The tide is coming in: Archives and the digital tsunami

English: Storage hallway at the National Archi...

English: Storage hallway at the National Archives I building. This was taken with permission at the Wikipedia 10 Washington D.C. event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like all businesses, archives face the challenges from the social media economy.[1] For most people archives can seem a dusty forgotten place that only scholars or researchers would have an interest. In many ways, this is true because it is concerned with the past and papers while most people and technology, in particular, is focused on electronic data and the future. That image also reflects the fundamental mission of archives to preserve and protect cultural or institutional heritages and memories (or at least the engrams), which are mainly found in paper form. However, this image is changing, which is putting a strain on archives as they adapt the archival prime directive to handle digital records.

The technological changes from 25 years ago are now arriving with greater force at the archives. By that, I do not mean that the technology that archives uses is 25 years old, but rather the first wave of documents created from the period when PCs became widespread are now arriving at the archives. The challenge for archives today is that the archival education and most organisations that have archives are not well ready for the changes or the tide that is now swelling to a tsunami. The following sketches three key areas that will overlap to shape the future of archives. The first is ICT role, the second is the demand for archival digital skills outside of archives, and third the future of archival training.

Digital Archives are emerging from the shadow of ICT

As I mentioned, the first wave of the digital tsunami has arrived. The long awaited and much heralded shift from paper to digital has arrived at the archives.  The paradigm shift has begun and it is now happening with such speed that it threatens to overrun the archives. The archives are challenged to adapt to the vast amount of technological devices and opportunities that are available. They, in turn, create a demand from customers and from those who supply the records on the archives to have the digital capacity to handle them. Unlike a business that can choose its operating platforms, an archive has to have the ability to manage records from a variety of platforms. Even without the supply pressure, the technological pressure within demand creates special challenge.

Archives face the challenge of augmented reality devices that use the source material to create a different view of the archives.  Along with the demand or opportunity created by technology, there is also the increased supply of digital documents and digital records that are arriving in the archives.  If this was not enough, the archives, especially in the public sector, have to deal with “born digital” records. To handle this influx of new material and manage the opportunities, the archivists need to have digital archival skills, but the digital skills have often been seen as an ICT domain. The demand for digital archival skills was often hidden under ICT skills. If you needed some digital work done for the archives, you brought in someone from ICT to set up the system or maintain it. The systems were considered an adjunct to the central archival tasks such as handling documents, preserving them, curating them, and making them available for the public. Now, though, with the demand for analytics, data mining, and excavating unstructured data, the digital archival skills have grown into their own identity. Therein we see a second strain because the demand for digital archival skills is not being driven by archives so much as private sector companies who need to manage and curate the vast amounts of data and documents created by digital work.

Caught between born digital’s arrival and the demand for digital workers.

Even though the principles of archival work remain the same, the medium within which they are used has begun to change. The challenge is not only to find a way to make the archival principles explicit in the digital domain, but to find a way to sustain them against the digital demands. To put it very crudely, the challenge is to find a way to bridge the gap between the digital and the paper. The promise of digital documents has arrived as retention periods from the early digital era expire and material comes to archives. The arrival from digital records created 25 years ago is happening at the same time that digital work is exploding. However, the system is focused, rightly for the moment, on managing paper records. The tension is not just in managing the digital demands that shape the current context; it is also between two different approaches to archives. The paper archive is beginning to pass and the digital archives are emerging. Although paper will never disappear and the full change will not be felt for at least 10 years, the change is clear and the direction is clear. What is different now, though, is that digital archival skills are in demand outside of the archives. Will schools producing tomorrow’s archivists be able to produce digital archivist are they caught in the paper past?

A two tiered future between paper and digital?

The last threat is that the field will become two tiered field with paper vs. electronic. The paper is ascendancy as all archivists have been trained in this work and the schools are based on this paradigm. The arrival of a new archival identity is challenging the one so strongly associated with paper. For the first time we will see a new medium dominate the archival world. Paper is soon to be a minority in the archives. The question the field has to ask is whether the schools providing archival degrees now are looking at the past (paper) when they need to be looking at the future (digital). In one sense, they can bridge that gap by focusing on archival principles, but these are under challenge because the nature of digital archives are that they are less permanent. To date no one has found a digital equivalent to paper in terms of archival durability.[2] At the same time though, the skills shortage may continue because students may not stay in the archives once they have their archival skills. The question for a student (and the school training them) is “Do you get an ICT degree and learn archival skills or do you gain archival degree and learn ICT skills?” With informatics and e-disclosure as well as digital curation coming into their own there is an increased demand for digital archival skills outside the public sector archives. To some graduates in archival skills the question is “Why wait for born digital material to arrive and work in archives when the same skills are in demand in forensic informatics?”

The field faces significant changes over the next 5 years. The challenge for public sector organisations, in particular, will be able to create the digital infrastructure needed to sustain a digital archives. At the same time, archivists face the paradigm shift between paper and digital. They have the privilege or curse to be a case study of how people and an industry respond to a paradigm shift.

[1] Museums face the same challenge and face similar issues to the archives. This article focuses on archives and in particular, public sector archives. For a helpful introduction to the digital challenge and opportunity, see the paper by G. Wayne Clough Smithsonian on Best of Both Worlds.

[2] See for example this paper by Rosenthal et al. The Economics of Long Term Digital Storage. See also these articles on the problem of digital storage and the digital infrastructure needed to maintain digital storage. (Saving our data from digital decay) They reflect on the research that suggests digital material can be stored on microfilm, which is based on this paper Schilke and Rauber Long-Term archiving of digital data on microfilm The practical problems of born digital can be seen in his article on the preservation of Salman Rushdie’s archive.

 For a wider discussion of the need for digital continuity, see the UK’s National Archives material on digital continuity.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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3 Responses to The tide is coming in: Archives and the digital tsunami

  1. Stefan says:

    I wonder whether a bigger problem may be that there is no influx to manage, or at least no influx which is manageable. A while ago, I wrote about the problem from the other end: normal daily work does not translate into the feedstock of archives in anything like the way it used to do. At best there will be a twenty or thirty year gap; at worst the quality of the archival record may never regain the peak it achieved a the end of the last century.


    • Thanks for the positive comments and the interesting link. I am not sure archives have peaked. I think they are changing and they will come into their own in the next 25 years. In the same way that genealogy had to wait for good technology to take advantage of records and generate implicit interest in the idea.
      My concern is that the current archival paradigm is so focused on paper that it will be washed away by this tide and be picking up the pieces for the next 25 years and wait for someone else to impose a new archival paradigm on them. I think it is being developed by IBM/Google/Apple/Microsoft in their approach to software and systems.

      How many social media platforms are being developed or designed for archival purposes or with an eye to that distant future? Not many. People are now more interested in digital curation, keeping their digital memories alive and organised, but it is the lack of archival skills that creates a technological need, which in turn will create a technological solution bereft of an archival understanding. Look at sharepoint touting its ability to manage records and offer an archival solution (of sorts), this was on in the set up in the early days. It was all about sharing. Yet, even MOREQ is only partially successful not because it is wrong for archival principles, but that the organisations are not set up to view the issue in the longer term.

      In turn, what we will find is the field will become two tiered as those wedded to paper and “archival principles” will miss out on technology and the potential to leverage it through its ability to open up access (augmented reality as I have suggested in an earlier post) and thus doom itself to a dusty corner of the world.

      Whatever happens, it will be interesting to watch and learn.

      Thanks again for the positive comments and reading the blog. I enjoy your work and thank you for sharing.


  2. Pingback: The paradigm shift affects us all… | Archival Consultation

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