Musings on a Systems View of Digital Archives

As an outsider trying to grasp the bounds of the archival field at the same time that it is entering a period of unprecedented change, I frequently find myself attracted to discussions about this change. Not only do such discussion clarify for me the boundaries of the field, but they give me insight into where I might be of help in the future. In two recent bulletins of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), society president, Richard Pearce-Moses, initiated one such discussion.

In his first message (Sep/Oct 2005, p. 3 & 23) takes the tack that the new technical environment will change the "how" of archival practice while leaving the essential archival functions intact. He elucidates several areas that archivists (and people in general) take for granted in the course of working with physical records. Among these are common familiarity with paper artifacts, language, searching for files in filing cabinets, using photocopiers, and so on. Each of these activities is so familiar to contemporary life that they disguise a host of assumptions made by the people performing them. Pearce-Moses uses metaphor to describe different ways in which these common practices can be transformed into new methods for understanding digital records: letters have become email; diaries have become blogs, etc. He summarizes by stating that "we must not remain focused on the old and familiar," which I believe is a bit overbroad. Perhaps, instead, all assumptions of the old practice must be taken with skepticism and re-evaluated in order to make a successful transition -- not so much a focus on only the new, but equally and intelligently on both the old and the new.

The second message (Jan/Feb 2006, p. 3 & 23) takes a decidedly different approach, integrating feedback about more fundamental ways in which the profession may change. Specifically, he addresses Joan Krizack's question: "what is our job in the digital era?" Perhaps the most prescient observation he makes is that information technologists are staking claims on archival turf. This is evident in Google's forays into digitization and indexing of books, images, videos, etc. But such "trespassing" is not new, and not restricted to specific projects. For instance, traditional archivists are sure to be taken aback at how operating systems, data replication software, and all sorts of applications use the term "Archive" to mean nothing more than a simple backup of electronic files. This sort of transgression is endemic of an environment that is focused on short term retention of data in jealously guarded proprietary formats. As the gap widens between the well worn practice of paper records and the lack of progress in developing procedures for handling the ever burgeoning corpus of electronic records, software vendors take the upper hand in determining the future direction of digital archives.

Large institutional digital archives projects have gone a long way in bringing technology vendors into the archival process, but a much broader approach is needed -- one that instills into programmers and software architects an awareness of the long term efficacy of the artifacts that their products create. And this is the crux of the issue, in my opinion: the major problem that archivists are fretting about is due in no small part to the practices and conventions of software makers and Web site designers. No "solution" is complete without bringing these practices into line with solid archival principles, that is, if we wish to actually retain most of this stuff for the long term. The Microsoft Office versus OpenDocument debates are only the beginning.

Much of the new digital information created outside of these large institutional projects are unlikely to be able to take advantage of such forward looking research. For this, we need a systems theory of archival practice, one that encompasses not only the entire record lifecycle, but the very matrix from which records emerge -- the software and operating systems in which they are created. I think a focus on this strategy, though not as effective in solving the problems inherent in already existing electronic records, would eliminate much of the pensiveness of archivists over digital records in the future. Such a strategy, I believe, creates a number of new job descriptions for archivists.