Assignment #4: Describing Archives in a Common Way

Kenny Martin

Info 256-10

An archives is a space (it can be a building, multiple buildings, or even just a room or part of a building) designed to keep materials such as physical papers, artifacts, movie recordings, sound recordings, and computer files, among other things, safe and accessible to people forever, or at the very least as long as possible. There are several different types of archives, each focusing on specific types of materials to collect. For example, an archive might only collect records for an organization they are a part of (emails, meeting minutes, reports, patents, etc.) or an archive might only collect and preserve video games.

Earlier I mentioned an archives being a space designed for preservation of specific materials, and this means much more than simply being a space dedicated to place the materials. Everything from the temperature and climate, to the types of containers and shelves used to box and hold the materials, and even to the types of plants allowed to grow near the building (certain types of plants can attract insects that feed on paper). Physical materials, such as wood, paper and even human hands have chemicals in them that can lead to the deterioration of materials if not maintained and handled with proper care, such as keeping the temperature and humidity not too high, storing paper in metal cabinets as opposed to wood, and wearing specially-made archival gloves when touching materials.

In addition to physical materials, archives can (and usually are) tasked with preserving access to digital files, and this takes special training because file formats (such as JPEG, DOC, PDF, etc.) and technologies (floppy discs, USB drives, VHS players, etc.) change over time (some more quickly than others) and it takes a dedicated effort to change file formats when necessary. Not only do archivists have to change files to types that can be read by modern software and hardware technologies, but they also have to make sure the file’s content remains the same. Have you ever found an old computer game or even computer file and tried to play it or view it, only to be confronted with a message saying the file could not be opened? This is one of the problems archivists guard against. In addition, archivists must have a solidly-built plan for their digital preservation, because other dangers include a file’s data being corrupted, a problem with a computer server getting wiped, and even natural disasters such as floods, fires, earthquakes, etc. causing damage and data loss to computers. This is why an archives will typically consist of multiple buildings, in different geographical locations being cared for by different groups of people, so that if a problem occurs at one location the chances of the same thing happening to the other copies are slim. Another archivist strategy is to make as many of their digital collection of the same file type as possible, that way it is simpler for an entire collection to be transferred from one computer to another, or one server to another.

Archives and the materials they protect are meant to be used by people, and so a large part of an archivist’s job is processing and metadata. Processing simply means making an descriptive inventory of the materials being stored at a particular archive and putting them up online for people to look at and read so that they can decide whether they think their questions can be answered by the information stored at any given archives. Processing requires good organization and planning, because if attempted aimlessly it can lead to materials not getting processed because of the amount of time being spent going through each individual item, for example. If materials aren’t processed, then people don’t know that they exist and are not serving their purpose.

Metadata is information that helps people understand each item, from things such as what changes have been made to the file, how the file can be accessed, who donated the file, what’s the file about. If it’s a picture, a person might need to know the date of the photo, who is in the photo, where the photo was taken, etc.

One obvious reason why archives are important to maintain is because it is valuable for future generations to be able to study what our generations have learned so they may build upon it and make less of the same mistakes we did. This is the whole, “Those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it” idea. However, there are other reasons for preserving materials as well, including as evidence to be used in settling legal issues,…Also, archives are meant to be used by the public as a way to be informed as to what political figures are doing with regard to things like the budget. It has been historically shown that information is power, because those who control what information comes out and which information doesn’t can create whatever story they choose, making one person gain favor with the public and even succeeding generations (if it’s written in history books, for example) and another lose favor. An entire nation can be deceived into viewing a war or a person a particular way, all the while being completely unaware that what they are being told is not the entire truth. Sometimes it may be completely opposite of what actually happened. Because of this power of preserving memory, it is very important archivists act responsibly to preserve information, and all of its appropriate contexts, as it actually happened, and to not let bias (either intentional or unintentional) color the information they preserve. This is not so simple because there is limited resources (time, money, space, people, etc.) and so not every single piece of information can be preserved (especially with how much data is currently being produced each day!), but this challenge is a large part of what makes archival work important. Perhaps Stanley Chodorow in his 2006 article for Libraries and the Cultural Record entitled “To Represent Us Truly: The Job and Context of Preserving the Cultural Record” said it best:

“When we turn our attention to ourselves and our culture in order to analyze ourselves, in order to find out how we deal with unusual events, or to confirm our good ideas or to change our bad ones, we want to be sure that the records we study are true to ourselves. They must represent us truly” (Chodorow 2006, p. 373).


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