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, January 30, 2008

Preservation and Access Across the Spectrum

In our era of the World Wide Web, there are many ways we can consider how to preserve and make accessible archival sources to the scholarly community and general public. Debates about whether digitization is a preservation process have simmered down. Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, eds., Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007) provides one clump of essays exploring the use of digitization, mostly from the vantage of museums but considering cultural heritage to span across libraries, galleries, archives, and archaeology as well.

In the Cameron and Kenderdine volume there are a lot of interesting observations about digitization and the Web that will interest archivists. Peter Walsh, for example, examines how art museums have used the Web, suggesting that these institutions have not changed their approaches “towards the display and interpretation of works of art.” Digital photographs are still being used in the ways photographs were used in the nineteenth century. Museum Websites “still closely resemble printed catalogs and exhibition brochures” (p. 31.

Various perspectives emerge from these essays. Many of the authors remind their readers that we are still in the very early stages of digitization and the use of the Web. They ruminate about the meaning of digital versus real objects and the implications of the use of digitization for cultural repositories. The complex issues of intellectual property are also considered, as well as the means of using Web sites and digitization projects as a means to attract new audiences. We read about digital preservation, online learning, online exhibitions, and the notion of a virtual heritage.

Pervading the essays are ideas about new and innovative ways to engage the public. Angelina Russo and Jerry Watkins write, “By drawing communities into the consumption and creation of digital content, cultural institutions can take a proactive role in developing new literacy by enabling direct experience of content production and creating environments for community engagement. This initiative is termed ‘community cocreation’ and its implementation is comparatively straightforward: the cultural institution provides ICT infrastructure and training programs, and communities provide original content in the form of narratives which the community itself produces” (p. 151). As we consider digitization, we see entirely new ways to develop audiences and to connect with them, and these new roles may transform how we have traditionally thought of institutions like museums and archives. Harald Kraemer, in his contribution to the volume, explores the potential changes we could see. He states, “Information is the capital of the knowledge bases named museums, archives, libraries, and art trade. The boundaries between them will collapse; digital collections will combine and create information with a long time value” (p. 212). Most significantly, Kraemer believes that the “museum is transforming from a sanctuary to a production center” (p. 212). These are all attributes we can assign to archives as well.

To gain a somewhat more traditional sense of preservation, G. E. Gorman and Sydney J. Shep, eds., Preservation Management for Libraries, Archives and Museums (London: Facet Publishing, 2006) is a good place to start. As the editors state in their introduction, “Preservation management now sits at the top of the agenda for memory institutions around the world” (p. xiv). The volume includes essays on the full range of preservation issues – preservation policy and planning; the preservation of the intangible heritage (language, music, theater, attitudes, gestures, practices, and customs); the concept of permanence; paper conservation research; audio-visual preservation; disaster-preparedness; access; and collection development.

Digital preservation is fully covered in the essays, and it adds to what is an excellent basic introduction to preservation management. John Feather, in his overview of preservation, has this to say about digitization: “The websites of the world’s great libraries, archives and museums . . . vividly illustrate what can be achieved with imagination and resources. . . . Digitization does not ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of preservation but it has added another powerful weapon to the armory of solutions” (p. 13). Marilyn Deegan, in her essay in this area, sounds a similar refrain: “Creating surrogates can never replicate or preserve everything about an original object, but creating no surrogates could mean that everything is lost in the case of fragile or compromised originals, brittle books printed on acid-based paper, older newspapers, ancient and medieval books and manuscripts, crumbling sculptures, ruined buildings, photographs on glass plates and explosive nitrate film stock” (p. 59).

These are both books archivists and others interested in archives should read.