Episode 4: Erin O’Meara on Archiving Electronic Records

OMearaOn episode four of Beyond the Stacks, we hear from Erin O’Meara, an Archivist at the Gates Archive, which focuses on the preservation of the Gates family’s personal and philanthropic endeavors including records of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Join us as we discuss the preservation of born-digital records,  Digital Forensics, Diplomatics, and what it’s like to come on board a state archives during a series of major political scandals.

Length – 31:45

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This episode marks the end of Season 1 of Beyond the Stacks. We will be returning in a few months with the start of Season 2, an interview with a librarian at a major technology company!

See below the fold for a full transcript of the interview.

Derek: Hello and welcome to Beyond the Stacks: Innovative Careers in Library and Information Science. I’m your host, Derek Murphy, and today I’ll be talking with Erin O’Meara. Erin is an archivist with the Gates Archive, where she manages digital strategy and tools. The archive focuses on the preservation of the Gates family’s personal and philanthropic endeavors, including records of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. From 2009 to 2011, she was the Electronic Records Archivist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she helped deploy the Carolina Digital Repository. Before joining UNC Libraries, Erin served as the Electronic Records Archivist at the University of Oregon. Hey Erin!

Erin: Hi!

Derek: How’s it going?

Erin: Good! How about you?

Derek: Pretty good, pretty good. So Erin, the Gates Archive… That is a big deal. That’s Bill Gates, correct?

Erin: Correct.

Derek: So, I have never really heard too much about personal archives, or, you know, the archive of one important individual. So I’m very curious what it’s like day-to-day, working over there?

Erin: Well, it’s a really interesting archives for a few reasons. The first one is that, yeah, it is sort of the intentional archive for the Gates family, for their personal and philanthropic endeavors. So it includes the personal papers for the Gates family, for Bill and Melinda, but it also really is starting to document the Gates Foundation. And they’re not a really old organization. A lot of times archives collect the organizational records of organizations that have been around for a hundred, seventy-five years. The Foundation is only fifteen years old. So it’s been a really neat process, pretty unique because we’re in the midst of collecting and understanding the core mission and vision of organizations and the focal points of collecting individuals’ papers in the midst of their high points. As opposed to when people retire or when organizations are winding down, or just stepping back and looking at their legacy. So it’s a little bit different in that instance.

And then in another way, it’s also different because we’re starting an archives, we’re only a few years old, we’ve been around since 2011, that is primarily going to be born digital materials. So we’re really starting to look at that. How are we going to acquire and process hybrid collections, those collections that have both paper and digital materials in them, and intertwine them and make them linked with metadata? Even at the onset, a lot of archives really have a strong process and procedural tradition with handling paper records. So it’s been really fun.

Day to day it can be lots of different things. Working with our donors to acquire large amounts of digital information that they’re ready to transfer to the archive. Fulfilling access requests back to people like staff at the Gates Foundation. We’re a private archives, so we’re still really building those collections out since it takes multiple years to really build up collections. So we’re still in the midst of that work.

My team is mostly technologists and program managers. So, engineers helping with storage management and doing business processes. But everybody on the team, the whole archivist and technology team, we stand up every day for 15 minutes and just say what’s up, what we’re doing. And then we kind of head over to several different meetings, usually some brainstorming walls, we have lots of white board walls everywhere. And we have a big scrum board where we track out work and really talk about different things and reprioritize work every day. What else do we do? It’s never a dull moment! (laughs)

Derek: That’s great.

Erin: A lot of my work too is managing our storage infrastructure as it’s growing, and then also working on different projects with my team. trying to thing about how we can start prioritizing our technology projects, in alignment with what the archivists are up to.

Derek: Very cool. Your talk about born digital records reminds me, I want to ask about… Well, we know it’s still an unsolved problem, or at least, there’s this enormous cluster of unsolved problems when it comes to preserving born digital records. The technology for that is not 100% figured out. There’s a great deal of work to be done still. So I’m curious if you guys are inventing new solutions, or if you’re running up against these problems and what you do to deal with them?

Erin: That’s a really good question. We kind of take the approach that a lot of technology is there, but what’s missing is the duct tape, the glue, and the sort of… Some of the elbow grease to knit all the toolsets together to fulfill some of our requirements. So much of what needs to happen is really at that pre-ingest point. So, once you’ve got some digital files, how are you actually preparing the materials for long-term preservation, and depending on the file format, or the era of the files themselves, or what type of media they’re coming on, are they coming on floppy disks or over the wire… might require different tools for evaluation and audit, and actually appraisal, deciding whether you want to take the records in.

So you could see that it’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure. Trying to create some duct tape that could be moveable and adjustable depending on the stuff that you’ve got at hand and what you’re working with. So that’s a really interesting technology and workflow management project. So a lot of times that’s what we’re trying to figure out. OK, we’ve got this piece of software, how do we fit it into that workflow that we’re working on, so it can get from point A to point B? Maybe within another system or another server.

Derek: Choose your own adventure, I love it. That sounds like fun! (laughs) So, you know, we talked about what you do every day. I’m curious about where you came from. Cold you tell us about your educational background, the degrees that you’ve attained?

Erin: Sure. I have a BA in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. I started my Anthropology degree, my studies, thinking I’d be a cultural anthropologist. When I realized one of my main professors was doing her work in a war-torn country and also had a toddler, I thought, maybe I can look around for some other options within the Anthropology spectrum. So I looked at Archaeology, and I got a work study job at the Anthropological Museum, working on old Archaeological site records in the site files office. That was really my first entry into archival collections. And then my boss, she knew I kind of really enjoyed working with these historical records, so I got a job in the archives there. What I realized, in the midst of doing field work in the middle of summer in Arizona in the dust storm, and starting to work with the faculty papers of the anthropologists that had worked at the University of Arizona, was that I really loved their stories, and their narratives and documenting their work, versus doing the field work itself. So I really did see that behind so many really important Archaeologists and Anthropologists within that department were significant others, spouses, mostly wives, that were their editors, their core consultants, and also sometimes photographers or artists that were really helping them do the work. So there were all these really interesting untold stories within the faculty papers.

That was my undergrad. I really figured out what archives were in this sort of interesting work study position, and then I went and got my Master of Archival Studies at University of British Columbia. I thought I wanted to be a historical records curator, maybe working somewhere on the west coast, with, you know, Oregon Trail style records in the 1800’s. And I came out of grad school a digital archivist.

My graduate assistantship was with the InterPARES 2 project, which was an international grant to look at interactive, experiential, and dynamic electronic records and how to preserve them.

Derek: That’s very interesting. MAS. Master of Archival Studies. I am not familiar with that degree. Could you tell me a bit about maybe, why you chose that degree versus a degree in library science?

Erin: Yeah, that’s a really good question. There’s a lot of really great programs in North America within library and information schools that have specializations or concentrations within archives. But what I found really appealing about UBC’s program was that every class I took was directly applicable to archival work. So, I never took cataloging courses or some of the other things that are also required. In some instances I realized later on in jobs, when I was at universities and working with technical services departments and I didn’t know what the different MARC call numbers were, I was really wishing I had been able to take those classes. But it’s really a dedicated coursework that’s for archival professionals. They do have a joint degree as well. So it’s similar to the programs that are around. Simmons has one, Michigan and UIUC. But it’s distinctly that.

And I would say one of the other unique factors about UBC is that a lot of their curriculum is based around the science of Diplomatics, the Medieval science of detecting forgeries in papal documents.

Derek: Wow that is interesting.

Erin: Yeah. (laughs) Getting to know Medieval science is pretty interesting. Luciana really wanted to use that–Luciana Duranti, one of the main professors there–to apply that to digital preservation. So, kind of similar things, like forensics and historical methodology.

Derek: That’s neat. So you’re an expert at telling a Medieval forgery?

Erin: I don’t think so. (laughs) But I know how to intrinsically and extrinsically analyze a record for its formal elements. Sort of like, does it have a date? There’s different formal elements to different types of records. To detect the authenticity and the reliability of them. But I am by no means a… especially for the extrinsic elements of Medieval records, there’s so many different types of substrates (the types of paper) that they would have used, or inks, and some of the seals which were so distinct. They’re so beautiful, so I’d just be like “oh, that’s beautiful!”

Derek: I feel the same way. I couldn’t take a break from just enjoying the aesthetics to really think about “hm, is this fake?” So, during your studies there, what were some of the coolest things you were able to work on?

Erin: That’s a really interesting thing. I really liked some of my coursework, and then I can talk a little bit about some of the research I did too. The history of recordkeeping was a really great class that I took there to really understand where recordkeeping started within the larger global and historical landscape, all the way to today. So, taking it from stele stones that were etched out and placed in public spaces many centuries ago. Moving from oral to written tradition more formally, and then moving to things like automated forms of documentation like typewriters and computers. And then how that affected some of the technology affected the way we create records and the way we use records, and the amount of records we create. And the bureaucratic elements around that. There’s a big focus also on juridical context, so, the governmental, legal, administrative, and procedural context around records. Understanding the different types of legal systems in the world and how that does impact evidentiary law, how you analyze the evidential value of information. How different legal systems approach that, and also how it’s incorporated within democratic societies versus other areas. And how records are connected to the democratic process. I think when you’re a student it’s really eye opening to make those connections.

But some of the coolest stuff for what I did in research was for the InterPARES 2 project. I helped run a case study around archaeological records that were housed in a geographical information system, so in a GIS. The records we were looking at were records that… They were pulling all these different historical site records around the southwestern US, prehistoric data that had been gathered from excavations during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when there was a massive coalescence of communities… A lot of people coalesced into New Mexico and Arizona, and then they disappeared. These archaeologists were trying to look at what happened, why did both of those things happen? Was it ecological, was it social, was it something else? Was there financial trading things going on, or was there climate stuff going on that changed the availability of food sources? So, I was really excited to see in practice, you know, how are records actually being used to make new knowledge? To infer really big problems? But the long-term historical problem if they used this GIS and all this historical data that they had gathered and digitized into these systems, how were we going to preserve this interactive, complex set of data points in perpetuity, to be able to reproduce, evaluate, and make accessible the data that they used to come to some of these conclusions?

But what I was looking at really was how did they decide what data would go into the dataset versus what wasn’t thorough professional practice. So how did they evaluate the reliability of the data? Were they looking at elements in the 1930’s dig journal? Like, “oh, that archaeologist, I really trust his opinion, he really has produced a lot of great information.” Or, were they looking at when the archaeologist wrote in the log that day that he wasn’t feeling well or he was hung over, would they maybe not trust that dataset that day as much as the earlier datasets. Just a lot of really nuanced elements to data reliability.

Derek: Yeah. So deciding what stays and what goes.

Erin: Yeah.

Derek: Yeah, that is neat. So in your professional career then, after graduating, what are some of the coolest experiences that you’ve had in the field?

Erin: This is always an interesting question for me. I think overall in more of a macro way, I’ve really had some amazing opportunities in different workplaces to build whole electronic records programs from scratch. So being able to have the trust of the library team or my supervisors to articulate and analyze the need within campus, bring together different people and resources to create an offering to build, you know, to be able to accept and process and provide guideance to record creators on electronic records. I think I’ve been really lucky.

I’ve had some really interesting moments in my career, especially the first couple of years. I had a job at the state archives, and a couple months in, I’m thinking “oh, I’m going to be building record retention schedules for the department of veterans’ affairs and the prisons department of the state,” which is interesting but might get kind of boring after a while. But we had a massive gubernatorial scandal and we had to enact replevin. So, replevin is legally getting records back that were no longer in public custodians’ care. An older governor had a big sex scandal come out through the records within the state archives that I was working in. And then we were able to enact replevin and get his records back. So we were rapidly trying to process these materials, everybody in the archives, to make them accessible over time. And then a few months later at the same state archives, I was part of a really interesting… Another state agency had a scandal. And working with different federal and state agencies to really help them get guidance back in order to handle their records. There was a larger contempt… Somebody was held in contempt of court, a state agency lead executive, for not producing records, emails. So it was like, for years and years the records had not been part of… There wasn’t much scandal and all of this started within eight to ten months within my first job. There were multiple national scandals. (laughs)

Derek: (laughs) Oh, man!

Erin: I was working with different investigators to help people gather records. That was just kind of a fun thing, especially right out of school. I don’t think many people get those kinds of very interesting opportunities that often.

Derek: Yeah, it sounds like you came right out of school and into, like, Law and Order: State Archivist.

Erin: Yeah. (laughs) So it was really neat. And it really taught me that records, you know, every major story that we hear within a newspaper, there are records behind that. They really do hold people accountable, or also help provide context to larger stories.

Derek: Definitely. Well, cool! So, what skills that you developed in your studies have proven most helpful to you in your career?

Erin: I think to me, some of the biggest things that I’ve learned were critical thinking skills. I think a lot of the timeless things that you get indoctrinated in within your program of study… Archival theory and core principles, and the breadth of what those theoretical approaches and principles are across the world. We definitely learned about the series system within Australia as well as the difference between Jenkinsonian and Schellenbergian approaches to appraisal, and that it’s not just one canonical approach to how you do that. So really kind of understanding those different things to apply them, and using critical thinking to apply them within your situation. So, what’s going to work pragmatically as well as within best practice with whatever job you’re going to have. That’s been really helpful. And I think also the idea that… assuming that nobody really knows what you do, so you have to always be the, you know, no matter what you’re doing, you’re really an ambassador about the archives, or recordkeeping, guidance, or maybe digital repositories. You really need to think about that from a relationship perspective. So how do you make sure that people have a positive experience, because you want to keep getting invited to meetings and getting brought in to decisions where you need to be. But some people just don’t know what those roles are, so they would not have assumed to bring you along.

Derek: Yeah, no doubt. Kind of that workplace politics aspect, right?

Erin: Yeah, and I think archivists can use their being somewhat specialized, lot of people don’t know about what we do, to that advantage. Right? So giving people an opportunity to learn about it in a really neat way. Telling good stories, making your case. We had little mock studies and presentations like that in school that helped us practice. How would we be relevant to a person that is deploying a recordkeeping system and doesn’t believe that it’s needed within an organization? Or how would you pitch a digital preservation program and system and technology toolset to a library administrator? Those kind of things.

Derek: Yeah. A bit of light roleplaying.

Erin: Yeah.

Derek: Yeah, that’s very helpful. And you know, I’m glad to hear you say some of the things you’ve been saying, because I just took an intro archives class over at Simmons and as a matter of fact, we went over a bunch of the specific archival theory things you just brought up. So hey, I guess things are going well.

Erin: Oh, great! Yeah, and I think on the flip side, some of the things I wish I had done more, now, in hindsight, in school, was tinker more. I wish I had tinkered a lot more with tools and hardware and software and virtualized storage. And spent more time exploring different technology toolsets, under the hood of a lot of different things. I think in the early 2000’s when I was in school, there weren’t as many solutions or opportunities for that, but now that people are thinking about digital forensics and different floppy disk controllers and there’s lots of great digital preservation software out there, I think current students have a really great playground now. I’m really excited that people coming out of programs have done that, have tinkered around and can speak to that when they’re coming in to their first jobs.

Derek: Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting point. As a student now, you’ve got me thinking, “Oh god! I’ve got to tinker with stuff! That’s a good idea!” What would you say maybe would be a good example of a particularly helpful piece of software to learn, or piece of hardware to play around with? What would you say is something that a student might not necessarily be exposed to in class, but would help them a lot if they were going on to do some, say, digital type of work in an archive?

Erin: Well, there’s a lot of different things I think they could potentially look at. Like you said, I think there’s things they might immediately think about, which is, some of the digital preservation software options out there. So, looking at the demo side of Archivematica or Preservica. But also potentially looking at, how does Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure work? How do cloud service platforms work, and how do they interact with things like DuraSpace’s digital preservation cloud storage service? Or what are the principles behind replication within cloud computing? Or how does virtualization now within storage environments really impact the way we think about disaster recovery backup replication for both our digital content management and digital preservation systems as well as our digital preservation storage environments?

And for hardware, I think there’s some really cool floppy controllers; the KryoFlux is really fun to play with and sort of see the pulse in the content stream that comes out of it. And some of the cool emulation software out of the Internet Archive. If you were to bring in somebody’s old hardware, how would you deal with that? All the different connectors. The Internet Archive’s JSMESS stuff, the emulation of videogames is really cool, that’s kind of a cool end product. Let’s say you have a piece of really old computer equipment. Do you know the types of pin connectors and what they do? Is that a data connector or is that connecting to a monitor? To me, those are things that you might encounter in those contexts that you may have not thought about. Things you need to know. Or maybe just, where would you find old computing manuals, to be able to put something back together and be able to get data off of it. Those are some real life scenarios I think we all face.

Derek: Did you pick up some of those skills on the job? I imagine going into an archive for the first time that does a lot of digital forensics, I’d imagine you come across a lot of equipment that maybe you’ve never had the chance to play around with.

Erin: For sure. There wasn’t a lot of that where I was working and I think my graduate education was really before the time of digital forensics truly being part of archival discussions. And so, yeah, I really learned about different connectors, that you can buy a whole tackle box from the same people that make the FRED, the Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device towers, that have all the different connectors that you may need, like SCSI, iSCSI, mini USB, all those old… the different pin connectors. So, really understanding what they do. And also, USB-connected drives, are they self powered? Are they deriving power from the main device? Do they need a power source? Which ones are better when you’re ordering removable drives? Or floppy drives? Or storage drives? Yeah, these are things you’ll learn on the job. But the things you may encounter in your day-to-day life are within… I think more and more, library schools are building labs with some of that gear as well, that they’re getting from donations or small purchases. It’s cool to play around with that stuff. It’s good when you’re doing it before you get in your real life job, so you’re doing it with stuff that you can destroy. (laughs)

Derek: (laughs) No doubt. It reminds me of, I was doing a film archives internship and just completely destroying some old film that was already, you know, pretty color drained and no one really cared about it. That sort of thing is important, to be able to be in a safe space and able to make mistakes learning equipment.

Erin: Yeah, to have some things that you can… Some material that’s not part of the collection that you can play around with and not, yeah, exactly, that’s so important to have. Even within your collections when you’re starting up things or you might need some test content or media.

Derek: Yeah. Maybe a digital preservation lab would be a cool thing in a library science school.

Erin: Mhm.

Derek: Yeah, just full of all that floppy disk reading equipment, you know, stuff like that.

Erin: Yeah, and there’s a couple cool examples that people are starting to build. I’m sure there’s so many more that I don’t know about, but… UNC Chapel Hill has one. A lot of it’s through the Bit Curator program that they’ve done. And I think Dorothea Salo has one at Madison. I think it’s called the RADD lab. I think that’s what hers is called. [editor’s note: that’s correct] It sounds really exciting and I’m really curious to see it. Maybe if I’m ever up there. But to have a place where students can experiment sounds great.

Derek: Yeah, same here. Alright, so that’s everything I had to ask about, but is there anything you wanted to add to the conversation?

Erin: I don’t think so. I think this is a really interesting programmatic experience, this part of the IMLS project. I think there’s different approaches that were taken about truly exploring the future of libraries, and I think it’s nice to have a personal reflection of that too added to this, featuring some of the folks through this type of series provides different viewpoints and lenses into career paths from library and information schools. I think that’s neat, because just like how I got into this career, it was really the stories behind the people that I found most interesting. So I’m always really interested in where people seek opportunity and utilize the important knowledge and the values within library and archives programs and they take them out into the world and their careers.

Derek: Absolutely. I’m having a ball too, learning about this. It’s great. Well, thank you so much, Erin. Before we go, do you have perhaps a place on the internet that people can find you, maybe Twitter or anything you’d like to share, a website?

Erin: Sure. I have an unnecessarily long Twitter handle, but maybe now that you’ve heard my story it might make sense. It’s @diplomaticaerin at Twitter.

Derek: Great! Maybe we’ll get some new followers out of that. Well, thanks again for coming by, and it was great talking to you!

Erin: You too!

Derek: Alright, bye!

Erin: Take care.


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