Changing Our Perspective: Looking at Our Quality Efforts from the Outside In

The following is a guest post by Kate Murray, Digitization Process Development Specialist at the National Archives.


Recently I had what I can only describe as a Eureka moment. I was attending an informal presentation by Hans Westerhoff describing the Images for the Future project in the Netherlands. He said one of the most important things for an institution to do to be successful was to change their perspective to look not from the inside out, but from the outside in. I sat up a little straighter in my chair and underlined this phrase in my notepad. Yes – that is it! That’s what we are trying to do with Digitization Services (IDS) Quality Assurance Quality Control (QA/QC) project. We’re on to something here!

Our implementation of looking from the outside in on this project is the External Reference Committee (ERC).  The ERC is comprised of about 44 subject matter experts and vendors from seven countries. Their role in this project is to keep us on our toes – tell us from their own individual perspectives what we are doing right, what we could do better and how they do things related to reformatting records. We are striving for increased transparency and what is a better way to do that than just laying it all out there for our peers to see. There certainly are risks with this approach. For example, what if we’re doing things radically different from other people? What if we discover serious flaws in our existing practices? The benefits of openness and transparency far outweigh the risks. It will all be worth it if Digitization Services can improve our Products and Services to better meet our customer’s needs.

On August 11, 2011, we gathered together individuals from the ERC virtually to solicit their various opinions and provide information about their respective organizations.  Overall, I put it in the success column. It was not without challenges – including static on the phone line so loud, it must have broken every loudness specification ever written – but the level of interest and discussion won out in the end. IDS staff talked about what specific workflows and tasks we were focusing on and how we determined these using a priority ranking system.

In the early summer months, NARA staff conducted a survey of ERC individual members asking them about specific quality issues including topics such as automated versus manual workflows, standards adoption, and implementation issues. The discussion covered both general and specific topics. Melitte Buchman from NYU Libraries stressed how important customized and hand-on inspection is for her collections while James Snyder from the Library of Congress had another viewpoint that focused on a high degree of batch processing and automation for his large and diverse collections. Equipment characterization was a hot topic. Hannah Frost and Matt Pearson from Stanford talked about the increased efficiency of focusing on quality at all points of the production cycle rather than to have to re-make something that fails QC at the end of the process. NARA is considering all these varied points of view as we work our way through this project. ERC members had some questions for us too and we were happy to provide answers. For example, Greg Wilsbacher from the University of South Carolina asked us if we are doing full edge-edge scans for our motion picture film. Our response is that we are capturing the picture and the soundtrack, but that we are not including the perforations or the edge codes because our capture equipment isn’t capable of this but we record this information manually during the inspection process.  In short, the opportunity to hear different voices and opinions was a worthwhile brainstorming and information exchange session just as we had hoped.

This virtual session confirmed for us that an outside in perspective is good! There’s a big world out there beyond NARA’s walls so let’s learn from our peers and apply their lessons learned to our QA/QC project. Obviously, we know there is a universe outside the ERC too and we want to take advantage of your experience as well. Take a look at our virtual session slide deck and let us hear your outside in perspective!

2 thoughts on “Changing Our Perspective: Looking at Our Quality Efforts from the Outside In

  1. This seems like an odd notion of quality assurance – focusing solely on your business partners’ perceptions of your practices. What about the end users? What if their needs aren’t met, either because of your practices or those of your business partners? What oversight do you have in place to assure that vendors are performing adequately and meeting the needs of end users?

  2. Thanks for this note! Just to clarify, we are focusing on quality assurance for reformatting performed in house – not by NARA’s digitization partners. We believe we can learn from what other people are doing and it’s been very helpful for us so far.

    To answer your question about the user perspective, as part of this QA/QC project we have a companion group to the ERC for our direct customers called the User Community Group (UCG) which will help us determine acceptable quality levels for end use products.

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