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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Machines in the Archives

How individuals are using information technologies for work and play is constantly transforming. It is not unusual to see people in airports, shopping malls, on the street, on golf courses, in the workplace, and even in church loaded down with portable devices. Given this obvious transformation in our digital society, it should not be surprising that we expect to see some impact on what researchers can expect to do in archives research rooms.

Of course, I am more observer than user of these technologies. I have a cell phone and a laptop, and occasionally I add a digital camera, but I generally travel light. Often when I disappear for a day or two to a conference for some other trip, I pack my briefcase with good old-fashioned print books and look forward to taking a break from the accumulating e-mail. I like solitude and silence.

So, the challenge is how to keep pace of the new technologies and wrestle with understanding their implications for archival research. It dawned on me that one way is to query how my much younger and far more hip students are using the new devices, something that came to me as I observed my own 22 year old daughter text message, work on the laptop, download music, and watch a television show all at the same time and with ease. I designed an assignment for one of my courses that would enable students to examine the implications of some technology for conducting research in the archives. This assignment required students to select any technology (for example, the Web, PDA's, or digital cameras) of interest to them and consider the implications for how archivists provide access to the records holdings under their care. The result of their investigations and reflections led to a recently published First Monday essay, “Machines in the Archives: Technology and the Coming Transformation of Archival Reference,” considering a range of changes impacting the use of archival materials.

You can find this essay at Here is the abstract: Technology is transforming the way in which researchers gain access to archives, not only in the choices archivists make about their uses of technology but in the portable technologies researchers bring with them to the archives. This essay reviews the implications of electronic mail, instant messaging and chat, digital reference services, websites, scanners, digital cameras, folksonomies, and various adaptive technologies in facilitating archival access. The new machines represent greater, even unprecedented, opportunities for archivists to support one of the main elements of their professional mission, namely, getting archival records used.