What is Digital Programs Doing About Born Digital Material?

black and white photograph of Amherst, MA featuring Amherst College, 1800s

Throughout the past year or so, the staff of the Digital Programs department have been working regularly with our colleagues in Archives and Special Collections regarding born digital material. We define born digital as material that was created and is stored electronically. Examples can include emails, websites, social media posts, and digital photos, just to name a few types. As technology develops, and our cultural record becomes increasingly web based, this type of archival material will only become more common, and more important to properly preserve. We are in an interesting and dynamic moment at Amherst right now, as we develop workflow and methods to best preserve born digital material. We are exploring and reexamining our practices and focused on collaboration, not only within Frost Library but with the Five Colleges and the broader professional community.

Last year we formed a born digital working group, with members from Digital Programs and Archives. In this group, we have developed goals, ambitions, and plans of how to approach collecting and preserving born digital material, with the focus being on accessibility and learning the most appropriate preservation methods for the materials we have. A large part of this initiative was to purchase the equipment and software needed to properly read and image files, as well as transfer archival material from analog to digital formats. We now have a FRED system, which stands for “Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device,” and is typically used by law enforcement to lift evidence safely from hard drives, phones, flash drives, and other devices. While we aren’t battling the bad guys here in the library, we have been using the FRED to extract born digital files from hard drives so that we can properly read, store, and preserve their content. We have also been working to extract data from floppy disks, and transfer video files from VHS tape to digital. There is so much to learn here, and we are fortunate to be able to welcome an Amherst undergraduate student to our department this summer, who will be able to explore this technology in new and exciting ways.

The FRED in action!
Sarah Walden McGowan using the FRED to view files from a hard drive accessioned by Archives and Special Collections.

We have also been working with Archives and Special Collections as we continue to expand and refine our web archiving initiative. I have been working closely this past year with Sarah Walden McGowan, Digital Collections and Preservation Librarian, and our web archiving group to establish regular web crawls using Archive-It. We have traditionally captured the Amherst College website and the Athletics web page, some student publications, as well as events such as the Amherst Uprising and several digital student theses. The process has now become better organized, with clear workflow and scheduling. While we are still capturing Athletics and the Amherst College website, we are dedicated to capturing more student theses and student publications in a reliable manner, and are now beginning to capture the Amherst Press as well. We continue to improve our capture abilities and data management.

As a department, Digital Programs staff always look for ways to make connections. That often means working closely and collaborating with others in Frost Library, as well as looking beyond the gates of Amherst College. We took two field trips last summer to learn how other institutions are actively managing their born digital archival material: University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Yale University. It was helpful and informative for us to speak with the digital archivists there and learn from them, as well as build and foster relationships. The Five College Born Digital Group has also been formed, and had its first meeting in March. We look at this as a way to learn  from each other, communicate our successes and concerns, and collaborate with the other four colleges in the Pioneer Valley.

This has only been a brief overview of some of the born digital work that Digital Programs has been involved in over the past year or so. Stay tuned for more in-depth posts on our digital equipment, preservation methods, and activities!

Jessica Dampier graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2015 with a B.A. in English Literature and Medieval Studies. She is now a Simmons LIS graduate student with a concentration in Archives Management, and works in the Digital Programs department at Amherst College. Her current focus is on digitization projects and digital archiving. Jess’ personal interests include creating art, travelling whenever she can, collecting antiquarian books, animal rights activism, and gardening.