November 1, 2012

Can Better Metadata Help Better Manage Costs and Disaster Recovery

Based primarily (I myself believe) on my sterling undergrad honors thesis on the topic of African-American Women’s 19th Century Spiritual Personal Narratives, I was able to procure a temporary staffing position as a file clerk with a workers compensation and general liability insurance company.

Don’t let anyone tell you that a Humanities degree is not versatile.

I ended up staying on, working in several different positions until I careened myself into the data analysis and reporting side of things. Much of the work was basic number crunching — how many claims, frequencies, how much was being spent — but an actually interesting part of the job was developing reports that would be the basis of risk management studies, such as looking at injury types across periods, locations, or jobs to see if there may be some preventable cause. Sure, maybe in the end it was ultimately about saving money, but I preferred to think about the efforts as trying to ensure that workers were not put in harmful or injurious conditions in order to create a safer, more pleasant workplace.

Don’t let anyone tell you that a cynic with a Humanities degree is not actually a big idealistic slob.

Another interesting thing I learned on the job was the different types of medical care models — such as preventative, curative, and palliative — and how they were applied on a health care continuum. In truth, though I may joke about that period in my life because one is supposed to joke about working in insurance, I picked up a lot in that career that has shaped how I think about preservation and collection management as, in a way, risk management or risk reduction. Essentially, we know that the assets are decaying, becoming obsolete, or can get damaged, so we work in ways at various points in the item’s lifecycle to prevent (for a time), retard, or ameliorate those events.

This is on my mind right now because we’re all waiting to hear what the impact of Hurricane Sandy on library, archive, museum, and other collections will end up being — not to mention the many personal collections endangered that we will probably not hear as much about but should still be a concern. We’re all bracing for what could be a high degree of palliative or curative care to salvage collections.

In an event like this it is uncertain precisely how much impact preventative care had. Yes, there are certain things which help, but water and wind do what they want. This is the bind of preventative measures (or insurance for that matter) — you don’t really know how beneficial (or useless) it may be until a triggering event occurs, or such an event may never occur, so there’s always the gamble to do without just to save costs.

Maybe we need another term that’s something more like Preparative — making sure that in the event of a disaster you are prepared to respond to it and have done things to prepare for smoothly managing the recovery. Many of these things would be covered in a disaster preparedness plan, such as having a phone tree and proper equipment and guidelines for recovering materials, but based on some of my experiences I feel there is one thing we are not focusing enough efforts on that would help us be more prepared — the creation of centralized, analyzable asset records at or near item-level.

How can this help? I’ve written a white paper on the topic posted today in our Papers & Presentations section, (“Insuring Media Archives & Leveraging Data Management as a Risk Reduction Solution”). Essentially, my thesis is that if you can’t quantify your collection pre-disaster, it will be impossible to do so afterwards, leading to an increased potential for a contentious claims process, duplicative or inefficient remediation efforts that waste resources, and greater costs down the road for coverage or self-funded remediation. Pre-disaster, a poorly quantified collection may result in over or under coverage, or a lack of realization regarding potential strategies for reducing risk to the most valuable content in a collection. This last point is very important to audiovisual and photographic collections where there is frequent duplication or versioning of contents, and management efforts should be focused on original or highest quality items.

Processing backlogs, incomplete records, or dis-aggregated records sets are a frequent issue for institutions, and the resources to alleviate those problems are often lacking. In reality, fuller records can impact many other cost points, such as the insurance topic discussed in my paper, time spent assisting patrons in discovery, or legal issues that require the recovery and review of data. Not to ignore the recovery efforts that are on-going and will continue, but for institutions not affected by Sandy or who escaped catastrophe, these events should be an eye-opener to the potential for risk. We need to start weighing these factors or risk, cost, and benefit and use them as arguments for improved funding for record creation, record management systems, and other data-centric areas that impact how well we can do our work and protect our collections.

Joshua Ranger

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