Late last month I attended the Digital Directions Conference in Denver, Colorado, from September 26-28. This is an annual conference that attracts professionals in the field of digitization and digital preservation.

The conference caters more-so to organizations that are in the developing stages of their digitization operations. But there was also some in-depth content for the more seasoned members of the audience. Topics covered included standards and best practices, assessing risks to digital collections, copyright and fair use, planning digital projects, creating digital objects, and managing digital collections. There was also a Q&A session on funding digitization projects.

Participants

The event attracted a sizeable audience—161 people according to the handout showing a list of the participants. Most in attendance were from Colorado. One person came from as far as Canada. They represented academic and public libraries, cultural heritage institutions, corporate libraries and even people who worked for themselves, such as a freelance digital archivist that I met who is also from Colorado.

Another notable person I met is Abdi Roble, who is originally from Somalia, and is the executive director of the Somali Documentary Project. The undertaking has attracted notable media attention throughout the years. Since 2003, Abdi has been documenting the immigration of Somalis arriving to the United States and also of the people placed into the refugee camps in Kenya. He told me that he has mass amounts of photographs that he wants to digitally archive, and came to the conference for insight on how to successfully do so.

From the range of participants, I thought of how this was a great opportunity for people—particularly students—to see the various options that they have for choosing a career in digitization. I did notice one student in attendance.

In addition to myself, there were two others at the conference from North Carolina, which included Emily Gore from the Digital Public Library of America. I previously met Emily back in August in Winston-Salem with Chelcie Rowell, where Emily was part of the Rights Statements workshop. Emily gave two presentations during the conference in Denver. As a side note, last year’s Digital Directions Conference was in Raleigh, NC.

Presentations

All of the speakers at the conference are well experienced and were very informative. I particularly enjoyed Jarrett Drake’s presentation on “Assessing Risks to Digital Collections,” which focused on working with born-digital content from obsolete storage media such as floppy disks. Jarrett is a digital archivist at the Princeton University Archives.

I had interest in his presentation partly because I have not yet been involved in a large digitization project dealing with floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, flash drives, etc. Jarrett works with these items on a regular basis, which are either owned by his university or provided to their library by donors. He explained how careful you have to be when accessing these items on the computer—particularly items from the donors—because they may unknowingly contain viruses. On his Twitter feed, Jarrett regularly documents his episodes dealing with these occurrences.

Jarrett also comes across pieces of personally-identifiable information (PII) within these digital storage units, such as social security numbers, financial records and medical information. During his presentation, he mentioned an article co written by our very own Tim Pyatt (Security Without Obscurity: Managing Personally Identifiable Information (PII) in Born-Digital Archives) that delves further into this topic.

Greg Cram’s “Understanding Rights & Responsibilities” session also proved to be popular among the crowd. Greg is the associate director of copyright and information policy at the New York Public Library. The NYPL has recently started a huge digitization campaign where they have digitized and released scores of public domain content on their website. Greg caused some laughter from the crowd when he defined his job—by simply saying that his role is to make sure that the NYPL “don’t get sued (and lose)” as a result of library staff potentially digitizing and releasing copyrighted material.

In addition to covering copyright and fair use, he also went over his experience with digitizing the Buttolph Collection of Menus dating back to 1843. His discussion of digitizing the menus that are still in copyright for this project was intriguing.

While many of the restaurant menus digitized in the collection are within copyright, Greg said that scores of these restaurants closed down after just a few years. And some of the owners of those closed restaurants could not be contacted by the NYPL to get their permission to digitize and make available online. However, Greg explained how they took the gamble of digitizing and publishing these menus anyway. Part of their rationale is that since the menus themselves were not created by the restaurant to garner a profit (just the food), they believe the risk of litigation is extremely small. To add to his argument, he explained that other restaurant owners whom they were able to contact not only gladly gave permission to digitize their menus, but also asked for a copy of their menu emailed to them because they no longer possessed their menu in the physical.

It was also interesting to listen to Greg’s philosophy on digitizing copyrighted material in the NYPL’s special collections that is in dire physical condition. Even if they have not yet contacted the copyright owner, he alluded to digitizing the item anyway, and placing the digitized file within “dark storage”—away from public access–so it can at least be preserved until permission to digitize is granted.

Working with what you have

Some of the conference goers have modest digitization operations at their institution, and some run the entire digitization operation themselves. Some talked about their lack of resources. One audience member said that she was given the responsibility of digitizing her company’s archives by herself, and revealed that she only has one commercial grade flatbed scanner to use.

Roger Smith, a conference speaker and also the director of Digital Library Development Program at UC San Diego Library, raised eyebrows from the audience when he said that he knows of an institution that has posted their digitized images online on Facebook as a form of digital preservation. One audience member revealed that her institution used Flickr.

Another discussion during Roger’s presentation arose on whether it was important to digitize an entire book—even if it has a large amount of blank pages—or scan the book and exclude digitizing the blank pages. There was some back and forth conversation from the audience on both sides of the argument. One person said that it is important to digitize the entire book. Another audience member said it was more efficient for them to not digitize the blank pages.

Roger said that there is no right or wrong way of handling these type of situations. In a separate session, Emily Gore told the audience to be consistent with whatever procedures are made in the digitization process. That way, even if you realize that it was done incorrectly, it will be less painful to go back and fix.

Moving Forward

I believe this conference will prove most useful when delving into upcoming digital projects—particularly our photographs project beginning next semester, and perhaps a large-scale project working with born digital files from obsolete storage media.

A recurring message throughout the conference was getting acquainted with fellow conference goers. The idea is that we all have some useful knowledge to share with each other, which in turns makes the digitization community stronger as a whole. I indeed met some great colleagues that I plan to keep in contact.