Developing Shared Born Digital Archival Description Guidelines at the Yale University Library

by Matthew Gorham

Since at least the early-to-mid 2000s, many archivists at Yale special collections repositories have been describing born digital materials in their archival collections, whether that entailed accounting for the disks, hard drives, and other digital media found in boxes alongside paper records, or describing the contents stored on those carriers. However, our descriptive practices for born digital materials have not always been performed consistently, nor have they been standardized or clearly defined across our repositories. Early in its deliberations, the Born Digital Archives Working Group (BDAWG) identified the need for shared guidelines regarding the arrangement and description of born-digital material in accordance with national standards and evolving best practices, and in early 2018 it made a request to the Archival and Manuscript Description Committee (AMDECO) to develop and document these guidelines. 

To accomplish this goal, AMDECO appointed a task force comprised of Alison Clemens (Manuscripts and Archives), Matthew Gorham (Beinecke Library), Jonathan Manton (Gilmore Music Library), CatePeebles (Yale Center for British Art), and Jessica Quagliaroli (Manuscripts and Archives). The Born Digital Archival Description Task Force began its work in September 2018, and after over a year of work, we are very close to releasing the first iteration of Yale University Library’s Born Digital Description Guidelines for use by special collections staff. The process by which we carried out this project is yet another great example of the power of collaboration and resource sharing (not only at Yale, but also in the larger archival profession) to address the challenges of collecting, preserving, and making born digital materials accessible to researchers.

The task force’s primary goal was to develop consistent, extensible, DACS-based guidelines for describing born digital materials. Within this framework, we wanted to define which DACS descriptive elements are required, recommended, or optional for describing born digital materials at different levels of description; highlight the key differences between born digital and analog description through the application of these elements; and provide general guidance on appropriate arrangement and description levels for born digital materials. We also didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, and because we knew that many of our peer institutions had already done considerable work on these issues, one of our first steps was to conduct an environmental scan of best practices for describing born digital materials in the wider archival profession. We reached out to 15 repositories to inquire about their own practices for describing born digital materials and received responses from most of them. It turned out that many of our peers were in the midst of similar efforts, or were planning to undertake them in the near future, while those who had already developed their own born digital descriptive guidelines were generous in sharing their documentation with us, and in some cases, detailing their own processes for creating them. 

Following this outreach effort, we spent several weeks reviewing, analyzing, and discussing the best practices documents that colleagues had shared with us (in particular, UC Guidelines for Born-Digital Archival Description, the University at Buffalo Processing and Description: Digital Material Guidelines, and Northwestern University Library’s Born-Digital Archival Description Guidelines for Distinctive Collections), and used the information we gathered from this review to begin developing our own set of guidelines. We then spent several months going step-by-step through the DACS descriptive elements, discussing how each one would apply to born digital materials; whether its application to born digital would be different than it would be when describing analog materials; how each element would or should be used at different levels of description; and which elements would be deemed required, recommended, or optional at different levels of description. 

Out of all this, we came away with a basic framework for the guidelines, which we then put to the test in a series of iterative steps. In the spring, the task force tested the guidelines by using them to describe born digital materials in a hybrid collection from the Beinecke Library. Over the summer, we sent a first draft of the guidelines to BDAWG and AMDECO for review and feedback, and then to a group of managers and leaders at Yale special collections repositories. Finally, just this past week, we held a workshop on born digital archival description practices for Yale special collections staff, taught by UCLA Digital Archivist (and co-author of UC’s born digital description guidelines) Shira Peltzman. The workshop was a variation on one that Shira had taught a few times before using UC’s born digital description guidelines, but in this case, she tailored it to our staff by using Yale’s draft guidelines to guide the attendees through a series of hands-on born digital description activities.

From each of these audiences, the task force gained unique and helpful insights into how the guidelines could be clarified or otherwise improved, and how easy or challenging they would be for archivists to implement in their work. Over the next few weeks, the task force will make some final revisions to the initial draft of the guidelines based on the feedback we’ve received, and then roll them out to the wider Yale University Library and share them publicly. If you’re interested in seeing the results of the task force’s work, stay tuned for an update to this post with a link to the published guidelines in the near future.

Update: The published guidelines are now available here!