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Workflows: a language everyone can understand

As Digital Curation Specialist I have been working on changes across the Library in the areas of born digital collecting and digital preservation.  This can vary from advice on how to prepare material for transfer and assistance with bringing in material to the Library, to implementing quality assurance and technical specifications for files that we are accepting.  This can also involve working with technical staff and developers to ensure that digital preservation standards are being adhered to, improving the ingest method and moving towards a semi-automated process for born digital collections (but that is blog topic for another time). 

I have found documenting workflows is a critical step in shedding light on any possible issues and opportunities for improvement.   Any decent business analyst will tell you that data models and work flows can provide clarity and can help to determine where the pain points are and even where key information may be missing. Workflows can also be useful in highlighting issues that require change, especially ones that are difficult to get traction on. 

Start with what you know

Where does the workflow come into it?  To me, looking at where we are right now is the best place to start.  This makes sure that we are all on the same page with the current process before we begin to start looking at making changes.  I find that this works for detail people and big picture people as well as everyone in between.  This means that we easily identify where things may be broken or inefficient which is especially useful when trying to influence upper management. 

Case study: digital photography

Culturally and linguistically diverse communities of Sydney and regional New South Wales, 22 November 2011-23 August 2014 / photographs by Louise Whelan, recently preserved by the Library
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The Library has been collecting born digital photographs for some time now, however, processes, standards and skills needed to be implemented to improve the process.  My team, Digital Collections, has been working closely with the acquisitions branch over the past few years developing technical standards and providing training and support to empower the staff and build digital skills. This has been a big, yet positive, change process that has seen acquisitions staff undertaking their own technical analysis of born digital collections, being able to ask more informed questions about them and advise donors of our standards more confidently.  

The next step was to advocate for a semi-automated process for digital photography collections to create item/file level records for these collections. This was a big change, not only in cataloguing practisces where we proposed a script would help create the records, but that acquisition staff would collect metadata from the photographer to create these minimal catalogue records. This would require a lot of consultation and engagement.  We needed to look at the current workflows and what would need to change and where efficiencies could be gained by going down this path. 

I set about documenting the current process for born digital photographs from acquisition to ingest into the digital preservation system and syncing with the catalogue records.  I wanted to especially highlight where we were using offline documents, particularly spreadsheets, to track our processes.  (Thinking about how the workflow might be used to advocate for a workflow software tool in the future!) 

This process resulted in a workflow that was pages long, especially when including the acquisition processes, and immediately highlighted inefficiencies that could be improved very quickly to achieve some small gains.   

Where I found the workflow most useful was explaining our process to the Systems and Applications team. They were immediately able to gain a better understanding of the Digital Collections workflow and how that could be improved. We were also able to do a quick technical feasibility assessment and prioritise what could be improved quickly and what might require development work. We were speaking the same language devoid of any library jargon and instead focussed on processes, subprocesses and decisions made across “swim lanes”. 

A lot of these changes were rolled into the development of our bulk ingest tool PanDA. Having the workflow and a technical feasibility assessment meant that we could prioritise our user stories more effectively.  

So now I am a workflow convert. Getting people on the same page and thinking in a focussed way about how they do things now means that they can better engage with the change process.  Even if it is to advocate for the current process or for lesser changes there is a benefit to be able to walk through the process.  

We now have detailed and high-level workflows for born digital photographs and oral history collections.  I hope to expand to our manuscript work and continue to use workflows to advocate for a software solution to help us better manage and improve our business.  

High level born digital workflow

High level born digital workflow

PDF icon Download the high_level_workflow.pdf