Preserving the Past: An Active Internship at the NEDCC

by Rebecca Carpenter

In the fall of 2016, I completed an internship with the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) with Frances Harrell and others in Preservation Services.

Screen shot of the NEDCC website.

The NEDCC, founded in 1973, was the first independent Conservation lab in the US dedicated to preservation and conservation of paper and film based materials. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities it has grown to encompass Imaging and Audio services as well. With the advent of new technologies, preservation and conservation will become ever more important in the archival world and the NEDCC is leading the way.

19th century college scrapbook
This 19th-century scrapbook contains mixed media and provides complex preservation challenges.

I took a behind the scenes tour of the NEDCC facilities during Professor Morgan’s “Archival Methods and Practices” course. That experience, and my lifelong interest in preservation, led to the opportunity to work with the NEDCC.

Digitization as Digital Preservation?

Since the 1990s libraries, archives, and similar institutions have digitized select special collections materials at an increasing pace. This push occurred partly because technology enabled it. Digitization and the internet brought hidden collections out of the shadows and made them accessible to a much larger audience. This brought with it a host of challenges.

David Joyall, Senior Photographer at NEDCC, using digital photography for preservation.

At what resolution should items be scanned or photographed? What storage should we be using to store digitized materials? What platform is easily accessible to the public? How often should we do fixity checks? Is an internal or external IT department better? How much storage space will we need? What happens to the materials after digitization?

All these questions, and more, became commonplace when talking about digitization. Quickly, archivists began to ask, who could and should create and provide answers and establish best practices? The Library of Congress, Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative, and the Smithsonian Institute are some of the bigger institutions and groups that have taken on the task of creating and distributing best practices and guides. These standards are helpful, but often filled with jargon and might not be useful in small- to mid-size institutions who have limited staffing and budget resources. It is with this thought in mind my internship took shape.

The Survey

The main objective of my internship centered on assisting in the creation and distribution of a survey about the present-day digitization and digital preservation practices of small- and mid-size institutions. NEDCC hoped to use the information gleaned from the survey to devise educational classes and webinars on digital preservation and digitization techniques.

I researched and identified state and local institutions to target in the survey.

I worked with the Preservation Services team throughout the entirety of this process. In the first few weeks of my assignment with the NEDCC, much of the time was pulling together a list of possible institutions to target for the survey. Researching each state, I collected information about statewide museum and archive associations to get the information out to as many people as possible. Then, I targeted smaller and specialized institutions, especially those whose focus pertained to minority groups. After targeting individual institutions and statewide institutions, I moved to looking at listservs and social media pages that could be helpful in distributing the survey. In the end, I created a list of over 200 individual email addresses compiled for distribution, along with other 50 listservs and groups.

One of the most important steps was writing clear survey questions and making sure that the answers would give us the information we wanted. I have only made one survey before this project and it was a customer service survey. In a way, being new to preservation, digitization and digital preservation helped me to create questions hat were easy to understand, even for those with limited knowledge of the specifics of digital preservation.

I designed the preservation survey using Survey Monkey.

I designed the survey in SurveyMonkey. This was the most creative part of my internship and I had a good time with it!

The weeks following the opening of the survey became about data analysis. SurveyMonkey has an analysis tool; however, we collected so much odd and individualized data, the results of SurveyMonkey’s analysis were not great. Therefore, my job became attempting to do basic data analysis. Having never done data analysis before, I spent time watching YouTube videos and doing research about how to do data analysis. I found out from this survey how incredibly difficult data analysis is! I was not surprised to find out that the NEDCC previously hired data analysis employees.

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Staffing data from Digitization and Digital Preservation Survey. October 2016.

 

The work with the survey culminated in the presentation at the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG) conference in New York. I presented with NEDCC’s Frances Harrell. I was very nervous about speaking to such a large group of people but, in the end, our presentation went well by all accounts.

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Frances Harrell of the NEDCC and me after completion of our presentation at PASIG. October 2016.
Preservation Services Work

Along with the survey work, which took up most of the time, I was able to spend time doing other tasks for the preservation services at the NEDCC.

Kiyoshi Imai, Associate Book Conservator, working in NEDCC conservation lab.

One of my favorite tasks that did not directly relate to the survey was reference work. I read and answered questions that came to the Preservation Services email address . This enabled me to do research on preservation and conservation practices. Because of this task, I also spent some time in the conservation lab seeing what they were working on and the techniques they used regularly. This part of my internship I enjoyed more than anything else.

Take-away

The NEDCC Preservation Services team showed me how important preservation is to all collections and how vulnerable almost all collections are.  This internship was informative, educational, and challenging at times. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. I know more fully that preservation and conservation are where my true passion lies.

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