Modeling Digital Workflows Across an Information Organization Using Contextual Inquiry

Morgan Daniels and Ricardo Punzalan


Digital preservation is a concern that transcends departmental distinctions within an organization, but in a large information organization with a great deal of specialization, a variety of workflows may develop for dealing with digital objects, complicating the work of establishing a comprehensive digital preservation program. This paper reports the progress of an ongoing contextual inquiry based study at the National Agricultural Library (NAL), intended to learn about digital workflows and preservation needs across the library. With the contextual inquiry method, investigators use interviews and observations to study the work practices of participants in their normal setting. In each session, an investigator sits down with a library staff member to learn about their current digital workflows, encompassing born-digital, digitized, and web-hosted database collections. By observing individuals as they work in their normal context (at their own workstation) and asking questions as the work proceeds, investigators gain an understanding of each person’s practices. Investigators represent those practices visually as workflow models and consolidate individual models of activity to show work across a unit. A number of questions can be addressed through this process, including how does information flow through each department in the process of storing and saving digital materials for the long term? What blockages exist, and how might they be repaired? How can the work be reconfigured to make people’s jobs easier? By combining the results of numerous such interviews, the investigators will be able to create a big picture view of digital preservation across NAL while retaining the smaller differences between activities in different units of the library. The research will culminate in a report back to NAL, with specific recommendations for redesigning and improving preservation workflows. In this paper we describe the study rationale, methods, and preliminary results.



Morgan Daniels is the Postdoctoral Fellow for Digital Preservation at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies, where she is conducting an assessment of digital preservation needs and practices at the USDA’s National Agricultural Library. In her previous role as the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow for Data Curation at Vanderbilt University she developed data curation services and educational resources related to research data management for the campus community. Morgan holds a doctorate in information studies from the University of Michigan where her research examined the relationships between data reuse needs and practices of individuals in several research communities (including archaeology, materials science, the quantitative social sciences, and botany) and the data curation efforts of organizations that supported that research.

Ricardo Punzalan, University of Maryland