On Buy-In, Communication, and Sustainability

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Shira here. Last week officially marked the final six weeks of the residency, which means that the bulk of my time these days is dedicated to drafting my final project deliverable: a Digital Preservation and Sustainability document that will serve as the foundation for Carnegie Hall’s digital preservation policy. I’m proud of the document that I’m creating, but as I head into the home stretch a big concern of mine has become what will happen with this document after my work here wraps up.

What can I do to ensure that these policies take root? How can I make sure that they’ll become woven into my colleagues’ routines at Carnegie Hall? The underlying answer to all of these questions is simple: buy-in. In the context of digital preservation, buy-in means the acceptance of and willingness to actively support and participate in digital preservation initiatives. This term can be applied to entire organizations, departments, or even to an individual.


For those of you thinking that “buy-in” is an artificial-sounding buzzword that sounds like it would be more appropriately slung around a Wall Street Board Room than an archive, hear me out. For proof of the extent to which buy-in matters, I would point to Christy Allen’s 2006 study called “Foundations for a Successful Digital Preservation Program: Discussions from Digital Preservation in State Government: Best Practices Exchange”.

Allen’s paper reports the findings of a 2006 summit at the State Library of North Carolina that was intended to facilitate communication between librarians, archivists, and other information professionals, including over one hundred participants from thirty states, federal agencies, and private industries. In spite of their diversity, Allen reported that, “Participants stressed again and again that a successful digital preservation program requires a strong foundation,” and that “nearly all attendees agreed that the first step in establishing a successful digital preservation program is gaining support and buy‐in from stakeholders.” This sentiment is echoed again and again throughout other digital preservation reports, policies, and standards.

“But what does this mean in practical terms?” you might ask. That’s a good question and fair one, because while there seems to be broad consensus that buy-in is crucial to the success of any digital preservation program, there is comparatively very little writing about how one actually creates buy-in. While I can’t speak for the profession at large, I thought that I would give some thoughts on this based on what my own experience here at Carnegie Hall has been. So without further ado, some of the ways I’ve tried to foster buy-in for digital preservation at both micro- and a macro-level throughout the course of my residency:

  1. Communicate. For me, one of the most important and basic facets of this is communication. I have long been a believer in the idea that part of doing one’s job well in this field is the ability to make digital preservation understandable to those outside it. When I say this, I don’t mean to imply that in order for a digital preservation program to be effective everyone in your organization must understand the differences between a SIP, DIP, and AIP, be able to define the designated community that your repository serves, or distinguish between a Content Data Object and Content Information. However I do believe that fostering buy-in for digital preservation throughout an organization will be impossible if you’re unable to effectively translate high-level digital preservation concepts to layman’s terms. Let me explain: in my experience people don’t particularly appreciate being told what to do when the instructions arrive without an explanation. I’ve tried to keep this in mind as I flesh out the set of digital preservation policies that I’ve been tasked with writing. These policies will require some of my colleagues to fundamentally alter some aspects of their daily routines. If I am able to make a succinct and compelling case as to why these changes are necessary my colleagues will be more likely to follow my guidelines; if I fail to do so there is a higher risk that they will be ignored. As a result, I’ve tried to consistently communicate the reason behind the changes I’ll be asking my colleagues here to make. For example, when discussing best practices for file naming conventions I could simply state, “file names should contain no spaces.” My guidelines do say this, but I also offer the following explanation: “Some programming languages use spaces to signify the end of a character string, and many software applications don’t recognize file names containing spaces. On the web, spaces are typically replaced with “%20” in URLs, and some browsers will ‘throw away’ anything after a space. Use the underscore symbol (_) or dash (-) in between words to represent a space, or use CamelCase and omit spaces from your file names altogether.”
  2. Avoid jargon where possible. Sometimes using jargon is unavoidable, and I would never recommend trying to do away with jargon entirely since that is neither practical nor realistic. However, as I prepare to head into the final month of my residency, I am making a concerted effort to comb through my deliverables for unnecessary jargon so that I can present my recommendations in plain English to the greatest possible extent. My logic for this is twofold. First of all, in spite of the fact that my deliverables are principally intended for individuals for whom the jargon doesn’t pose such an obstacle, I want anyone at Carnegie Hall who is interested in these recommendations to have a chance at understanding them. Secondly, the reality is that these digital preservation policies will touch every department within Carnegie Hall, and at some point the Archives team will need to train our staff about these new policies. Translating these policies into language that is comprehensible to those outside our field now will save Archives staff time in the future.
  3. Manage expectations. As I have mentioned previously, the root issue my NDSR project was designed to address is that up to now there hasn’t been a streamlined process at Carnegie Hall for staff to push digital assets and their associated metadata upstream. For my colleagues, this has resulted in a series of workarounds that are both inefficient and unsustainable. The extended conversations that I had with creators and users of media here early on in my residency put me in a unique position to understand how each department will benefit from the digital preservation policies that I’m introducing. But I don’t want to leave anyone with the mistaken belief that these policies represent a magic bullet that will solve all their problems with no additional work on their sides. Quite the opposite: in every meeting that I have here I make it a point to explain what I will need from my colleagues’ in order for our digital preservation program to be effective. For example, rights is a key concern that affects nearly every single department within Carnegie Hall. Although staff have an extremely high level of awareness about rights issues, currently there is no unified system for recording and tracking rights-related information pertaining to born-digital assets, which means that this information is researched on an as-needed basis. It’s easy to describe to my colleagues how much easier their lives will be once rights information is captured and embedded within an asset at the point of its creation. But once I’ve explained what they stand to gain from these policies, I try my hardest to make it clear to them that this will require work on their part, and that without their help these policies won’t be effective.

While I knew going into this residency that creating buy-in would be crucial, I underestimated just how central to my project it would be to the long-term sustainability of this project. Fortunately, I have found that this task is something I really enjoy, and these past eight months have provided me with immeasurable experience in this vein that I will bring with me to every project I work on in the future.