Balancing Care and Authenticity in Digital Collections

A Radical Empathy Approach To Working With Disk Images


  • Monique Lassere Harvard University
  • Jess M Whyte University of Toronto



Both traditional recordkeeping and radical empathy frameworks ask us to carefully consider: the presence of sensitive information within digital content; those who created, are captured by, and are affected by a record (or the absence of that record); and the consequences of retaining or discarding that information. However, automated digital archiving workflows – in order to handle the scale and volume of digital content – discourage contextual and empathetic decision-making in favour of preselected decisions.

This paper explores the implications on labor and privacy of the common practice to “take and keep it all” within the context of radical empathy. Practices which promote retention of complete disk images and encourage the creation of access copies with redacted sensitive data are vulnerable. The decision to discard must be deliberate and, often, must be enacted manually, outside of the workflow.

The motivation for this model is that the researcher, archivist, curator, or librarian can always return to the original disk image in order to demonstrate authenticity, allow for emulation or access, or to generate new access copies. However, this practice poses ethical privacy concerns and does not demonstrate care. We recognize that the resources necessary to review disk images and make contextual decisions that balance both privacy and authenticity are sizable due to the manual nature of this work: this places strain and further labor on staff and practitioners using current digital archival and preservation tools. We proffer that there is a need to develop tools which aid in efficient and explicit redaction, but also allow for needed contextual and empathetic decision-making. Further we propose that more staff time is required to make these decisions and if that staff time is not available, then the institution should consider itself incapable of ethically stewarding the content and protecting those affected.

Pre-print first published online 01/24/2021

Author Biographies

Monique Lassere, Harvard University

Monique Lassere is currently the Digital Archivist at the Houghton Library, Harvard University’s rare books, manuscripts, and literary and performing arts archive. In her role, she stewards born-digital archival materials within the Manuscript Section. Her research interests include issues in software preservation, born-digital archives, and information maintenance. Prior to joining Harvard, Monique worked for the University Libraries at the University of Arizona, where she oversaw development of the Libraries’ digital preservation strategy and program, and a digital preservation startup company called Digital Bedrock, researching file formats and software obsolescence. Monique earned her MSLIS (2017) and B.A. in English Literature (2013) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jess M Whyte, University of Toronto

Jess Whyte (she/her) is the Digital Assets Librarian at the University of Toronto, where she previously held the position of Digital Preservation Intake Coordinator, obtained her MI, and worked with the Digital Curation Institute as a Research Assistant. Before coming to the University of Toronto, Jess worked in community and public radio, with the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group (NSPIRG), and co-authored Building OpenSocial Apps, one of the first books on developing applications for social networks. She also enjoys coding, you can find examples of her work at