Recognizing Excellence in Records & Information Management
Recognizing Excellence in Records & Information Management
The Emmett Leahy Award recognizes an individual whose contributions and outstanding accomplishments have a major impact on the records and information management profession. It is the highest award for individual accomplishment in the information and records management profession. Established in 1967, this award honors the spirit of innovation, dedication, and excellence in records and information management of Emmett Leahy, who was a key figure in developing the life cycle approach to managing records and information. One person is honored each year. Award expenses are underwritten by Preservica, which has no part in the selection of the awardee.
The 2023 Emmett Leahy Award goes to Nancy Yvonne McGovern.
Nancy McGovern has devoted her career to developing digital records and preservation programs for a series of prominent institutions, translating those experiences into widely-used curriculum and continuing education programs to help organizations and individuals build their capacity to develop sustainable programs to preserve digital content, defining and promulgating standards-based good practice for digital archives and preservation, and engaging in research-based practice to fill gaps in good practice for digital archives and the preservation of them. She has focused on building an international community of practice for digital archives and preservation most recently with the development and promulgation of the Radical Collaboration model for working within and across domains.
After graduation from St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Northeastern University in Boston, Nancy McGovern worked for the Center for Electronic Records at the National Archives and Records Administration and the Open Society Archives (Budapest, Hungary). She was the first digital preservation officer for Cornell University Library and for the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), and the first director of digital preservation at the Massachusetts institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries. She was awarded her Ph.D. at University College London, one of the first to focus on digital preservation with a thesis on technology responsiveness.
Dr. McGovern has devoted much energy to advancing national and international professional organizations and communities. She co-founded the Electronic Records Section of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in 1993, co-founded and chaired the SAA Research Forum from 2007 to 2022, and recently served as the Society’s president. In 2009 she was named a Digital Preservation Pioneer by the National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program (NDIIPP) and continues to be engaged with its successor, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA). Since 2008, she has collaborated with community leaders in South Africa to develop and implement good practice for digital curation and preservation. At the 2015 International Conference on Digital Preservation (iPres), she convened the first community discussion on digital preservation storage and has since served on the working group that developed and maintains the Preservation Storage Criteria, a de facto community standard. For the International Council on Archives (ICA), she co-developed an online course “Managing Digital Archives” that has worldwide impact. And the Digital Preservation Management workshop and online tutorial she co-developed has been widely used by practitioners and academic programs since 2003, having been offered more than 60 times since 2003 to attendees from more than 30 countries.
Dr. McGovern’s dedication to the preservation of the world’s digital record has been critical to saving the records of our age. For her service to the world’s digital documentary heritage, Nancy Yvonne McGovern is the recipient of the 2023 Emmett Leahy Award.
Reading from the bio.
Emmett Leahy Award 2023 – McGovern Vision Statement
For most of the past forty years, I have worked at the intersection of archives, history and technology. History came first. I was reading and watching fiction and non-fiction stories from an early age then studying history as an undergraduate and graduate student. Archives came next beginning in college when my applied history class visited the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Touring these recently established institutions, I realized with glee that my career path could be working with archival collections. Since then, I have worked continuously as an archivist in a sequence of positions in government, non-profit and academic settings. Then technology came into the mix, from automation planning in my earliest positions to joining the staff of the Center for Electronic Records (formerly Machine-readable Records) soon after I started at the U.S. National Archives. An early assignment to develop the National Archive’s chapter for a book on records relating to the history of computing provided a starting point for working, researching, and teaching where archives, history, and technology meet.
Working on electronic records necessitates records management in a way that working with print or physical records may not. I learned a lot while appraising, accessioning, and preserving digital records. After fifteen years in electronic records management, it was the challenge of preserving and sustaining records and other content in digital form that became most urgent for me to tackle. The human, institutional, and technological resources needed to preserve and sustain digital records is a shared responsibility that engages a broad range of domains and the accumulated knowledge and participation of an increasingly international community. Contributing to the development and promulgation of good practice for the digital preservation community has been my focus for more than twenty years.
When someone asks what I do, I always first say that I am an archivist then that I specialize in good practice for preserving born digital records and other essential resources to ensure long-term access to them. Ongoing technological change is a perpetual opportunity to adapt, extend and evolve our practice to maximize the potential of technologies to improve what we do and minimize the risk of loss and damage over generations of technology. Capacity building through coaching and instruction builds and expands the base of institutions, practitioners, and researchers globally to perpetually address new issues and possibilities.
There is a common question: are you an optimist or a pessimist, which was disconcerting until I discovered fairly recently that I am a hopeful realist. I increasingly believe that all dichotomies are false and that the important things we do happen in the grey spaces between ‘either’ and ‘or’. For me, hopeful realism means recognizing then facing problems while working collaboratively toward solutions – the essence of good practice. The vision I have for archives and recordkeeping involves people, content, and the complicated connections between them.
Capacity building: For the past twenty years, I have embraced good practice because best practice is not a known, feasible or even desirable outcome. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. We need to adapt and right-size good practice to suit situations. For me, building capacity means helping individuals and institutions to develop the knowledge, skills, and tools to engage in problem solving that addresses current and future needs; to monitor for and respond to significant change; and to work collaboratively on sustainable approaches to ongoing and equitable digital access. We need to continue and expand our global efforts to ensure that emerging and experienced archivists and records professionals have encouragement, coaching and access to opportunities for lifelong learning and experience.
Content: If we look ahead ten or twenty years, our current preservation strategies may suffice; but when we extend that view to fifty or a hundred years, we need to refocus our attention on research and innovation to develop and implement approaches that respond to and integrate technological developments. For complex born digital content, an approach I believe is worth pursuing is the adoption and adaptation of storytelling tools and techniques to develop documentation that conveys to the future the purpose, scope, and significance of digital content. How might future users understand what it was like to use and experience the content? Images and text have traveled across centuries and millennia even though the means used to create and share the content fell out of use or dramatically changed. Might a documentary-like approach work for sharing our digital content with the future? Let’s find out.
Collaboration: Sustainable practice for digital archives and preservation relies upon cross-domain collaboration to continue to protect and provide digital content over time. Radical Collaboration is a model I developed to explore and promote working across disciplines to achieve common objectives (see Research Library Issues 296). Archivists are one of the domains at the digital practice table, which is an opportunity and may present a challenge. We can learn a lot and we need to be present to ensure that voice is included. An essential part of radical collaboration is to come to the table with questions, rather than a fixed agenda, to better understand the perspectives and priorities of others. Investing the time in listening and learning makes working together easier, more productive, and ultimately more rewarding.
Justice: My diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice journey began during a transformative minorities class in high school. "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better." (Maya Angelou) This quote may be applied more broadly but is most apt for considering justice. Since taking that class, I have worked to know better and do better. This approach moves us forward and acknowledges the past but does not expect the past to look like the present – it cannot. Along the way, I encountered reparative or restorative justice, which emphasizes acknowledging the harm done by injustice, accepting an obligation to address the harm done, and engaging in communication within the affected community to repair the harm. Within the archival community, it might be helpful – and hopeful – to try moving from retributive justice, the most common form, to reparative justice as we continue to work to confront injustice and do better. Addressing systemic problems requires time, effort, and persistence. Radical collaboration might provide a path forward for reparative justice in our own community.
The three-legged stool for me became research, instruction, and practice – a cross-domain to research-based practice or practice-based research. Lately, I have been wondering if the aftermath of downturn at the end of the 2000s and the global impact of the pandemic disrupted the community-based exploration and innovation that had been at the center of digital practice. It would be encouraging to see a new version of a community-wide research agenda for digital practice that was not constrained by the boundaries of institutional priorities, membership organizations, or provider services– a more spontaneous, inclusive, and open-ended consideration of current trends, emerging challenges, and unexplored opportunities. Sometimes before a technological leap forward, practice becomes more fixed or even complacent. When the next technological leap comes, good practice will begin to respond by bringing lessons learned from our preservation track record of more than sixty years – spanning generations of technology – by adapting, extending, and inventing what we will need to do to sustain our digital collections.
I feel fortunate to have worked on topics, issues and initiatives that are rewarding and worthwhile with colleagues, “frolleagues” and friends who have made the journey so enjoyable. I have learned from amazing mentors, coaches, and role models who demonstrated the importance of paying it forward, an example I have adopted and prioritized. I am grateful to the Emmett Leahy Award Committee for conferring upon me this unexpected and much appreciated honor.