Memory block: how to keep awkward bits of history alive

Save all, read all? Matthew Reisz on the archivists devising protocols for preserving born-digital data

March 22, 2012

An attempt by university archivists to find a common approach to the problem of how to deal with digitally recorded material has led to a groundbreaking paper on the subject.

The "white paper" arises out of a collaborative project headed by the University of Virginia and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with the participation of digital archivists at Stanford and Yale universities and the University of Hull.

Published as AIMS Born-Digital Collections: An Inter-Institutional Model for Stewardship, the report focuses on "a common need among the project partners - and most libraries and archives - to identify a methodology or continuous framework for stewarding [the] born-digital archival materials" that have been "slowly accumulating in archival backlogs for years".

Simon Wilson, senior archivist at the Hull History Centre, a partnership between the university and Hull City Council, said the issue was multifaceted.

"What do we do if people bring in a bag of floppy disks? How do we read them and decide whether they are worth preserving for years to come? How do we access material on a laptop that has died?

"In the past, we just needed the right physical conditions and could store paper-based material for hundreds of years. Now the tools for creating and storing digital material mean we are faced with a fresh challenge every few years. We can't be technology museums," he said.

Although more and more data are born digitally, stored digitally and do not exist in any other form, their preservation poses challenges.

Mr Wilson said some archives had been tackling the problem for years, but others "haven't really started and are scared to take the first step. Our white paper is about sharing experiences so they can take that first step."

Although there are no simple solutions, Mr Wilson flagged up several key areas. One was forging new kinds of relationships with people likely to deposit material with archives.

When novelist and screenwriter Stephen Gallagher recently gave the Hull History Centre 14,000 files, with the earliest of them on Amstrad disks, they all had to be made more accessible. But this was inevitably in tension with what Mr Wilson sees as "the prime motive of archivists, to keep things as close to the original as possible, and to act as custodians rather than changing the format and appearance".

Material donated by businesses can present other dilemmas. While formal letters and ledgers used to be self-contained documents kept together in one place, the same sort of information is now often transmitted via emails, mixed in with personal and ephemeral material.

Archives and depositors may have to make difficult decisions about what should be preserved, how the rest should be weeded out, and how private or other sensitive content can be held back.

A final challenge comes, in Mr Wilson's view, with "user expectation of immediate online access".

"People tend to accept that they have to travel to look at some kinds of original documents, and that they can't be accessed from home. But they expect to look at any digital material from their laptops."

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