I have been thinking about the future of archives for the next 20 years and how services will be delivered. I am interested in how the public (archive users) will access the archives. In particular, I am interested in how born digital records will shape the archival offer and what needs to be done now to prepare for it.
To manage the thought process, I have broken the issue into three distinct phases.
Phase One: Next 5 years 90% paper/10% digital.
Phase two 5-15 years, 50/50% or 40/60% paper/digital.
Phase three 20+ years 10%/90% paper/digital.
In 20 years, we will have a large amount of digital records and a smaller, but consistent, amount of paper records. The question, then and now, is how to preserve or converse the archives as well as provide access.
Preservation as Access
Do born digital records change our priorities of preservation/conservation, and access/use? In the paper era, the access and preservation were opposed to each other. If you accessed a fragile document too often, it would decay or disintegrate. To overcome this, we digitize the record. In the born digital age, decreased access means the record is more likely to decay because digital integrity (cite article on decay of bits) and the need to future proof. If your computer system is Word for example, you are more likely to keep updating it and future proofing it. If you stop accessing it and the systems are no longer supported, then preservation may be harder because the record starts to decay.
If this is the trade-off, the “birth process” for digital records needs to be explored. How are archives or CROs linked to records management process of organisations that contribute to them? For County Record Offices there is a clear relationship with their local government authority. Yet, for others the relationship is uncertain. Many organisations are unaware of the process by which their records they create may arrive at the archives. The reason for this is that few organisations have a robust understanding of the records management life-cycle, which leads to the archives or County Record Office. In the paper era, the challenge, though different, may not have been as great. The process for producing the records, such as minutes, reports, and process was relatively clear. In the digital age, the same clarity does not exist. There are tools emerging (such as HP/Autonomy) for creating meaning and order out of unstructured data, but their take up is uncertain.
Will born digital change our focus of archives as heritage.
I am assuming a local government perspective rather than a community or heritage perspective. The research organisation or private sector archives present an additional if related challenge. In the future of the born digital, there will be an increasing distinction (potentially false) between digital archives for communities and or research universities and local government or government work. In a sense, local government, rather than universities, are often seen as the focus of heritage. By that, I mean local government represents the whole while a university or a community group reflect a part. In any case, the parts have to work together. Born digital create an issue because official records (products of the local government or government process as public record office) may be perceived differently from those reflecting community or heritage.
How will Heritage Lottery Funding shape the digital future?
Over the last 10 years, at least, the Heritage Lottery Funds (HLF) has shaped the archives or County Record Offices. The focus has been on creating heritage sites or protecting collections on behalf of a community’s heritage. The programme has been successful in developing archives and ensuring they have the funding to make the changes. The question, though, is whether the focus from HLF has to be on developing the digital archives. How will we encourage heritage in a digital age and how will archives establish themselves digitally and maintain a community or heritage offer.
The challenge increases because as archives become digital, their users change. The heritage focus has been on place, but if the place is now virtual and access is mediated through the internet, how does one support that type of “place”? At the same time, the focus on heritage and place, especially in the digital age, begins to reveal a wider gap between a CRO and archives found in research libraries. Digital will either exacerbate the difference or remove. The way that CROs approach access and how those within research approach access is related but different. The divide is not simply public or private, government or academic, the challenge is how their digital access is enhanced. At one level, the two approaches should be the same, but the future of archives in an electronic age may, unintentionally, be less access. In effect, the push to digital reduces one mediated experience, the physical control of access to documents and records, with a different mediated experience through electronic access. Two gaps occur in the access realm. The first is the implicit gap regarding Archival User Intelligence.
Teaching people how to access archives?
If the future is digital, we will need to double our efforts to educate our users. By that I mean, the explicit gap between archivist and user cannot be closed because it will remain mediate through the internet. What will likely happen, as in other industries, is that online finding aids with self-help automated systems will emerge that allow archivist to leverage their knowledge. What we may be seeing is two interrelated effects. The first is that the access becomes mediate in a different way. In the past, the archivist may have been seen as a gatekeeper controlling the archive. The new user was initiated into the archival search by talking with the archivist and other archive staff. In an electronic age, where it is difficult to “meet” the archivist, how does that education work? How do we educate people to the archives and how to use it when they are less likely to come through the door and more likely to be online? We also need to consider the archivist’s digital education and what is required to manage the digital archives. The second issue, which I will treat first, is that the archives themselves stop being mediated in one way, but become mediate in the second way.
Slave to the SEO?
If the archives become increasingly digitized, then they may become captive to the search engine optimisation (SEO) requirements. In the past, the archivist may have been seen as the gatekeeper, the one who mediated or controlled access to the collection. They controlled access as well as the shape of the collection. Yet, the search engine may replace that gatekeeping or mediating role. As documents become digital, the internet becomes the new mediator. If the public’s access is mediated through the web, for example, through a firewall, or a pay wall, or a subscription wall, how accessible will the collections become? Even if the access is “free”, the search engine optimisation requirements may keep the archives hidden. In a sense, you may access the archives, if you know where to look, but you may not know what the archives hold or that you need to go to the archives unless the material is indexed to the internet search engines. The same problem with attracting users in the physical world carries over to the electronic, but in a different way. The public will have to access the archive that fits the search engine and not the needs or intent of the archive. At the same time, the challenge is that a belief, in the future, that all records are digital may require the warning sticker that, simultaneously, there are paper records that need to be examined on the site. Even now, the search engine optimisation leaves large swathes of material untouched because they rank low on search indexes. If records are born digital and archived digitally, will they be connected to the internet directly, or will they be mediated through the archive?
Reversing Plato’s cave: trading one form of mediation for another
With born digital records, the mediated experience will change the need to visit the archives physically or electronically. In the future, we may have more access to archives, through the electronic means, but the access becomes increasingly remote. I mean that literally, as we become removed from the concrete (relatively speaking) nature of the paper or physical record. Even though electronic records can have the same integrity as paper records, there will remain a perceptible gap between paper and digital records. Paper remains the most enduring and the most accessible; it may become the medium of choice for archives and users. Yet, the gap will remain and could increase as the electronic will remain suspect.
We may be further removed from the document and in that gap we may see other issues emerging about whether the digital record is the “true record”. In that sense, we are pushed into the cave. Instead of trying to escape the cave, make the records and archives more accessible, by digitizing them, people want to come to the archives because they have the “permanent” records the paper records. The wider digital sphere becomes the ephemeral or meta-universe while the paper are considered the physical.
Augmented Reality the future of archives is everything in its place?
Where do we go from today if born digital is the future of archives? With digital records and digital artefacts, we open up the third dimension: place. By that, I mean we need to consider the geographical location data associated with born digital or digital artefacts like photographs. If these records are tagged, then their geographic metadata must be similarly conserved. Moreover, do we then need to start tagging all records so that we can associate with a geographical space? If we do, then the next generation in archives will have an augmented reality offer. In this sense, you will be able to see (literally) where the Dickens lived and the archival records associated with the building. The City of Philadelphia Department of Records is being to use an augmented reality approach with photographs and archival work in Philadelphia. In twenty years, the following scenario is possible. People who want to use the archives never visit it, nor do they access an archive’s website unless they want more detail. Instead, they will go to locations, where their augmented location devices will bring up or highlight the digital records from the archives associated with that location. In that future, the archives will go to the people. At the same time, the archives or the CRO site will contain the original born digital records or the paper records.
I would be interested in your views on the future of archives in a digital age. The future of archives will be one where the public experience or use them through different mediated experience. As these develop, we will need archives to be structured differently to adapt to an augmented reality as the documents are linked to a place outside the physical archival storage. If the next stage of access, already emerging, links records to places, how do we prepare our records for that future? In that sense, we return to a question at the start of born digital records, is access now conservation?
- Activist Archivists and Digital Preservation (blogs.loc.gov)
- An Early Look at the BitCurator Environment (mith.umd.edu)
- Born Digital Minimum Processing and Access (blogs.loc.gov)
- Step-by-Step Management of Born-Digital Content Received on Physical Media (blogs.loc.gov)