Conservation and digitization of archival materials go hand in hand. There are certain formats, like audio and video materials, for which digitization is conservation, and there are many items that cannot be digitized without first making a stop at the conservation lab. Prior to March 2020, much of this relationship was reactionary: the digitization team needed work done on a collection item in order to proceed so it was taken to the conservation lab with the expectation that, depending on the nature of the treatment, the conservators would drop everything to take care of the request. We acknowledged that this workflow was not beneficial to either party, nor was it sustainable, but there was so much to be done on increasingly short timelines that it was difficult to implement a long-term workflow change.
The longer our enhanced telework situation went on, the more we realized that this full operational stop gave us the unique opportunity to rethink about what the relationship and workflow between conservation and digitization could, and should, look like once we are able to return to our collections. Like with so many other aspects of our pre-pandemic lives, there was no desire to go back to how things were. We wanted to create a “new normal” that would improve our work, reduce confusion, and set clear priorities for everyone involved. Over the last several months, we have been working on creating an integrated conservation-digitization workflow that includes establishing more defined protocols for requesting treatment of an item and realistic expectations for turnaround times based on treatment types.
As we prepare to tackle the backlog of digitization requests that have come in over the last eighteen months, the two teams have been in conversation about prioritization and how to navigate through the work. Due to schedules and protocols designed to reduce exposure to each other, we decided that the best course of action would be for digitization staff to do a preliminary condition review of requested materials. These reviews take just a few seconds for each folder and are designed to identify any obvious things—fasteners, tears, or broken spines—that might need to be flagged for further conservation review. Each folder is given a score on a scale from 0 to 5 based on the type and amount of intervention needed, with 0 meaning none, 1 meaning the whole folder contains fasteners, and 5 meaning extensive work is needed prepare the item for digitization. The score, as well as brief notes, are then recorded in a prioritization spreadsheet. Any folder that scored 1 or higher will be reviewed by conservation staff who will then add a timeframe estimate to the spreadsheet. Once we have an opportunity to test and refine this workflow, the scoring system and timeframe estimate will be integrated into our internal request tracking database so that all future requests will follow this same workflow.
We have also devoted a considerable amount of time to thinking about how time is allotted to the different and sometimes competing conservation priorities. True rush requests do come in to both the digitization and conservation workflows, but these must be balanced with longer-term projects like grant-funded initiatives. We’ve toyed around with some initial ideas, including allotting a certain number of working hours to areas like preservation-directed collections care efforts, on-demand digitization, and research requests from patrons and archival staff, but these are just preliminary thoughts. If we move forward with this, projects will be sorted into one of four categories based on degree of intervention and turnaround time, which will manage expectations for all involved. For example, a reference team member might bring a single document needing staple removal, unfolding and flattening, or a simple mend for a researcher—this would fit into our first category of straightforward intervention and a one-week turnaround. A large project involving several boxes’ worth of documents, with extensive damage or preservation needs, possibly involving digitization, would go into our fourth category. We would also devote time upfront to doing an assessment of the entire body of items needing preservation and digitization to properly estimate work needed and create deadlines.
One area in which we hope to see lots of improvement is in the tracking and throughput of our digitization and conservation work. In workflows where priorities can rapidly shift, it can then be easy to lose track of deadlines and in-progress projects. To combat this, one of the most important changes we’re proposing is to set hard deadlines for even the smallest requests, and for a staff member to be assigned as point person for managing the projects (this is where the “buck stops”). This could be someone from any of our teams—preservation, reference, archives management, digital services, or institutional history—it all depends on who instigates a given intervention. We’re also in the process of collaborating with other Archives staff to create a new tracking module that will live in our content management system. Any staff person will be able to see, at a glance, where any given collection item is within our workspaces. This will also enable us to ensure that projects don’t get overlooked and will aid in meeting deadlines, both internal and external.
As we refine and implement our new normal, we look forward to a reenergized workplace and a new standard of cooperation that will serve our collections well for years to come.
- "What Our Experts Want You to Know About Digitization" by Marguerite Roby, Jessica Scott, Kira Sobers, Heidi Stover, and Emily Niekrasz
- "What Our Experts Want You to Know About Preservation" by William Bennett, Nora Lockshin, and Alison Reppert Gerber, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- "Decision-making and Digitization: Triaging Mass Treatment Options" by William Bennett, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives