Keeping Change Afloat

A week or two after finding out that I was going to be heading up to Boston as the NDSR resident for WGBH, I got an email from NDSR DC alum Erica Titkemeyer, asking if I would use the experience from my project to fill in an empty slot for her panel “Sailing the Ship: Supporting and Managing Change at Large Institutions” at the Association of Moving Image Archivists 2014 conference in Savannah, October 7-11.

WGBH is certainly a large institution, and my projects definitely involve change management – the Media, Library and Archives department is squarely in the middle of the process of switching over from a proprietary Artesia digital asset management system to an open-source Hydra-based repository system. One of my responsibilities over the next nine months consists of streamlining and documenting the process of ingesting materials into the DAM during this transitional phase.

…the only problem was that the panel was scheduled for early in October, at which point I still wouldn’t have actually done much of any of that yet. As a result, I’ve spent the lead-up weeks to AMIA pestering most of the WGBH team for their accumulated wisdom about the process of envisioning and implementing a major change in their digital archives management. Here’s the very, very boiled-down version of what I’ve learned so far.

BACKGROUND

As a major archive operated out of a production institution that does not, in and of itself, has a mission to preserve, the Media, Library and Archives Department often finds itself trying to walk the line between competing directives and obligations. The decision to switch over to an open-source HydraDAM system was a deliberate choice to adopt a system that would serve the functions of an archive without trying to be all things to all people within the broader framework of WGBH. The expiration of the license on the old Artesia system served as catalyst for the switch. Once the combined cost of renewing the license and adding back in all of the special features required for system functionality was taken into account – not to mention the risk of continuing to rely on the old LTO 4 tape robots used by the Artesia system, which would become obsolescent relatively soon – the archival team was able to make the case for adopting an entirely new system without licensing requirements, and having their own LTO 6 decks that could be departmentally controlled without having to rely on the broader WGBH infrastructure.

CHALLENGES

  1. Cost of development. Open-source tools and systems might not have licensing requirements, but that doesn’t mean they’re free – this was a big theme at AMIA this year, and I’m planning to do a separate post on it later, but for the time being let’s just say that it takes a lot of time and effort to customize an open-source system
  2. Staff turnover partway through the process. Major shifts take a long time to complete, and in a large institution there’s good odds that at least one key person is going to end up rotating out before it’s all over, leaving a gap in planning. At WGBH, the original developer on the process ended up leaving at about the same time the project was begun. It took a year for the staff transition to be complete and the project to get back up to speed.
  3. Institutional policy shifts midway through. Again, the amount of time that these projects take to implement can be real problem – especially when you’re dependent on approval from a larger infrastructure with different priorities than your own departmental goals.
  4. Staging material in transition. Right now, WGBH is no longer using Artesia since the expiration of the license – but the HydraDAM system won’t be up and running for another few months. Making sure all the content stays safe and accessible during this period means a lot of extra effort and temporary workarounds, not to mention a backlog of material.
  5. Resistance to change. Learning a new system is always difficult, and the more people required to learn the new system, the more complicated this becomes. Just next week, WGBH will be doing some staff tours through the new systems to help get everyone comfortable with them and help make the transition easier.

There are no real solutions to a lot of these problems – they’re all part and parcel of the price of change in a digital archive – but the WGBH team did have some tips to share about smoothing the way.

HELPFUL TIPS

  1. Communication is key. This isn’t going to be news to anyone, but it bears repeating. Specific advice included talking personally with everybody involved, taking the time for reassurance (…including reminding people of the shortcomings of the old system, when necessary), saving the technical details for people who needed to know, being nice to your developers, and feeling comfortable asking the community for help.
  2. Minimize front-end change when possible. Obviously this isn’t always possible, and at WGBH it’s probably going to end up happening in stages; still, if you have a large user community that needs to interact with the system, it can be a good strategy to keep change on the back end, where it’s not as scary.
  3. Don’t over-plan the process.   Any major change is going to involve difficulties and delays; while having a detailed solid project management plan can feel comforting, it also becomes stressful when the inevitable delays occur. WGBH opted for a looser high-level plan, with room built in to adapt to shifts in the schedule.
  4. Be OK saying goodbye. I’ve heard the number five years bandied around a few times when estimating how often digital asset management systems will need to be upgraded. Change is going to keep occurring, so it doesn’t pay to get too attached to any one way of doing things, or too frustrated with the constant need to go through the process of adaptation. In the long run, it’s the content that needs to be permanent – not the systems that manage it.

So that’s pretty much what I spoke about at AMIA (minus all the gratuitous Pirates of the Caribbean gifs; I mean, we did have ships right there in the title.)

The session also included fantastic presentations from Erica Titkemeyer, now the AV Conservator at UNC Chapel Hill’s Southern Folklife Collection, and Crystal Sanchez, the Digital Video Specialist for the Smithsonian’s Digital Asset Management system. Erica is in the process of getting the Southern Folklife Collection’s A/V materials digitized and included in Chapel Hill’s DAM system, and Crystal has spent the past year overseeing the implementation of an updated Artesia system throughout the Smithsonian. If they put their slides up, I’ll come back and link them here; they’re definitely worth checking out.

We ended the session at AMIA by asking if anybody else had advice or thoughts they wanted to share about their own change management processes, so I’ll do the same thing here — input is definitely welcome! In the meantime, Rebecca Fraimow, signing off.

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One thought on “Keeping Change Afloat

  1. Pingback: Free Code, Free Beer and Free Puppies | ndsrboston2014

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