Aspects of the Digital Challenge

By jakelaurenti

What will people in the future think of us?

This is a question that every generation wonders about, but can never know the answer to. According to this commercial, our generation will be known for bright colors and loud, electric music. But the fact is, we can never know exactly what the past was like, and no one in the future will know exactly what life is like now.

Since the beginning of time, however, humans have tried to get around this truth by compulsively saving and leaving behind stories, objects, and/or photos, hoping to leave a legacy along with them. In fact, these records have become regarded as being of great importance. They are organized, called archives, and are seen as glimpses into the past.

Whether one views an archive as simply a storehouse, a true portrayal of past events, or an inherently biased set of records, the power archives have in current society is undeniable. Archives are seen and used as credible sources and “wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory and national identity.” 1

Now we have arrived at a transitional point. Advances in information technology will begin to change what archives collect and, in turn, their role in society. Questions regarding who is responsible for preserving the past, whether we should be trying to save everything, and how we define historical evidence are all becoming increasingly important. As Roy Rosenzweig points out, “One of the most vexing and interesting features of the digital era is the way that it unsettles traditional arrangements and forces us to ask basic questions that have been there all along.” 2

Complicating this process is that there is currently no consensus among archivists as to how to handle digitization. The archival world will soon reach a tipping point: decisions will have to be made, and they will have a major affect on how archives are perceived and used in the future.

The Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at the New-York Historical Society, although not entirely pressured by the digital movement, is dealing with some of the challenges it brings.

A Special Collections library, it includes printed, manuscript and architectural collections. Although it has been digitizing since 1998, and has several collections freely available over the Internet, its incorporation of technology is an ongoing process. It is a process that directly affects the Library’s two main purposes: access and preservation.

As part of the Library’s move toward digitization, it has started using a program called Aeon, an online request system designed for Special Collections and archives. Specifically, it is used by Special Collections that don’t circulate. Patrons are registered into the system when they first visit the library and can then request items directly through an online catalog through a personalized account. This system allows the Library to monitor each request, keep track of what items are being used, prepare for events, and more easily manage transactions. Statistics kept by the program can also help with obtaining funding.

However, for every benefit that technology offers, ongoing issues remain. For instance, NYHS continues to maintain a large card catalog for manuscripts. Each card contains a rather extensive description of the archival material, regardless of the document’s length. Researchers can look through the cards, which have more detail than the online catalog, to find precisely the resources they need. The information and detail on these cards is fascinating, but the library hasn’t yet found a way to put them online. Ideas such as scanning each individual card or simply typing them up have been discussed, but time and expense are just two of the obstacles currently preventing such a venture. For now, the card catalog remains the only way to access this information.

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Furthermore, NYHS is in a consortium with NYU and other libraries in New York City. This entails access to each institution’s collections via an online catalog and finding aids. NYU is also responsible for any IT work, programming, and formatting of the online database. This helps with consistency, but leads to other issues: for example, while NYHS has certain ideas and needs because they are Special Collections, NYU has a more general library and, thus, sometimes has conflicting desires for how technology should be used.

Another issue has to do with the cost of processing collections. NYHS, and the other libraries within the consortium, use a program called Archivists Tool Kit. Currently, though, there is a pressing debate over Archive Space, which will soon replace Tool Kit. There is a fee structure associated with Archive Space, which has many people in the Archive community up in arms. Tool Kit has no such fee and, as a result, some members within the consortium are resistant to the change.

Such additional expense is a major issue associated with technology. Programs are not static and when a collection is digitized, it isn’t a onetime cost. Often, IT people must be hired to help install, upgrade and troubleshoot these programs. In this sense, a fee structure with automated upgrades may actually be cost effective.

Continuous changes in technology directly affect archival processing and how archivists allocate their time. With each new program, there is need to reformat previously digitized collections. Because NYHS is within a consortium with NYU, when NYU chooses to switch, it will be imperative for NYHS to switch, as well, in order to keep their digital collections updated.

These day-to-day issues are all related to the elephant in the room: born-digital archives. Which of these materials should be archived? How will they be archived? NYHS hasn’t been directly affected by this issue yet, but it is something that is rapidly approaching and is in the back of their minds.

Dealing with born-digital archives leads to problems with storage, software, and preservation, and will eventually redefine the archival community. As technology continues rapidly to advance, things like floppy discs and VHS tapes become obsolete. Furthermore, unlike non-digital archives, like books, there is no way of knowing if a VHS tape is broken unless you can test it, for which a VHS player would be needed.

Raising these issues is merely scratching the surface, and there seems to be a sense of pessimism in the archival world as to how they will be dealt with. The smaller issues NYHS is currently dealing with prove the point that a consensus must be reached among archives and libraries before a solution is possible.

Otherwise, our generation will be known for having an abundance of technology, and for not knowing how to use it.


  1. Footnote Schwartz, Joan M., Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2 (2002) 1-19. Print.
  2. Footnote Rosenzweig, R. (2003). “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” The American Historical Review 108(3)
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