Author Archives: Courtney Mumma

The Archivist Detective – Digital Forensics for Archivists

It was a day just like any other at the City Archives. Archivists and researchers spoke in whispers as they gently leafed through decades-old memoranda and Kodachrome photographs. Just then, at the front desk, a mysterious stranger appeared with a hard drive and a look that said she wanted to donate it. When she couldn’t answer how much data was on the drive or how it was formatted, it was clear that this day would not be normal after all and… it would not be easy.

Examples of digital storage media - Photo by Danny Nicholson, CC BY-ND 2.0 (

Archives Manager Heather Gordon likes to say that being an archivist is like “playing detective”. There has always been an aspect of detective work in what archivists do—from digging through boxes left abandoned in a garage searching for records to helping researchers find the documentation that helps them accomplish their work. In the age of digital acquisitions, her statement couldn’t be more true. Unlike their physical analogue counterparts, donations that come to us in folders on digital media can’t be easily leafed through and assessed at first glance. Those folders and their contents are made of bits that don’t have meaning without some kind of hardware and/or software intermediary. Continue reading

A Day in the Lives of 2 Archivists Gone Digital

Digitizing video for preservation and access (Cindy McLellan)

 The City of Vancouver is an exciting city to be a part of at the moment for many reasons. Celebrate Vancouver 125 events have been taking place throughout 2011 all over the city to celebrate 125 years since Vancouver’s incorporation in 1886. The City is involved with the open government movement, with Vancouver’s open data catalogue, now over one year old being one open information source. Setting the goal of being the greenest city by 2020, Vancouver is asking its citizens to contribute their ideas and make lasting changes.

From my position at the City of Vancouver Archives I mention these broad City initiatives because they have important commonalities: collaboration, innovation, and interdisciplinary participation. Working as a Digital Archivist I see all three of these characteristics as key to any successful digital archives project. At the Archives we are involved in ICA-Atom and Archivematica development, both collaborative and innovative projects that require input from multiple disciplines. Multiple memory institutions, archivists, programmers, designers and researchers have all contributed unique and necessary input to these open source projects.

Hybrids: Approach with caution and other smart people

I was hired in March to arrange and describe the Yaletown Productions Inc. fonds, which consists of the records of a local film production company. The records date from company director Michael Collier’s university days in 1969, as a member of the Simon Fraser University Film Workshop, under Stan Fox, to 2001 television show proposals stored on a computer hard drive. In addition to having both paper and digital records (which archivists call a “hybrid” fonds), this donation includes hundreds of hours of film and video material consisting of raw footage, completed productions, and everything in between. It has been my challenge to appraise, digitize, preserve, arrange, describe, and make available to the public these materials in all their various formats. Much of this work involved the straightforward application of archival theory and practice.

Part rabbit part antelope hybrid

Photograph by Mark Freeman (Free-ers on flickr). Hybrids, at first glance may seem to be cute and cuddly creatures, upon further investigation however, these unpredictable monsters, born of uncontrolled digital environments are actually quite frightening. Approach with caution and a team of knowledgeable people.

In the detailed planning required for digital preservation, no one should labour alone. The atmosphere among those with this responsibility is one of sharing. Staying in touch through wikis, blogs, our time together at conferences, listservs, and simply being a small and active community, digital archivists need not, and should not, Continue reading

Coming Soon – Day of Digital Archives – October 6

We will be participating in the Day of Digital Archives (DoDA) this coming Thursday, October 6. The Day of Digital Archives is an international initiative among dozens of archives and archivists to raise awareness of digital archives issues great and small.  The world of digital archives can be equally exciting, intimidating, fascinating and overwhelming! We’d like to help make this area more accessible and easier to understand.

For our part, two of our digital archivists, Cindy McLellan and Courtney Mumma, will post a little about what a day in the life of a digital archivist looks like. Beyond just describing our work with digital archives, we also encourage our users to use social media outlets to ask us their questions. On Thursday, October 6, we will actively engage users on Twitter using our @VanArchives account with the #digitalArchivesDay hashtag. We will answer questions via Twitter wherever 140 character answers are plausible, but will direct answers that require more detailed responses to the blog comments area.

Demystifying Digital Archives using a Fly metaphor and Jeff Goldblum

A good digital archivist makes sure to preserve archives as close as possible to their original form.

Along with our international colleagues, we look forward to shedding a little light on the mysterious world of digital archives! Ask us anything about our digital work and we’ll do our best to answer.

ARCHIVES 360°- SAA’s 75th Annual Meeting and Anniversary Celebration

Archivists work alone most of the time. We at the City Archives are fortunate to have other professional staff in the same building, but our work is largely solitary by nature. This summer in Chicago, no archivist was alone for long at the 75th Annual Society of American Archivists conference, where over a thousand professional archivists came together to share knowledge and connect with each other.

This cake, in the shape of an archival storage box, was displayed at the opening gala event. It reads, “Congratulations SAA on 75 years.”

This year, three archivists from the City had presentations accepted at SAA: Glenn Dingwall, Cindy McLellan and Courtney Mumma. All three of us (self-funded with the exception of Mumma) attended the full conference in Chicago, so we’d like to share some of our experiences and highlights with you. Continue reading

Rescuing the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games’ Bid Corporation Records

BidCorp Press Conference - November 2001

BidCorp Press Conference - November 2001 - Jack Poole addresses (L-R): Philip Owen (Mayor, Vancouver), Marion Lay (Legacies Now), Hugh O'Reilly (Mayor, Whistler), Jean Chrétien (Prime Minister, Canada), and Gordon Campbell (Premier, British Columbia). (822-C-6 Group 2)

As the official repository for the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) records, the Archives has been preparing for the acquisition of the Archives of the Games since as early as 2004. We knew that these archival records would have to be identified and transferred to the Archives very quickly after the Games since the organizing committee would only exist for a short while longer to tie up any final business. In the summer before the Games, VANOC welcomed us into their headquarters so that we could analyze their working environment and determine the best ways to acquire their valuable legacy documents.

After the Games, VANOC representatives continued working closely with us to ensure that once a donation agreement was signed, their records could be easily and securely transferred to the City Archives. The first group of records for transfer, the records of the Bid Corporation (BidCorp), were at an immediate risk of being permanently damaged by some unwelcome invaders, Continue reading

CURATEcamp 2011 – Collaborative solutions through unconferencing

Digital curation is an emerging challenge that applies what archivists already do

  • receive donations
  • decide which elements have lasting value
  • process and store them
  • provide access to researchers

to digital materials. This creates new challenges. For instance, we have to provide the digital materials in forms that are useful to many different communities, such as technology professionals, data scientists, librarians, and humanities researchers. Each of these professions (and more) are working in various ways to come up with digital curation solutions.

Professional conferences are typically a meeting of the minds of people from a single profession. This means that different communities are each coming up with their own digital curation solutions in a vacuum and missing out on the benefits of collaboration. The unconference format addresses this flaw.

Unconferences tend to be based around a topic area rather than a profession. I recently funded my own attendance to CURATEcamp 2011 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. CURATEcamp defines itself as “a series of unconference-style events focused on connecting practitioners and technologists interested in digital curation.” The themes of each session are provided by participants rather than set in advance: as of the first morning, the schedule was an empty slate.  First, we learned the informal procedure of the event, which was a challenge for some of us who are used to highly structured professional conferences.. After this introduction, the organizers asked us to go away for coffee, talk to each other and then come back with our ideas to fill in the schedule.

Meyer Library at Stanford (the columns were built to look like palm trees!) Camp events were held between Meyer and Green libraries, both part of Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources (SULAIR)  Photo by Manuel Gomez (autreche)

The blank schedule on the whiteboard was daunting at first and it changed several times over the course of the two-day event, but these are the sessions we came up with. If you follow the link, you’ll find that some attendees linked their notes from the session to the schedule grid. Continue reading

Headwaters of History – The Midwest Archives Conference

MAC 2011 Annual Meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

Digital archivist with unidentifiable superhero delivery man

Digital archivist with unidentifiable superhero delivery man

What? Snow in late April? Thank goodness for hot tater tot casserole and superheroes who deliver pizza with wild rice topping!

At my own expense, I recently had the pleasure of attending the Midwest Archives Conference in St. Paul Minnesota, where I presented with two colleagues in a session called On the Front Lines: Challenges and Opportunities in Archivist-Records Creator Collaborations and enjoyed some of the Twin Cities’ extracurricular offerings.

Others have summarized and blogged about the individual sessions, so I will provide just a few memorable tidbits from the trip. Continue reading

Items Showcased On Urban Rush

You saw it on TV! In honor of Vancouver’s 125th, Shaw’s Urban Rush invited archivist Courtney Mumma to show some Vancouver highlights from every 25 years since its incorporation on April 6, 1886.

UPDATE: Here’s the video clip from the show.


1886 photograph of a reconstructed tent where City officials conducted business after the Great Fire

Mayor, Council and City officials assembled in front of tent, September 1886. Item LGN 1045.

History buffs might be surprised to learn that this is actually a staged photograph. For a long time it was assumed that this photograph was taken about June 16, 1886,  immediately after the Great Fire of June 13, 1886, Continue reading

Preserving Vancouver’s Digital Heritage

First in a series about Vancouver’s groundbreaking digital archives system.

Can you guess what the City of Vancouver has in common with the International Monetary Fund?

No? Both of their archives are collaborators on the same digital preservation project.

Archivist holding an 8-inch floppy disk

Archivist with an 8" floppy disk from our holdings. Anybody got a machine that reads these things?

Most organizations these days use digital recordkeeping to conduct their business. Some portion of what they create might be valuable to researchers in the future, but there isn’t a system available yet that can preserve it.  Since it is our duty to preserve and provide access to Vancouver’s digital heritage, we are building such a system.

Digital records deteriorate faster than a document from the 1800s or a photo negative from 1950.  Continue reading