Disk Diving: A Born Digital Collections Survey at the Smithsonian

Blank 3.5" floppy disks and a well labeled CD-R, Holly Solloman Gallery Records Collection #293606 aAs a contractor for the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I have the unique opportunity to be a part of the Collections Care Preservation Fund (CCPF) Born Digital Survey being conducted across the Smithsonian. The project consists of a physical inventory, and questionnaires that are aimed at acquiring a greater command of the individual units' born digital holdings, and their capabilities for managing these types of materials. Seven different archival units across the Smithsonian are taking part in the survey, including the Archives of American Art, the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History, the National Air and Space Museum Archives, the National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Smithsonian, and these units in particular, have been receiving born digital materials containing various types of files and records for years. Each unit has their own way of dealing with these items, but many haven't had the ability to fully explore these rich resources or provide access to their contents. That is where this project is hoping to make a difference.

The survey's objective is to locate these born digital materials within the collections, identify a total number of media, and record other important information about each item. This portion of the survey does not include transferring the media onto a computer, but rather, is focused on taking a physical inventory. Those findings are then combined with the questionnaire answers to report on the overall quantity and condition of these items, along with the unit's capacity to handle them, and to determine a plan for how to move on to the next possible phase.

Case of CD-R's, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture Records, Collection #211607, Archives of

For each item found, its physical location is recorded, along with an estimated age of the media, and any information on what type of software, operating system, or hardware might be needed to access the files. Often times labels and writing on the materials themselves will provide insight into the age, contents, or digital environments needed. However, there are also a large number of items where this information can not be acquired, and little to nothing is known about the piece of media.

Smith Corona Data Disk, John Davis Hatch Papers, Collection #209844, Archives of American Art.

The survey's first stop was the Archives of American Art (AAA). I spent a total of eight weeks going through their collections looking for born digital materials. A small number of collections were known to contain these types of materials, but the majority of the time was spent searching blindly. The largest number of items found were CD-ROMs, with a majority coming from the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture Records. Other items found included DVDs, a variety of floppy disk sizes, data cartridges, digital audio tapes, and even some old Smith Corona 2.8" data disks. The expectation is to find not only a plethora of media types, but also discover them in various conditions and in differing amounts as the survey progresses and other units are inventoried.

The presence of these born digital materials is exciting for myself, and I can't help but think about the wealth of information contained on them. I also know that with the digital age continuing to thrive there promises to only be more of these items in future accessions.

With a total of over 1,500 items found at AAA alone, the survey's necessity is apparent, and the need to stabilize these materials, and identify what they contain is essential. Work is now underway at the National Anthropological Archvies, which promises to present a set of new and exciting born digital materials.

Related Collections

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.