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Electronic Records and Digital Archives

What do you do with electronic records? This is a question that staff members in Archives and Special Collections have been receiving at an increasing rate - from donors and researchers alike. It is also a question that we have been asking ourselves and our professional colleagues.  This past year has seen a great deal of activity in ASC and the Libraries as a whole to meet the challenges of born-digital archives.

 

digital material sources.jpgOur profession has long been good at receiving and preserving physical evidence that documents the lives and activities of individuals and groups - materials that you can hold in your hands. Before books get published, buildings get constructed, and plays get staged, people have traditionally put pen or pencil to paper to conceive, sketch, and outline their ideas. They add and edit and develop concepts through iterative drafts, personal notes, and the minutes of group discussions. They photograph activities and record rehearsals and presentations. Facts and figures, needs, resources, and costs are tabulated. Errors are found and corrected. Ideas are explored and examined in newspaper and magazine articles clipped out, book chapters photocopied - sources then collected or shared with others as attachments in letters.  All of the activity leading up to the realization of an idea can be retraced by poring through the physical evidence left on paper, film, and tape. As professionals we have gotten very good at bringing these things in to the library, preserving and sharing them. Today, much of that activity takes place entirely online with word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and design software. Communication takes place via email, text and instant messages, on blogs and social media. Sometimes it is printed out, but it can exist entirely online - and in any event, that is where the materials originated.

 

In the digital world all sorts of things become more complicated and uncertain. Unlike paper, which in good environmental conditions holds up pretty well if you just leave it alone, electronic records need to be actively managed in order to guarantee longevity. Obsolescence of format, software, and storage devices can make the content of files inaccessible. Software applications evolve over time or fall out of use. Storage devices can fall out of use (Punched cards? Tape? Floppy disks? CDs?) and are susceptible to physical degradation. Then there is the question of what constitutes an "original." Archives and rare book professionals have long retained and promoted materials because of their artifactual value as well as their content, but the fact that digital files are easy to replicate and that copies share all of the same basic intrinsic material and value challenges the notion of the original. And while this ease of replication creates opportunities for greater dissemination it also raises questions about authenticity.

 

SAA course books.jpgIn 2012 the University Libraries put together two task forces to examine needs and opportunities for digital materials: the Digital Preservation Task Force and the Digital Repositories Task Force, with ASC staff contributing to each. Additionally, throughout the 2012-2013 academic year ASC - with support from the University Librarian's office - sponsored a series of educational training sessions offered by the Society of American Archivists. The SAA has developed a Digital Archives Specialist program which it offers around the country. ASC brought several of these courses to the University of Minnesota to train staff from multiple areas of the Libraries. Courses offered included: Basic Electronic Records, Copyright Issues for Digital Archives, Privacy and Confidentiality Issues in Digital Archives, Arrangement and Description of Electronic Records, and Appraisal of Electronic Records.

 

As we move through 2013 we continue to develop our approach to supporting this growing area of historical documents. A new task force within ASC is developing policies and procedures for the ingest, processing, and accessibility of electronic records, while the department works with the Libraries' information technology professionals to develop the needed technological infrastructure. We will also continue to explore new educational opportunities. Just last week, ASC staff member Lara Friedman-Shedlov, Description and Access Archivist and Webmaster for the Kautz Family YMCA Archives, attended a course at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia: "Born-Digital Materials: Theory and Practice." Lara was one of two recipients of the 2013 Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries Staff Development Grant in support of this course. It is an exciting time for the profession and for ASC and we look forward to sharing more with you as our collections and operations evolve.

 

R. Arvid Nelsen, Archivist, Charles Babbage Institute

Electronic Records Coordinator

 

 

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