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, January 24, 2008

Digital Age Scholarship & the Archival Impulse

Christine Borgman’s study on the nature of the digital scholarship – Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007) – provides an interesting framework for contemplating some critical issues about the future of archival work. Her book, acknowledging that we are in the early stages of harnessing information technologies for various forms of scholarship, features many issues of interest to archivists and records professionals. Borgman, a professor of information studies at UCLA, considers preservation, intellectual property, the publishing industry, the gate-keeping function of scholarly and professional publishing, interdisciplinary research, the federal research infrastructure, and a host of other aspects characterizing our present digital era’s research and scholarship.

The maintenance of the products of digital scholarship is a recurring issue for Borgman. She notes, “no social framework for data exists that is comparable for publishing”(p. xviii). In fact, Borgman believes that “preservation and management of digital content are probably the most difficult challenges to be addressed in building an advanced information infrastructure for scholarly applications” (p. 7). Why? Although the use of digital information technologies offers many exciting possibilities for speeding up the dissemination of research results and transforming such elements as peer review, costs, and intellectual control, the matter of how such research publication can be maintained over time raises multiple preservation concerns and challenges. “Preserving the scholarly record is more difficult in a digital world than a print one,” Borgman believes, “due to the rapid evolution of technology, changes in intellectual property regulations, and new business models for publishing” (p. 48). Preserving research is also difficult because so much of the new forms of scholarship are occurring outside of the parameters of libraries and publishers, the players most responsible for the archiving of the scholarship.

While information technology can both enable and confound research projects in every field, it is nevertheless the case that scientific and other research data is now “so great that it can only be managed using information technology” -- and much of this data either is derived from or goes into archival repositories (p. 6). The uses of information technology in research has not eliminated the slow-paced dissemination of the old circulating of manuscripts and pre-prints, but “online communication has accelerated the amount of informal communication among scholars and simplified the dissemination of formal products of scholarship” (p. 49). There is a lot of research and development to be done. Borgman reflects, “Little research has explored the continuum from primary to secondary sources, much less the entire life cycle from data generation through the preservation of the scholarly products that set those data in context” (p. 10). This is a golden opportunity for archivists who have long worked with the notion of the records life cycle, experimenting with ways to move up to influencing or even controlling the initial creation stage (including developing the notion of the records continuum where documents of archival are identified at the outset and administered through the process).

Borgman is not content to place all the problems and challenges at the feet of the technical issues. Some of these issues stem from new varieties of interdisciplinary research, prompted by, but not caused by, the technologies: “As research crosses more organizational and disciplinary boundaries, it is more difficult to apply singular standards for evidence, quality, value, or ‘truth.’ Multidisciplinary projects and university-industry partnerships can lead to contentious discussions about criteria for peer review, grant funding, hiring decisions, authorship of publications, and the ownership and control of data” (p. 83). Archivists, especially those who work in academic institutions, have had to face such complex matters before, but their experiments and successes often have been with more traditional documentary formats.

Given the topics Borgman grapples with, it is interesting that she does not confront some of the topics that are headline grabbers. For example, she considers printing-on-demand as a solution for digital publishing, while noticing that such an approach is no more than a “niche market.” Borgman continues, “Publishing printed books will remain a viable market, perhaps forever, for certain kinds of content” (p. 113). Now, that is a refreshing perspective. However, there is a vast universe of research being published in new digital forms stretching older established mechanisms for their maintenance. Borgman discusses digital repositories, but it is not altogether clear that archiving in such repositories is the best approach or, at least, the only one.

Archivists, many placed in universities, and archival educators, the vast majority teaching in schools of library and information sciences, could be key partners in wrestling through the issues generated by digital scholarship. Borgman believes that “academic programs that combine information, technology, and subject expertise will help build the human capacity necessary for digital scholarship” (p. 39). Archivists, then, ought to be well positioned for supporting and being involved in such efforts, although archivists have not been able to make the strides they have wanted (especially in the past few decades).

Borgman is concerned, not surprisingly, about who or what will replace the traditional role of libraries and archives in bearing the “primary responsibility for access, preservation, and curation” (p. 68). While she notes that some scholars and some research teams are assuming responsibility for their data and research publications and reports, she is worried than maintaining such material on personal Web sites is not much of a preservation system. No one involved with such efforts will disagree. I could wake up tomorrow and remove such materials from my Web site with no explanation or regrets, and I certainly understand the issues and responsibilities of preservation. Borgman notes, “Private ownership and control must be balanced with the public interest in preserving the cultural record. It is even less obvious who, if anyone, will maintain access to informal content such as discussion lists, home pages, blogs, and collections of bookmarks and links” (p. 97). However, it is not impossible that archivists and others could develop documentation aims and processes that could work out the means to preserve such materials possessing critical importance in our society. All archivists need to do is work with those programs providing approaches to information, technology and subject expertise Borgman identifies as the solution to preserving digital scholarship and other information systems.

I am not sure all is well with some of her arguments. As part of her efforts to come to terms with maintaining the new digital scholarship, Borgman seeks to transform preservation, which she sees as a “passive process,” into a process that is “active.” This active process is “curation”: “Digital objects, unlike printed publications, cannot be preserved through benign neglect. Curation adds value through migration to new formats, adding metadata, and ensuring trust in the integrity of the objects through technical and institutional mechanisms” (p. 89). While this sounds all new and shiny, I am not so convinced that this is anymore than new nomenclature for an old process, a process that was certainly seeking to deal with digital formats in the manner so described. Upgrading preservation, the heart of archival work and mission, to embrace digital documents and systems only acknowledges the reality of what many preservation managers, in both libraries and archives, are already engaged in (at least partially).

This is an extremely important book. Scholarship in the Digital Age brings together many of the elements of current and emerging research utilizing digital technologies and makes many astute recommendations for what research communities cutting across the sciences and humanities need to consider or reconsider and what librarians and archivists need to do to help out. Borgman also resists the temptation to layout a pessimistic scenario: “We are currently in the early stages of inventing an e-Research infrastructure for scholarship in the digital age. It may take twenty, forty, or sixty years to realize the vision, by which time the technology and tools will be quite different from today” (p. 245). Here we have the real challenge, and while we have a lot of work to do, archivists, librarians, other information professionals, and the research communities ought to feel energized to tackle these interesting issues.