Archiving in the Digital Age

Archives and manuscript collections are facing new challenges in the digital age. There is a movement to digitize physical collections, and figure out how to preserve the new emerging born-digital collections. Archivists not only worry about physical degradation of their collections, but now digital degradation, or “data rot”. Archivists are racing to preserve our quickly evolving digital world.

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Compacting shelves in an archive

Metadata has existed since before the practice of digital archiving, but is gaining new life with the move to the digital storage of items. In his book, Public History, Thomas Cauvin describes the three different types of metadata. There is “descriptive, structural, and administrative [metadata].” (34) While all three forms are important, structural metadata is the most important for those on the front end of archiving. Structural metadata in traditional archival settings may include an index or table of contents, and in digital archiving take the form of tags. Tagged content is seen widely over the internet these days, and works in the same manner in a digitally archived collection.

Tagging digitally archived collections is still not a widely uniformed process. What is most important is uniformity within a collection. If a collection contains two different images of a person riding a horse, they should be tagged with the same word or multiple words. They should both be tagged with either horsemanship or equestrianism, or both horsemanship and equestrianism, but not one with horsemanship and the other with equestrianism. This may seem redundant, but is crucial when digitizing a collection. A collection is only as searchable as its tags allow.

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Computer Servers

Another challenge facing archivists is “born digital” data. This is any data whose original format is digital. This includes emails, digital photographs, podcasts, etc. These things are seen by many to be ephemeral. However, as we move further towards digital dependency, archivists need to keep up with preserving these forms of data. In an article co authored by F. Gerald Handfield and Dr. Larry Cebula, the two discuss the difficulties in establishing the first state government digital archive. The archive, which is on the campus of Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington, houses “electronic records of state and local government,” (26) and makes these documents accessible to the public. In a video here about the digital archive, Cebula offhandedly remarks that the accessibility of these documents “keep our leaders more honest.” This is true and brings up the issues of legality and ethics that are central to archives.

Archivists deal with a lot of legal and ethical issues. There are issues like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Cauvin discusses the fact that institutions must “access demands of repatriation of Native American objects.” (43) There are also cases of theft and destroying of archived materials, like in the case of Sandy Berger. Berger stole and destroyed classified documents from the National Archives. A full report can be found here. The author of the report argues that not only did Berger take advantage of the weaknesses in the control of the classified documents, “but weaknesses in the proper response to the discovery of the unauthorized removal of such documents.” (61)

While digital archiving may provide new challenges, is also creates new advantages. It is preserving physically fragile documents for future researchers and is creating new accessibility for the public. It is holding individuals accountable and spreading knowledge to a wider audience than ever before.  

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