Digital Archivists: Doing or Leading the Digital?

I’ve been enjoying Jackie Dooley’s recent series of posts looking at the skills and duties that are showing up in job postings for digital archivists.  I’m excited to see archives listing these. Staffing up illustrates how the issues of electronic records have risen to a significant issue in the minds of the deciders.

Like many who share this particular job title, I have some complicated feelings about the idea of “The Digital Archivist.” While my official job title is Digital Archivist, I’ve generally added a caveat. When I encounter someone else with that title, I often go on to explain that I’m more of a meta-digital archivist. That is, most of what I do is about policy, strategy, and standards; establishing and documenting practices, and collaborating to document and codify emerging practices. However, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that most of what I do is actually largely what digital archivist jobs should be doing.

I think the confusion about what a digital archivist should do is mostly summed up as follows;

Digital archivists should not the people who do the digital stuff. Everybody (including the digital archivists) need to pick up the skills necessary to work with digital records. Instead, digital archivists should be the people who are hired to lead the digital stuff.

I will elaborate on what I mean by this a bit more. I think my main issue with the idea of the digital archivist role is that I want to answer yes to two questions that some folks might imagine to be directly opposed to each other.

Should all archivists be able to work with digital materials? Yes. In this sense, all archivists must become digital archivists. It’s just a part of ongoing professional development. Digital records are not a niche area of material. Digital records are increasingly just a part of the materials archivists need to be able to process. I think some of Rebecca Goldman’s  tweets on this subject illustrate the point. Other fields haven’t hired digital waitstaff, digital nurses, digital journalists, or digital lawyers to deal with the challenges of professional development around technology in their fields.

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 11.44.35 AM

Then, does it make sense to have digital archivists as digital specialists? Yes. While everybody needs to have a basic capability, it does make sense to be cultivating leaders and specialists. In this sense, I think the digital archivists jobs are best thought of as having someone who devotes their time to continually 1) figuring out and refining digital process, workflows and tools, and  2) teaching the rest of the staff the techniques and processes they are developing. This means ideally digital archivists straddle a leadership and practice role.

Ongoing Leadership in Digital Work:  Ideally, we all become educators in this future because the only likely thing to stay constant is going to be change. We aren’t going to just establish the new “digital” practices and be done with it. The nature of digital technologies are continually shifting dramatically. That is, the shift from storing information on devices to thin client cloud set ups is frankly has big as the shift from paper to hard drives. The first sixty years of digital technologies has illustrated that there is every reason to believe that the technological mediums and nature of records  will continue to evolve frequently and we are going to need responsive practices to continually evolve with them.

An example from a different field:  I think we can look to the idea of the “School Based Technology Specialist” (SBTS) role as a way to think about this. Instead of hiring someone to be the “computer person” for each of the schools in Fairfax county school district the district created the SBTS role. The idea being that across the schools teachers need to be making better use of computing technology. So it’s not about hiring someone to be the computer person but hiring someone who is functionally an administrator to build capacity for teachers to incorporate digital technology into their practice.

In this vein, SBTS are described as trainers, liaisons, managers, troubleshooters, consultants and collaborators. I think the parallels to the digital archivists role are rather clear. Now, schools and archives are still rather different, so it doesn’t necessarily map over straight away. But still, I think the parallels are meaningful. The digital archivist role can be thought of as a leadership role for establishing practice. I think organizations would do best to think of how digital archivists can be empowered and given the authority to lead work on digital materials.

Curious for others’ thoughts on this.