A broken bridge between archivists and IT?

How do you build a bridge between thorough domain knowledge of a digital archivist and the sophisticated technical skills of an Information Technology expert, in order to achieve mutual goals and develop a “culture of collaboration”?  The recently published OCLC report “Demystifying IT: A Framework for Shared Understanding between Archivists” by Seth Shaw, Richard C. Adler, and Jackie Dooley sketches the outlines of building this bridge.

Harmen ter Borch: De Gebroken Brug, 1655, Rijksmuseum

A few decades ago while working at PICA (now OCLC) the computer room was a low-threshold environment. I could directly negotiate with the operators, collect my paper output from the Facit matrix printers and was immediately notified when the spinning disks crashed. Nowadays the distance between IT people and people who are using IT has grown bigger. On the one hand computers are more complex while on the other hand the IT activities are highly specialized and invisible to most people.

As digital preservation, and other activities where IT is involved, cannot do without mutual understanding between archivists and IT people, this report is

 “intended to help digital archivists understand the priorities, techniques and culture of information technology so that they can be the most effective collaborators possible.”

Whether you work in a small organisation with an “IT shop”, or a bigger organisation with a dedicated IT department, or whether you outsource your IT activities, in all situations it is important that there is a common understanding between the IT professional and the archivist. IT professionals should acquire at least a basic understanding of archival methods and methodology. Archivists need to understand how IT people work, understand their concepts, and what they expect from the archivist. A shared glossary is suggested and starting with the terminology from OAIS might be helpful.

The focus of the report is on stimulating the archivist to understand IT and less the other way around. However, in daily practice the lack of knowledge by IT professionals from the archival domain has led to some severe incidents. Both the archivist and the IT professional are looking at the same set of bits, but with a different pair of glasses: content versus files. Reading this guide might help the archivist to avoid big mistakes. To optimize the collaboration, however, a counterpart guide for IT people, that explains the archival domain, is in my opinion a necessity.

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