Dartmouth Leads Research on Digital Information Management

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In the ever-evolving digital age, academic institutions have to make important decisions about records and information storage: What university records should be archived? How long should they be kept? Who should have access to them?

Thanks to support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Dartmouth is a leader in finding answers to these difficult questions.

Jeffrey Horrell, Ellen Waite-Franzen

Jeffrey Horrell (left), dean of libraries and librarian of the College, and Ellen Waite-Franzen, vice president for information technology and chief information officer, were principal investigators of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grant. (Photo by Joseph Mehling ’69)

From health and academic records to faculty scholarship to payroll data, universities are continually dealing with important data. Since 2007, Dartmouth researchers have partnered with Duke University in separate grants to address pressing questions about how to preserve, distribute, and dispose of institutional records and scholarly work.

About 100 people attended a symposium last month in Washington, D.C., led by Dartmouth and Duke researchers who shared their findings with representatives from other academic and non-academic institutions. The symposium served as a culmination of the project, the funding for which came from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grant. One goal for the project was to create future models about how to deal with records in the digital age.

To give a sense of the magnitude of data storage on campus, Dartmouth has “retention plans” for 2,200 different kinds of paper documents, says Steve McAllister, director of digital information at Dartmouth and director of computing at the Geisel School.

These plans become complicated when records are digitized, and records can be stored in places outside of the institution, such as on personal computers, tablets, and USB drives—sometimes unintentionally. Furthermore, over the next decade, Dartmouth will convert most paper documents to digital form. There needs to be an institutional approach to these issues of information storage, says McAllister, who is the director of digital information strategy for the grant.

And yet, some have a hard time understanding the value of research on these issues.

“One of the challenges of digital preservation is finding current funding for something that will be of benefit a hundred years from today,” says McAllister. “That’s a tough sell.”

Researchers conducted campus-wide surveys and established focus groups to gain insight into how Dartmouth stores its records. The researchers looked at how administrative policy, technology, and culture influenced digital information management at Dartmouth. They exchanged ideas with chief information officers and library directors from the University of Chicago, Princeton University, University of Virginia, Williams College, and Yale University.  These institutions served as an advisory council working with Dartmouth and Duke over the course of the grant.

Dartmouth’s Interim Provost Martin Wybourne, Ellen Waite-Franzen, and Jeffrey Horrell were principal investigators of the grant.

Waite-Franzen, vice president for information technology and chief information officer, says the project helped Dartmouth address these issues across departments. “It is so easy for any group or department to go off and do their own thing, but we really need to be thinking about these issues institutionally,” she says. “We’re moving away from this silo-type thinking about problems.”

Waite-Franzen added that while there is not an institution-wide policy regarding digital information storage, creating awareness was a main goal of the project. McAllister says this greater awareness is evidenced by the formation of the Digital Dartmouth working group, which has been involved in the Strategic Planning process.

That new awareness is not limited to Dartmouth. Horrell, dean of libraries and librarian of the College, says Dartmouth has taken a leadership role in bringing these issues “to a national audience.” And many institutions are taking notice.

“The culture is shifting in how we think about and manage the long-term preservation and access of Dartmouth’s digital information and scholarship,” says Horrell.