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June 11, 2015

Digital age transforms archivists’ work

The job of an archivist, while focused on preserving the past, also must move quickly to include the future of digital curation, said a May 29 panel on charting the future of archives and archival work.

The School of Information Sciences event, moderated by Richard J. Cox, faculty member and chair of the library and information science program, asked panelists to discuss what can be done to produce the kind of archivist needed for 21st-century media.

Noted Anne Van Camp, director of the Smithsonian Institute Archives: “When we first started talking about what to do with digital stuff, there was a lot of hand-wringing. We have been hashing out these issues for 20 years.

“We’re never going to be a paperless world or an archive-less world,” she added. But, she said, “traditionally, archivists are risk-averse and you can’t be that way in the world today.”

She cited an April report from several professional educational groups called “Preparing the Workforce for Digital Curation,” which concluded, in Van Camp’s words, that today’s archivists work in “a shared environment. There’s not one single discipline or one single profession that is going to take care of this by itself.” The report also called for archivists to be more flexible in learning new practices for handling new media. “Because nothing is going to be the same in 20 years — really nothing,” she said.

“The archivist is always in a difficult position,” said Robert Riter, faculty member in the University of Alabama School of Library and Information Studies and a Pitt alumnus. “Archivists are of their own time but they inherit the time of others.” He and other panelists posited that education in archive practices should take its cue from the sciences, offering archiving laboratories in which students can gain hands-on experience and even experiment with preservation methods on different new materials.

Another Pitt alumna, Deirdre Scaggs, said that student archivists should be taught to embrace new technologies, rather than shying away from them. As associate dean of the Special Collections Research Center and director of the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center at the University of Kentucky, she observed that current students, who were born into a digital world, generally are more open to new technologies.

From the audience, Pitt Archives Service Center head Edward Galloway pointed out that the University still has no dedicated digital archivist. But Pitt students said they were aiming for such jobs.

“When I applied to Pitt that was not what I thought I would be doing,” said one in attendance. “I’m doing that because I think that’s what I need to be doing.”

“The future of archives are not just preserving digitally … but now they are presenting digitally,” added another.

“There’s this image of us as history students who didn’t want to teach, so what are we going to do?” a recent Pitt grad said.
“We really have to identify more with the information side of our information and library degree.”

“It used to be 75 percent of our students who were taking archives courses were from traditional history programs,” noted Cox. Today that percentage has been greatly reduced.

Large institutions such as Kentucky, said Scaggs, have instituted campuswide digital repositories, especially to facilitate large data sets required for National Science Foundation grant recipients. However, she said, no department or unit at the university wants to take the financial responsibility for maintaining the repository. Instead, grant applicants now are trying to write the cost of storage into their proposals.

Scientific databases, Van Camp pointed out, may be easier to archive than collections of emails, websites or big textural databases, which are less uniform.

Riter noted that, prior to the digital age, corporations couldn’t control an individual’s record-keeping system of paper notebooks and personal letters. But now a corporation owns individuals’ record-keeping systems, from Facebook to the cloud. He proposed empowering average citizens to preserve their own digital records “to preserve the public memory that takes the form of social media.”

“Of all the things I find troubling and keeping me awake at night, it is the problem of how are we going to keep these things?” said Van Camp. “There is a need for archivists at the point of creation to capture these things.” While the Library of Congress is collecting all tweets from Twitter today, “How are they going to manage it? What are they going to do with it?” As she emphasized: “Somebody needs to make sure Facebook understands how important what they have is for the future.”

Panelist Amelia Acker, a faculty member in the library and information science program, summed up the proceedings, noting that today’s students must understand such details of the digital world as how metadata is structured and created, and how metadata “connects our collections in really cool ways.”

“The 21st-century archivists can no longer maintain control of what our archives contain,” she said. “This loss of control is exciting.

“We really need to start thinking about refining the mission or vision of what it will mean to merge with digital archivists.”

The panel was part of the second annual Bernadette Callery archives lecture series, honoring the late Pitt faculty member.
—Marty Levine