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, August 23, 2007

Recordkeeping and the Digital Age

Despite the acknowledged lack of progress being made in the preservation of digital documents and sources, an ever-growing number of books continue to appear on this topic. Most of the most recent publications have been collections of essays, studies, and reports, and they most often have been somewhat uneven (as these kinds of publications often tend to be). Now we have another new entry in digital archiving – Alistair Tough and Michael Moss, eds., Record Keeping in a Hybrid Environment: Managing the Creation, Use, Preservation and Disposal of Unpublished Information Objects in Context (Oxford, England: Chandos Publishing, 2006) – and it is another collection of essays and reports.

The Tough and Moss volume, other than needing a little more work for a less cumbersome title, seems to offer some promising insights into dealing with the digital documentary universe. Targeting their essays at records professionals in mid-career (although mid-career is always hard to define and I am not sure this volume succeeds at this either), the editors make some interesting observations up front that suggest that this book may be trying to offer some different insights into digital preservation and archiving. They see recordkeeping as a “relatively new field of study. The boundaries of the field are poorly defined and porous. This is characteristic of emerging disciplines and need not be a cause of professional insecurity” (p. ix). I am not convinced that the resulting volume advances this discipline all that much, but that is not to say that Record Keeping in a Hybrid Environment doesn’t make some contributions to the literature on managing digital records.

One distinct contribution is that the book represents the work of Glasgow University archivists and records managers, working in conjunction with the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute. The result is a collection of observations flowing between theoretical or conceptual issues and practical applications. There are essays on the transition to digital records, electronic records management within organizations, security and recordkeeping, risk management, legislative and regulatory environment issues, appraisal theory, and archival use and its implications for digitization.

Most of the essays in this volume are provocative and stimulating. Seamus Ross’s essay, “Approaching Digital Preservation Holistically” is a good example of what can be found in this volume. Ross believes that we have often tended to overstate the fragility of the digital materials, when the larger and more serious problem is the lack of collaboration among records professionals, IT workers, and managers. Ross seems to accept the custodial model for digital preservation – writing about the need to “ingest” these materials into a secure and stable repository, but I am not so certain about this as a strategy, at least an effective one. Ross comes down hard on the notion that we have not had much success in digital preservation, but his seven steps for fixing this – keeping skills current, better advocacy, ensuring organizations have the right approaches, avoiding proprietary standards, and so forth – doesn’t really seem to add very much to the debates and discussions that we have not already read or heard. This worries me that this new book from Glasgow reflects more about how far we are from solving the digital challenges than in providing some better answers and better directions. Although anyone reading contributions from scholars such as Ross or Moss will always come away with some fruitful stuff to mull over.