to gather all the digital objects from the collection into one place on the server. Because of the lack of workflows when the collection was taken in, the digital objects ended up in a number of different places on the server. Although I think I've managed to round up most of them now, I still run across stray files that have to be added in with the others. When we started the project this summer, we identified 65,328 digital files we knew came from Tee's computers or from the removable media in her collection. Although I would love to be able to declare that all those files in fact belong in Tee's collection, she shared her computers with Beverly Brown, her lover, whose collection the UO also owns. In addition, Bev Brown was the founder of and was heavily involved with the Jefferson Center, an organization whose records the UO holds as well. Once we started looking at the files from Tee's computers, we realized that her files, Bev's files, and files from the Jefferson Center were all mixed together. The organic file structure the women were using did not clearly distinguish among these three separate groups. Often a single directory will contain files from all three collections. This has slowed down our processing: we're trying to develop some content-based filters so we can do some batch sorting of the files. Most of the textual documents were created in version of WordPerfect, so we're also working on batch converting those files. In addition, of course, we're having to do a lot of renaming so that the file names of the preservation copies don't have any of the potential trip-ups you see in organically-named files.

The most interesting challenge in dealing with this collection, however, has been the photographs. Photography was one of the many media in which Tee worked, and she made extensive use of Photoshop. Sometimes she created prints of several digitally-altered versions of a single photograph; we are often able to match physical prints with digital files, but in some cases we have digital photographs for which no physical print exists or vice versa. Tee also tended to revise her photographic series depending on the context in which she was exhibiting or publishing them. This means we sometimes have several different series of a single image or group of images. The series may or may not be consistent; that is, sometimes a series of images was published in one form in on place and in a different form somewhere else. In the digital files, this means that in some cases we have many duplicate copies of a single image (if Tee organized the files based on the various publications) as well as multiple different versions of an image. We would prefer not to transfer multiple copies of a single image onto our preservation servers, but we do want to preserve the different versions of the images because we feel these are an important artistic statement. Sorting out the files themselves has proved to be an enormous challenge, however. Luckily I have a team of graduate students and volunteers who are working hard on this (as well as other) projects.

What have I learned from my work with this collection so far? Obviously, documentation is a hugely important factor when you're talking about a born-digital collection. One of my main problems right now is the lack of documentation from previous work that occurred with this collection (however cursory that work might have been). I'm trying to document every step I take with these records so that my successors have a clear picture of what has and hasn't been done with the materials. It's also important for the digital archivist to be involved in the donation process if at all possible; this helps lessen the amount of triage work you have to do when the born-digital records arrive on your doorstep.

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