Context Junky

Archives/GLAM, PhD life, history, art, etc.

On Digital Archives

In a post on You Ought to be Ashamed on 9 November 2012, Rebecca made an interesting point regarding the funding of archives, with particular reference to recent issues with the state archives in Georgia, USA:

“It’s obvious to those of us working in the archives profession that you can’t have archives without professional archivists. But that news article out of Georgia shows the danger of assuming that people outside the profession share this view. If you advocate for archives without advocating for archivists, you’re sending a message that the value of archives comes from the stuff, rather than the services.”

She was referring to the tendency of some to claim physical archives can be kept open by using volunteers and student interns in place of paid professional staff as a way of reducing costs. But sometimes comparable attitudes toward archivists are evident even when there is potential funding available.

I am thinking in particular of organisations who push for a ‘digital archive’, but do so with the idea that maintaining ‘the stuff’ is primarily a technical (read ‘IT’) issue; that all the required metadata can be provided by users or harvested from other systems; that researchers and staff can self-deposit and manage their own records and data without support; or that keywords, indexing and a faceted search function are all that are required for effective discovery and access.

Funding here is not directed toward professional archivists and related expertise. It is directed solely toward good hardware, some sys admins to ensure the servers keep ticking over, anything from basic check-sums to extensive (and expensive) monitoring software, and some web services over the top for deposit, discovery and access. Hey presto: a ‘digital archive’.

In these situations, when I find myself discussing the idea of a ‘digital archive’ with non-archivists, I often find myself using a phrase along these lines: ‘Remember, a digital archive is a type of archive, not a type of digital thing.’

I never know whether this is interpreted in the right way. People may think I am just staking a claim to funding or territory on behalf of archivists, or indirectly critiquing IT-centric approaches to long term preservation. I confess, somtimes I am doing both these things. But my main purpose is to promote the idea that an archive is not just something which ensures that stuff – physical or digital – lasts for a long period of time. It includes processes and services, many founded on conceptual ideas like collections, series, original order, provenance and context. And, as Rebecca points out in her blog post, it requires people responsible for the conceptual management of ‘the stuff’ and the provision of services to creators, depositors and users of that stuff.

These people are currently called archivists. But whatever they are called, in my experience when people start conceptualising a ‘digital archive’ these are the roles most often missing from the plan. I suspect at the root of this issue is that (most) non-archivists simply don’t understand what an archive actually is or what archivists actually do, either conceptually or practically. Instead, when people consider the storage of digital files – Word documents, images, sound files, video, spreadsheets, statistics and more – what they think about is their computer, hard drive, fileshare and server. These are things they see every day. Who do they call when they can’t access a file? IT. Who helps them organise and name their own files and records? No one. Surely a digital archive is just file storage on a disk, but on a bigger scale and ‘lasting longer’?

I am not suggesting here that technical staff do not have a key part to play. There are a whole bunch of important and challenging technical issues which need to be addressed, including format obsolescence, migration, emulation, managing enormous volumes, etc. I’m also not suggesting we should just roll the archival profession as is into the digital world. There are archival methods and practices which should be changed, discarded or at least challenged in the light of opportunities provided by technology. But, at the same time, just because there are things we could do in the digital world (self-deposit, creator-managed access, automated harvesting of records and metadata) it doesn’t always mean we should. And whether we do these things needs to be treated as a conceptual question, not just a technical one.

Returning to Rebecca’s point, those of us working in the archival profession can’t assume people have used or been to a physical archive, let alone understand how they function or what the staff there do. In some organisations we can’t even assume this of people charged with ‘building a digital archive’. Therefore, when asked about digital archives we need to leave the word ‘digital’ to one side and start by explaining the words ‘archive’ and ‘archivist’. Otherwise we will just get a disk full of stuff.


  1. Nup. I’d be guessing, rather than understanding what you mean by ‘Remember, a digital archive is a type of archive, not a type of digital thing.’ I’m a tertiary educated non-archivist. I reckon you’d get a better response if you said something like “You want a curated, ordered and retrievable archive, not just a random dump disk”. I think that’d get meore attention/understanding.

    • Thanks gin – I agree that phrase about digital archives doesn’t really work. Your idea is getting closer, but I think the word ‘archive’ still needs explanation here. Otherwise we (archivists) are assuming people know what we mean by that word, and I don’t think they do.

  2. Hah! Enjoy bonus typos!

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