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The Next Generation of Digital Stewards

Boston-area participants in the National Digital Stewardship Residency presented their mid-year progress.

National Digital Stewardship Residency Boston Graphic

January 27, 2015—Michael Hart may not be a household name, but in 1971, he made history when he hand-keyed the text of the Declaration of Independence into a computer mainframe and made it available for public download. The act was arguably the first documented instance of the digital preservation of cultural heritage, which has become an immense effort across memory institutions worldwide.

In the years since, preservation specialists have come head-to-head with another challenge—how to ensure the longevity and accessibility of the digital artifacts they’ve created. The Boston-area National Digital Stewardship Residency (NDSR) participants recently shared their efforts to do so in a midyear presentation session, discussing advances on projects that range from refining the audio preservation workflows of an MIT collection dedicated to jazz educator Herb Pomeroy to curating a Northeastern University collection of born-digital materials, including texts and social media posts, related to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Harvard was represented by Joey Heinen, a recent graduate of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program at New York University. Under the tutelage of Andrea Goethals, manager of digital preservation and repository services at the Harvard Library, Heinen considers how to preserve content stored in digital formats that are already considered to be obsolete, such as Kodak photo CDs and RealAudio files. Heinen’s project has focused on building a workflow for converting these sights and sounds into newer formats while maintaining fidelity to the analog originals.

Making decisions about what formats to use for the future can be difficult, and preservation specialists must make use of scientific methods to practice their art. For example, to judge the accuracy of color in visual images, Heinen explained, “you need metrics other than your eyes to gauge success.” Along with David Remington in Imaging Services, Heinen uses sophisticated software applications to measure the color differences across image formats, providing him with a more precise basis for comparison than the naked eye, especially important since, as he confessed, “I’m actually a little bit color-blind.”

Boston is one of the first cities to host the NDSR program, although the program hopes to expand its operations nationally in the next two years. In Boston, host institutions include Harvard, MIT, Northeastern University, Tufts University, and the public radio station WGBH. The program was launched in 2014 by the Library of Congress in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services.