What I Do as a Digital Archivist

What does a computer geek and history major do for a living? In my case, the answer is “manage the digital operations of a major archive.”

I have always interested in computers and technology. I practically inhaled every computer history book and trade magazine I came across between the ages of 11 and 17. In high school, I became just as interested in historic documents (primary sources), buildings, and sites. From the site of the discovery of gold in California to the landscape of monuments in Washington DC, to the ancient cathedrals and grand museums of southern England, I became enthralled with discovering and interpreting the past. I suppose I should have also figured that having a university professor for a father and an academic librarian for a grandmother might lead me down the path of archival science. In college, I majored in history, and due to a fascination with “peering behind the curtain” of historical place and events, went to grad school for Public History and interned at the California State Archives.

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With Mark Hall-Patton of “Pawn Stars” fame at a California History Conference in 2010.

As the Digital Archivist and Manager of Digital Programs at the UW American Heritage Center, my typical day contains a little of everything. Most of my work as the Digital Archivist centers on the computer, either at my own desk or at the AHC’s workstation for preserving born-digital records. Since becoming the AHC’s Digital Archivist three years ago, I’ve expanded our capacity to ingest (that is, transfer files on computer media to more stable storage) to over twenty kinds of media! This includes everything from CDs to Zip disks to flash drives, or even 1980’s 5 and 1/4” floppy disks.

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The AHC’s born-digital ingest setup, with a broad array of hardware support.

Transferring files from disks to our secure archival server is just the first step of my process. I then describe the files and their contents roughly (this is referred to as entering minimal descriptive metadata), and ensure their future accuracy by generating checksums (or hashes) of each file, to match against the files in the future.

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Surveying 100 year old diaries for my department to digitize.

On a typical day, this process of ingesting born-digital records takes a back seat to managing my department: Digital Programs. Comprised of an archives specialist, computer support specialist, photographic technician, and two scanning technicians, there’s always something interesting going on. From digitizing 100 year old diaries, complete with pasted-in newspaper clippings and postage stamp photographs, to using chemical developer to make copies of deteriorating cellulose nitrate negatives from the 1910s, the digital programs department works hard. Overseeing the department means everything from setting budgets, writing grants, liaising with AHC Administration and UW departments, and sometimes solving the pesky technical issue on the fly.


My day wouldn’t be complete without a meeting or three, usually of the AHC department heads, faculty, or UW faculty in areas including administration, setting born-digital policy, and crafting the AHC’s social media presence.

When I’m not doing any of the above, I’m also acting as the webmaster for the AHC’s site, catching up on professional literature like The American Archivist, or researching for my next article. I spend a lot of my free time thinking about copyright, social justice, and access to cultural heritage.

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