Recovering and Reusing Archival Data for Science: Investigating Curatorial Practices Across Disciplines

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Shiue, H., Sorensen, A., Clarke, C. T., & Fenlon, K. (2021, November 3-11). Recovering and Reusing Archival Data for Science: Investigating Curatorial Practices Across Disciplines [Poster presentation]. Research Data Alliance 2021, Virtual.


Extensive, scattered collections of historical research records and legacy scientific data have largely untapped, but potentially enormous value to ongoing and future research. While research and practice in data reuse and curation have focused almost exclusively on contemporary scientific data—data from active or recent research, data already hosted in repositories, and data which are already computationally or analytically amenable—scattered data rescue initiatives, or efforts to recover and reuse historical data, have illuminated the potential benefits of curating historical data for current and future reuse in a variety of contexts. Yet we know little about the range and impact of existing efforts to recover historical data across disciplines, the unique curation challenges of historical scientific materials, and the recovery and reuse practices of scientists and curators specifically directed at archival or defunct data.

The "Recovering and Reusing Archival Data for Science" project (RRAD-S) is conducting semi-structured interviews with scientists and curators to investigate recovery and reuse efforts directed at archival data, including data in the historical and special collections of libraries and archives, but also data lurking in boxes of unpublished documents in the basements of research centers. Through interviews with experienced domain experts across various disciplines and organizations, we are investigating the landscape of current data recovery efforts and identifying differences and commonalities among the priorities, processes, and practices of data recovery and reuse in different research contexts. In particular, we are examining differences in the practices of professional data curators and scientists or domain experts. The RRAD-S study builds on prior case study research, which developed assessment factors and a processing guide to assist memory institutions in evaluating the challenges and opportunities of recovering data from archival collections. The current phase of research will translate findings into practical guidance for the scientific and curatorial communities, characterize historical data reuse in novel contexts, and illuminate the curatorial practices of scientists themselves in the course of reuse.