ICHORA 2020, DAY 3: Max Eckard and Dallas Pillen, “Digital Recordkeeping Practices”

Note: This presentation was part of a four-person panel entitled “Digital Transformations, Changing Institutions.”

Dallas Pillen (formerly Metadata and Digital Curation Archivist at the University of Michigan, now at Wayne State University) and Max Eckard (Lead Archivist for Digital Initiatives, University of Michigan, Bentley Library) discuss the “Impact of the Shift to Cloud Computing on Digital Recordkeeping Practices at the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library.” [1]  Yet Pillen and Eckard do not just provide a recent history of cloud computing at the University and at the Bentley. They also explain how the implementation of cloud storage (e.g. Google Suite, DropBox, Box) fits into a much longer history of records management at the University at Ann Arbor since the beginnings of the University Archives in the mid-1930s. Their sweeping view of a single institution’s approach to digital recordkeeping offers a model for other archival historians and provides cautionary advice to archival practitioners who work in institutions with records in the cloud.

Eckard and Pillen_1

In 1935, the Bentley Historical Library was founded “to serve as the official archives of the University and to document the history of the state of Michigan and the activities of its people, organizations and voluntary associations.” [2] Yet, as the Committee on University Archives acknowledged the following year, the Bentley could not serve as a single centralized physical repository for records of the UM-Ann Arbor, rather it would centralize information about records which would remain in disparate physical locations across the sprawling campus. Eckard suggests that the long roots of this “precustodial mentality” could help justify the inevitable lack of a centralized digital repository for university records in more recent times. The main mission of the University Archives, in the 1930s as now, was to preserve records “regardless of their form.” 

Eckard and Pillen_2

The “Conference on Archival Management of Machine-Readable Records,” which the Bentley hosted in 1979, kicked off what Eckard argues was a “foundational period” for digital preservation for University Archives. That two-decade era ended in the late 1990s with the first significant accession of born-digital materials, in the form of a Macintosh computer of a former University President, as well as initiation of a web archiving program by 2000. In the new century, the Bentley would implement online access systems to archival materials through a partnership with DeepBlue, the digital preservation and access repository of the University libraries. With DeepBlue, “online access to born-digital archives” via DSpace became possible. Three years later, a Mellon-funded project tackled the issue of email archiving and led to the hiring of a “Technical Lead” position. Most importantly, in 2011, a Digital Curation Division was created within the UM-Ann Arbor library, which resulted in the increased ability of archivists at the Bentley “to process collections holistically” without deferring to accession born-digital collections.

However, notwithstanding the increased support by UM libraries for the Bentley’s use of digital tools and services, the place of records management within the campus-wide discussions and decisions seems to have become increasingly fraught by the early 2010s, during the ‘great recession.’ Along with the Chief Information Officer, the director of the Bentley sponsored and took part in a Records Management Task Force, which expressed concerns about issues of control, ownership, and access involving cloud-based services. The Task Force concluded that cloud computing’s implementation at the institutional level was “driving a loss of control over university content.” 

Eckard and Pillen_4

Perhaps in response to this perceived inability to manage university records throughout their entire lifecycle, the Bentley developed a formal records management program in 2016. Moreover, the “Records Policy and Procedures Manual” (updated 2019) emphasizes that storing inactive records with long term archival value within the cloud is not a recommended solution. While the Bentley’s archivists have assembled an impressive array of creative solutions to the difficulties intrinsic to the creation of university records administered by remote, for-profit, or third-party cloud vendors, Pillen and Eckard admit that the Bentley “has had [the] most success [in] providing guidance…for records that will eventually be transferred to the archives.” Thus, the digital history which Pillen and Eckard present so convincingly demonstrates, at least to this reviewer, that university archives’ staff at the Bentley, as at many other large universities, were and are only in a position to react to enterprise-wide decisions made by university administrators. [3]

[1] See also: Max Eckard, Dallas Pillen and Mike Shallcross, “Bridging Technologies to Efficiently Arrange and Describe Digital Archives: the Bentley Historical Library’s ArchivesSpace-Archivematica-DSpace Workflow Integration Project” code4lib journal 35 (2017-01-30), accessed on November 12, 2020.

[2] “Archival Collections: Bentley Historical Library” includes the mission of the Bentley, accessed on February 21, 2021.

[3] The decision to stop using U-M Box in December 2021, after just nine years of use, is provided by Pillen and Eckard as an example of this type of top-down decision.

Dr. Eric C. Stoykovich

College Archivist and Manuscript Librarian, Watkinson Library, Trinity College (Hartford, CT)

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