Q&A with Sarah Newhouse, Drexel Libraries’ First Digital Archivist
July 3, 2018
In June, Sarah Newhouse joined the Drexel Libraries in the role of Digital Archivist—a newly defined position in the University Archives Department. Sarah brings seven years of archives experience to support the growth of Drexel’s curation services. Libraries Communication Manager Stacy Stanislaw sat down with Sarah to learn more about her plans for management of digital assets as she takes on this exciting new role.
Q: Tell me about your background and some of your “past lives” in the archives profession.
This is actually a second career for me. I’ve been working in archives since 2011, but before that I got an M.A. in English with a focus on Old English poetry, and then I taught college writing for a few years. After I got my MLIS from Drexel, I started where many archivists start: doing very analog, hands-on work processing 17th to 21st century manuscripts, records, books and photographs.
I’ve always loved technology—even going back to the old days of BBS (bulletin board systems) and my high school Geocities website (thankfully not archived)—and I’ve been steadily bending my career towards the digital. I think this is a perfect field for me—I get to leverage my natural proclivity for making lists and organizing things (the beating heart of archives), share my love of history and connecting people to their own stories, and challenge myself by constantly learning new tech skills.
Q: What does it mean to be a digital archivist? What is your role at Drexel?
If you Google “digital archivist” you’ll get thousands of jobs, each with different definitions and responsibilities. But broadly speaking, it means collecting, preserving and providing access to digital assets that are of historic value. The details of those responsibilities vary from institution to institution, but at Drexel, it means that I have two main areas of focus: digitized and born-digital materials that are part of the University Archives and thus represent Drexel’s history. Digitized materials are items that have analog or physical originals, like this circa 1955 recording of Drexel’s fight song that was digitized from a phonograph record. I’m also responsible for born-digital materials, which were created on a computer and therefore never had an analog original. This includes items like CDs and hard drives that come mixed in with otherwise paper-based archives collections, but also websites, emails, software, oral history audio files and the archival, digital copies of Drexel’s theses and dissertations.
Q: As the “inaugural digital archivist,” do you have a “digital agenda” for DUL? In other words, what’s in store for us that you’ve joined the Archives team and how do you envision yourself shaping Drexel’s collections?
Well, step one is mapping out what we’re currently doing with digital archives. The Drexel Libraries has a complex digital infrastructure, and a lot of the existing digital archives systems hardware, software and workflows have to interact with other parts of the Libraries’ digital ecosystem. Understanding that big picture of all our systems is essential to what comes next and to doing the kind of projects that will enhance the Drexel community’s access to our archives. Once I have that map of our systems and procedures, I can compare it to digital archives standards set by organizations like the National Digital Stewardship Alliance, the Society of American Archivists and other groups that are looking out for the longevity of our digital history. Beyond that, the keyword in digital preservation is sustainability. Preserving something digital means committing to an ongoing—“in perpetuity” as archivists like to say—series of actions designed to keep digital files 1) safe and 2) accessible. Whatever projects I undertake at Drexel, I want them to lay sustainable foundations for the University Archives’ digital future.
Q: What projects are you most looking forward to working on at Drexel?
In the short term, I’m excited to put more materials into IDEA, Drexel’s online digital repository! One of the things I love about digital archives is that they open up access to anyone with an Internet connection. Enhancing our online content is a great way to serve our user communities and expand awareness of Drexel at the same time. Longer term, I’m looking forward to working with some really smart colleagues to shepherd the Libraries through a rapidly changing archival landscape, addressing things like collecting research data and sustainable digital preservation.