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Book Review: The No-nonsense Guide to Born-digital Content

This comprehensive yet easily digestible guide to working with born digital-content aims to dispel the idea of the digital as digitised analogue materials and provide a complete guide to working with content that has been brought to life in the digital realm. As stated in the foreword by Trevor Owens, Head of Digital Content Management for the Library of Congress, there is a need for a shift in thinking within the information profession away from thinking of digital material as digitised physical items towards a digit-first mindset. The introduction expands on this problem, setting out why it is important and how this book seeks to address it.

Chapter one provides the basics, covering what digital information is, the formats on which it can come as well as storage media and how it is encoded on them. The final section covers code repositories such as GitHub and gives some command line basics – necessary skills for any information professional looking to be well equipped for working with more modern forms of born-digital content. While the chapter is perhaps unavoidably technical at times, it does manage to give a clear overview of the necessary knowledge to understand what it means for content to be born-digital and how to begin working with it.

Chapters two and three focus on selection and acquisition. The former outlines the types of materials one might be dealing with when selecting born-digital content and presents a number of examples, including ones from Stanford University and even NASA. In the latter example, it is interesting to read about NASA’s approach to archiving, preserving and making space data accessible not only for scientist and educators but for the general public. The latter chapter is more technical and sets out some guiding principles for acquiring born-digital materials in a number of ways including on physical formats such as floppy disks, hard-disks and USB drives, as well as network-born content such as emails, HTML, PDF and social media. Relevant technical aspects for the preservation of each type of content are discussed and guidance provided on accessioning and ingesting this content into digital repositories. Overall, these two chapters combined should leave readers of all levels with a clear idea of how to begin developing mission statements, collection policies and donor agreements for the selection and acquisition of born-digital content for their own purposes.

Chapter four focuses on describing born-digital content, covering, in particular, the elements of description that are unique to born-digital content and how to address these using existing systems and standards. Examples are giving using familiar bibliographic formats and standards used in libraries, such as AACR, MARC, RDA and BIBFRAME, as well as some used specifically in archives and records management such as IASD(G), RAD and DACS. The final section of the chapter presents several use-cases which help put the first half of the chapter into context. One thing this chapter does particularly well is highlight just how time-consuming it can be to make sure born-digital content is accurately described to enable both preservation and access.

Chapter five covers the preservation and storage strategies involved in working with born-digital content. It begins by referring back to the chapter on selection, noting the importance of having a good selection policy in making sure born-digital content is well preserved. This is also related to storage media, noting the challenge and risks involved overcoming the (often in-built) obsolesce of many forms of digital storage media and outlining the importance of developing effective strategies and policies for preserving born-digital content. The latter two concepts, strategy and policy, are expanded on further towards the end of the chapter where some prominent digital preservation models are discussed.

It is no understatement that facilitating access to digital content, in general, can be extremely complex and challenging. Chapter six, covering access specifically, serves to highlight this point very well while, covering everything from decisions about access strategies, through to legal and technological restrictions and the importance of doing research to understand who will be accessing the content and what their needs are. This latter section of the chapter is perhaps a touch underdeveloped as understanding your user’s needs is arguably fundamental to understanding how to approach born-digital content as a whole. However, it does highlight some useful materials at the end of the chapter for anyone who wants to get up-to-speed in this area and begin carrying out user research to improve access provisions.

Chapters seven focuses on designing and implementing workflows. Of particular interest is the author’s conceptions of workflows as living documents to be updated or amended as conditions change – something that is happening with increasing frequency when it comes to digital content. This point is well illustrated in the case study of the Denver Art Museum’s stewardship of the American Institute for Graphic Art’s award and recognition materials, where their initial choice of tools and software created the necessary flexibility to work with the variety of materials at hand.

The final chapter looks to the future covering such things as advances in storage media, software and apps, cloud technologies, as well as emerging trends in description and access. The final section, growing your skills, takes an inspiring look at the kind of skills future information professionals will need when working with born-digital content, such as scripting with languages such as python and PHP and working with web APIs. Skills that will benefit any information professional working with modern library management systems and software.

Overall, this book is clear and comprehensive (taking the no-nonsense part of the title seriously) and would be useful for readers of all levels, from LIS students and academics to senior library managers. Each chapter gives enough information to get started but also benefits strongly from the suggested reading that will allow the reader to begin researching and building a deeper knowledge in their own area of interest.

Heather Ryan, Walker Sampson.  The No-Nonsense Guide to Born-Digital Content.  London:  Facet Publishing;  2018. ( No-Nonsense Guide Series).  240 pp.  Softcover and EPUB. $75.99US, £59.95UK. Softcover ISBN 978-1-78330-195-9; EPUB ISBN 978-1-78330-256-7.

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