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NYPL’s New Digital Archives Lab


The new lab space

In August, the Digital Archives Program, took an exciting and long-awaited step by moving into our own space. Prior to this, Digital Archives staff shared a room with the Special Collections processing archivists. As we expanded, staff and equipment became increasingly scattered around the main processing space wherever there was extra room. It became clear that there was a need for dedicated lab space where we no longer needed to walk fifty feet to grab a cord or collaborate on a project. If you’ve ever done digital forensics, you know that a large part of that work involves tracking down the right cord, adaptor, and/or write blocker!

The new lab occupies half of a large room on the same floor as the main processing space which is on the second floor of NYPL’s Library Services Center in Long Island City, Queens. This allows us to be close to the processing archivists who now come to our lab to process born-digital material, while enabling us to streamline our processes. While Digital Archives uses most of the space, we share it with our Head of Digital Preservation, Nick Krabbenhoeft, and our Special Collections Operations and Systems Coordinator, Mary Kidd. This decision was made since Digital Archives and Digital Preservation are close collaborators and we now get the benefit of Mary’s help coordinating our activities and documentation with each other and the rest of Special Collections.

Primary forensic workstation
Our primary forensic workstation with the famous FRED computer
Rack of digital archives supplies
The handy rack of digital archives supplies









When setting up the lab, we organized it to allow for flexibility, collaboration, and efficiency. Unlike the more traditional processing of paper materials, much of our work happens at different stations: a photography station, digital forensics workstations, and at a staging computer which functions as the hub of our operations. To that end, we moved away from the cubicle model toward something more open: four banks of desks that can be configured in different ways. For example, some of the desks are now empty and can be used for ad hoc meeting or swing work space. In the future, this space may be repurposed as desk space when we grow our staff and host interns.

The two digital forensics workstations are now directly next to each other and within easy reach of a rack that contains all our cords, adaptors, write blockers, and tools. Our primarily forensic workstation is a FRED computer (a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device). This computer is used to create forensic images of digital media. It also runs FTK (Forensic ToolKit) the software that archivists use to process most of our born-digital archival material. Its close proximity allows us to be a ready resource to archivists as they appraise, arrange, and describe collections. Our secondary forensic workstation is a ThinkPad computer. Having a second computer allows us more flexibility to image media and process materials simultaneously. 

The photography stand for taking pictures of digital media
Photography stand with light shield and diffusers

Next to these workstations is an enclosed steel cabinet that contains the in-progress digital media and the photography station. In our current workflow, we take pictures of all digital media. Previously, this station had been in the supply closet in the main processing space, requiring us to carry media into the closet and inconvenience processing archivists who needed supplies. We sought out the expertise of NYPL’s Digital Imaging Unit and came up with a solution that would allow us to take high quality pictures within the ambient light of the lab. This involved constructing a foam light shield around the camera and using light diffusers on either side to cut down on flashes caused by optical media. Having the photography station next to the cabinet that holds in-process media and the workstations has increased the efficiency of this step tremendously (and has given the archivists their supply closet back).

Historic computer collection
Most, but not all, of our historic computers

In the future, we hope to further refine the space with more shelving for incomig and outgoing media and our growing historical computer collection, a workbench for taking apart digital media, and a separate computer for processing email. During this move, we also took the opportunity to reexamine our workflows and tools. We made many changes which I look forward to sharing in future blog posts.






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