Archives in the Digital Age

Archivists from around the world are today informally participating in a “Day of Digital Archives,” designed “to raise awareness of digital archives among both users and managers. By collectively documenting what we do, we will be answering questions like: What are digital archives? Who uses them? How are they created and managed? Why are they important?” Below is the AHC’s version of why digital archives are important, not just to archivists, but to anyone who use technology to create personal documents or memories.

Archives are engaged in collecting, preserving, and making accessible material of cultural and historical significance. This has often included documents such as letters, diaries, business records, written manuscripts, as well as audio/visual materials such as photographs, audio recordings, and even motion picture film. Most of what’s in our archive is paper-based, and paper has, traditionally, been easy to preserve with the right environmental conditions. With care and planning, most paper documents will last hundreds of years.

In today’s world, however, most historical material is born-digital. Letters have mostly been replaced by email, diaries by blogs; typed manuscripts and business records are often begun as Microsoft Office files. Even photographs, audio recordings, and video are now just files on a computer.

The challenge of digital records

Born-digital documents present new challenges for archives. While paper documents are often accessible in the same form decades after their creation, electronic documents may not be accessible within one decade after creation without the right hardware, operating systems, or software (the average lifespan of a website is estimated to be three months). Digital materials invariably depend on the technologies that create them, and as we all know, those technologies are updating and changing every year.

Archives have long operated under the assumption that they can acquire historical records from individuals and organizations in significant quantities long after they were created, but if archives hope to fulfill their traditional role of documenting and preserving history and cultural heritage, they must seek to acquire digital records much closer to the point of creation. In order to accomplish this important task, the AHC seeks the consideration and active participation of those creating today’s cultural heritage: you.

Taking steps to preserve your digital records

Our future documentary heritage (at the very least, the records of your family heritage) depends on everyday people being proactive about their digital records. There are several very basic actions anyone can take to ensure that important personal records in digital form will be accessible in the future:

  • Take the time to organize your digital files. Give them meaningful file names, and place them in folders with other similar material, the way you would in a file cabinet. Build out logical folder structures to hold the different kinds of documents you wish to maintain – photos, videos, financial documents, etc.
  • Make lots of copies! The best way to ensure that you eventually DO lose your personal files is to rely on just one copy. But if you make copies on CDs or, even better, to portable external hard drives, you mitigate the risk of computer failure or other unexpected data loss. The more copies the better.
  • Ask an archivist for help. There is much more that could be done to help preserve your documents over time, but not all can be documented here. Archivists have a vested interest in helping you to keep your digital files around, and will usually be happy to help. And a number of organizations are actively working to help the public in this area, including the Library of Congress, which has created a useful cheat sheet called Preserving Your Digital Memories.

What the AHC can do for you

The AHC can archive a variety of born-digital records – everything from word processing documents to email, from digital video and photographs to websites and blog content. The AHC has already begun acquiring and preserving collections with digital documents in them. Significant collections with born-digital records include:

  • The collection of former U.S. Senator from Wyoming, Craig Thomas. After his death in 2007, his full congressional papers, including over 350 gigabytes of data, were donated to the American Heritage Center. Electronic records in the Craig Thomas Papers include Word and Powerpoint documents, spreadsheets, email, digital video and photographs, and websites.
  • The collection of noted Wyoming photographer and journalist Mike McClure, who in 2007 received the Wyoming Governor’s Arts Award. Included in this collection are several disks that contain hundreds of digital photographs.
  • A collection of 70 websites comprising almost 2 million documents that reflect the broad and in-depth coverage of the Matthew Shepard murder in Laramie in 1998. These include: organizational websites; blogs written by friends, family, and reporters; websites of films, books, and music about Shepard’s life; and internet media coverage.

While these are a few examples of born-digital material we are presently archiving, it represents but a small section of the documentary heritage we seek to preserve. The AHC can archive digital records from all of its collecting areas, which include: the history of Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain West (including but not limited to politics, settlement, and western trails), journalism and western literature, environment and conservation, the mining and petroleum industries, air and ground transportation, the performing arts (particularly radio, television, film, and popular music), the comic book industry, and U.S. military history (for more information on our collecting areas, please see our collecting policy online).

Ben Goldman, Digital Programs Archivist

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