Over the last few millennia we’ve invented a series of technologies – from the alphabet to the scroll to the codex, the printing press, photography, the computer, the smartphone – that have made it progressively easier and easier for us to externalize our memories, for us to essentially outsource this fundamental human capacity. Joshua Foer
October 2013 is American Archives Month – a time to take note that Minnesota is “The Land of (nearly) 10,000 Archives.” In case you haven’t visited your county historical society, public, government agency, corporate headquarters or university library, gallery or other citadel of learning lately, you might be surprised what’s happening behind the scenes in archives. In countless institutions and communities archives are facing the challenges of the digital age.
In this information age, everyone expects to find information at the click of key. Whether genealogical research, stories of the town or neighborhood’s history, the accomplishments of state leaders, business mergers or house history, we want to know what’s gone before. The urge to dip into history, to build on what’s gone before, to understand our roots, is great. The more we catch a glimpse the more we find ourselves lost in the pursuit of more information, stories, pictures, data, graphics, audio and visual recordings – our thirst for information is never quenched.
What’s often lost is recognition of what goes into the process of making that wealth of information accessible. Because we see the technology on the output end of the information chain we credit the app, as if an inert tool can magically locate the needed crumb of information, then present it in living color on a hand-held device.
In fact, it is the unstinting work of archivists who, from the beginning of time, have identified, preserved, and organized the record of human kind, regardless of format, assuming that their meticulous efforts will bear fruit some day in the future.
What’s happening today is that, even as they continue their traditional role, archivists are meeting unprecedented challenges, including these:
Expectations – The challenge to archivists is to establish standards then design and introduce appropriate technologies to digitize and organize materials so that the record itself reaches the user at the moment of need.
Format – Information comes in an ever-expanding range of formats that require new standards and procedures for storage and portability, organizing principles and massive examination of archival basics.
Security/privacy – As everyone must know by now, when information is ubiquitous and the flow of data is fluid, it’s a new world for archivists. Ask NSA.
Ownership – Information has become a commodity with economic value. Archivists face unparalleled issues that have major implications for who owns what, who pays for and who gains from value added to raw information. Access issues are particularly problematic for archivists whose purview is information that is classified as “public.”
Outreach – The work of archivists of no value unless and until the information they identify, organize and preserve is put to use. Increasingly, the public wants to know how to get the records they know, or suspect, are out there somewhere. [ One example that piques the imagination is the recent release of thousands of FBI files, files that divulge buckets of delicious tidbits collected by the zealous FBI on issues and individuals ranging from Hollywood stars to war protesters to college professors. Somewhere someone had to decide how or if to inform the voyeuristic public of the release and the points of access.]
The Midwest Archives Conference met this past week in Green Bay. A quick scan of the agenda for that meeting offers some ideas on what’s on the minds of archivists in September 2013. These are the conference sessions: User-centered design; Website analysis on a budget; Designing for hand-held devices; Crowd-source transcription; Leveraging Wikipedia; Using Omeka for web-based exhibit; Scan-on-demand reference and research services.
For another glimpse of today’s archives, check the October 25 meeting of the Twin Cities Archives Round Table (http://tcartmn.org/2013/09/23/twin-cities-archives-round-table-fall-meeting-2/) Archivists from a wide range of institutional settings will be meeting at the Red Wing Shoe Company (yes, corporations are important pillars of the archives community). Archives of every stripe will share their combined skills and experience to assure that the record of each institution is preserved and made accessible to users, whether corporate, academic or the public at large.
Celebrate American Archives Month by taking a few minutes to view some starting points – this is a quick list of a very few of the state’s archives – don’t stop here!