This post was written by Heidi Elaine Dowding, Dumbarton Oaks’ National Digital Stewardship Resident. Her project focused on developing a holistic digital asset management solution for a diverse cultural heritage institution. You can find her online at @theglobal_lib.
I first stepped into the NDSR program a year after finishing my MLIS at Wayne State University, and only a few months after returning from a job in Kazakhstan. A fellowship program administered by the Library of Congress, NDSR dropped ten recent graduates in local institutions and set us loose to work on digital preservation issues. The aim of the program is to build a collective network of emerging professionals in the field of digital preservation, and to solve real challenges being faced in cultural heritage institutions. While our projects all focused on digital preservation in some way, the ten resident projects map out across a variety of different, often inter-related issues.
The program wasn’t always easy. But as I started reflecting on our accomplishments (my own and the entire cohort’s) as part of writing this blog post, I’ve realized just how much we did over the past nine months.
We organized a conference with nearly 200 people in attendance (though props especially go to the main organizers, Maureen McCormick Harlow and Lauren Work). We visited the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation and met digital preservation pioneers like Howard Besser and Nancy McGovern. We presented at ALA Midwinter.
All of this, in a timespan of less than a year. And on top of it, there was the actual work.
My job revolved around digital asset management at Dumbarton Oaks – I won’t go too far into the specifics, but if you’re interested you can read more here. It was a great opportunity to meet staff from all over Dumbarton Oaks and to learn about the specific preservation issues that surround diverse types of digital assets. It was also an opportunity to develop myself as a consultant, and to manage a large project from beginning to end. This latter experience has been especially integral as I am now a PhD student designing a three-year study to look at economic sustainability in digital publishing. The lessons that I learned during my time at Dumbarton Oaks have been paramount in my new approach to research design, and so I thought that I’d share some of the major ones for anyone else who might be at the beginning stages of a new research project.
First – Mixed methods research is really time-consuming.
I actually didn’t fully put this together until I was sitting in the first meeting of the fellowship program through which I’m now pursuing my degree, when all of the fellows were presenting their research plans and seasoned professors were offering advice. In one case, after a fellow mentioned the need to use both quantitative and qualitative approaches, one advisor turned grave and reminded them of the added time and headache that this might cause.
In my research at Dumbarton Oaks, I started with a survey of staff to get a faint idea of the pulse of the institution, followed by relatively unstructured interviews around the institution – twenty-five of them. This was done concurrently with my quantitative research, which looked at the actual files that I was hoping to preserve. This second research project used the tool DROID to analyze large areas of storage, and output a report regarding file format numbers, unreadable files, etc. All of this research led to an overload of data that needed to be analyzed and synthesized into some meaningful discovery.
So in looking back now, there are a few things I would change. First and foremost, I would have designed the interviews to be completely structured, so that the data could be analyzed more quickly. My approach (having questions, but largely allowing the participant to guide the discussion) allowed me to gather a lot of data, but so much that it couldn’t be fully analyzed in the amount of time I had. Second, I would have separated the two research studies and budgeted more analysis time for both. While the quantitative study provided concrete evidence to back up qualitative data gathered from interviews, managing both simultaneously was untenable.
Second – Scale the project to your given time period.
This sounds obvious, especially when I read advice blogs for new PhD students, but in practice it’s much more difficult to envision how much work a project design will take to carry out. In my case, I only had nine months and, looking back, my project simply did not scale to that very brief amount of time. If I could design my project now, I reckon that I would keep the mixed methods approach, but scale it down to one department (not twelve). While this would have added less value to the overall institution, it would have given me a greater opportunity for success in that one department (and it would have been much better for my stress level).
And finally… Agility is a state of mind.
Your project will never turn out the way that it’s planned. Things always need to be tweaked, the timeline might be off, a piece of software may not actually suit your needs… There are so many things that will require changes to your work. This isn’t anything that you can help – it’s just the nature of project management. To be able to remain agile, especially in the face of these challenges, means that your project will not only survive, but that it (and you) will come out much stronger.
So with that, this is my last blog post for ICFA, and the final task on my NDSR to-do list. It’s been a great learning experience, and something that I’ll carry with me throughout my career in LIS.