What Does a Digital Archivist Do?

Rollins generates reams of digital data each day. It’s Angelina Altobellis’ job to decide what to do with it.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) If you want to find out what courses were being taught at Rollins 50 years ago or what issues were on the College president’s mind then, all you have to do is go to the Olin Library’s archives and ask. You’ll be able to get a pretty clear picture through items such as course catalogues, meeting minutes, and interoffice memoranda.

Now imagine you want to do the same thing 50 years from now. Those course catalogues are online. The president communicates by phone and email. The College has Flickr, Facebook, and Instagram accounts; a YouTube channel; a Twitter feed; and lots of websites, not to mention a marketing and communications department that churns out tons of copy (like the story you’re reading now).

“When we look back on the history of this college, are we going to get the information we need?” asks Olin Library Director Jonathan Miller. Or will it all fall into a digital black hole?

The task of sorting that out belongs to Angelina Altobellis, the College’s first digital archivist. Her title prompts two questions: What does a digital archivist do? And why not just let people use Google to search for the information they want?

Let’s address the second question: As omnipresent as it is, Google, as Miller points out, is still a young company, and the history of technology innovation suggests that it’s not necessarily prudent to assume that it will be there forever, or that the documents that pop up in a search today will pop up three or four decades from now. In addition, some of these records—faculty emails, for instance—may not pop up at all, but a future researcher may still want to see them.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) The answer to the first question is a bit more complicated, and it’s still evolving. “It’s a little bit like the Wild West,” Altobellis says.

Hers is something of a new field; the Internet as we know it is only about two decades old, after all, and Rollins is one of just a handful of small schools that have anything resembling her job. Before moving to Florida, she spent six years working as a preservation specialist for a Massachusetts nonprofit, working with small and midsized institutions to help them preserve analog collections consisting largely of books, paper, photographs, and film.

“I started to realize pretty early on that a lot of what people didn’t know how to deal with was their digital assets,” she says. “Content on old storage media like floppy disks and in outdated file formats. These things are amassing. They’re kind of the next frontier in preservation.”

Her job over the next few months will be to establish the College’s first digital archiving program—in essence, figuring out what sorts of things are worth saving and what aren’t, and developing a system to ensure their accessibility well into the future. “The idea is to formalize not only what comes into the archives,” she says, “but also what a department keeps and how long they keep it.”

It’s not as simple as it sounds. Of all the data floating around Rollins’ servers every day—the websites, emails, newsletters, memos, course notes, meeting minutes, academic scholarship, faculty publications, videos, pictures, tweets—only about 2 percent of it is worth keeping. She’s in charge of determining exactly what that 2 percent looks like, and how to make sure it’s captured while the flotsam drifts into the digital void. Her goal is to end up with a snapshot that is “representative body of records that document the evolution of the college, major events and personalities to preserve the institution’s knowledge of itself.”

In the near future, Altobellis adds, the terms “archivist” and “digital archivist” aren’t going to be all that different—information, once confined to aging paper, is now, and probably will forever be, in the digital realm.