Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Future of Archives

It is hard to go anywhere in the archives community and not find archivists working on some aspect of digital archives, either digitizing their holdings or contending with digitally-born materials. Archivists are aware that not everything will be digitized or that they will be able to save everything that is created digitally. However, the public, policymakers, and a lot of scholars and other researchers don’t really understand such matters.

Well-known historian Anthony Grafton provides a glimpse into such matters in his “Future Reading: Digitization and Its Discontents,” New Yorker, November 5, 2007, pp. 50-54. Grafton discusses his perspective about the limitations of the vast Google enterprise, the challenges of intellectual property, the issues of selecting materials for digitization, and how what Google is doing is not the same as what a library does.

Near the end of the article, Grafton provides a look into what archivists face: “For now and for the foreseeable future, any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously. No one should avoid the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen.” Grafton also believes we need to be able to continue to examine original documents, taking what he calls the “narrow path”: “The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books” (p. 54).

And, let’s figure out how to preserve those crumbling originals and digitize their contents for broader use.


At 3:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In addition to Grafton’s comments on the two roads, I was intrigued by his observation that libraries are returning to an “ancient model” of “accumulating large holdings and … making and disseminating copies of key texts” (51). Grafton has written about this ancient model in Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea (Harvard, 2006).

Soon after Grafton’s article appeared, Robert Darnton (who until recently was at Princeton with Grafton) shared his vision—“Old Books and E-Books”—for the Harvard University Library. (See:


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