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Archiving in the digital age: how do we preserve our present for the future?

Have you ever had the experience of searching on the Internet, locating a website using a search engine such as Google or Yahoo, and returning to search for it again only to find that the site has disappeared?  Have you expected to find particular information on a website but can't because the site has been updated and there is no easily accessible archive? Or have you encountered a difference between the print and electronic versions of a document and wondered which is correct? In the not so distant days of ink and paper these questions did not exist.

Martin Weybourne and Jeffrey Horrell
Martin Wybourne, left, and Jeffrey Horrell, right, are working to develop a secure, durable system for maintaining and preserving the College's digital records. (photo by Charles Rountree '05)

An understanding of what constituted a record was less complicated and libraries, together with records management departments, provided archival services for institutions like Dartmouth that in large part preserved our history and ensured regulatory compliance.  But the pace at which digital formats are replacing print, photographic film, video and audio recordings, combined with the vast amounts of digital data that can be readily acquired, stored and disseminated, is driving institutions around the world to consider ways of maintaining archives of digital objects of all descriptions. 

We are also faced with new questions about document preservation. What, exactly, is preservation?  For example, can we say that a document has been preserved if we save the text but our digital systems can't reproduce its original typeface or style? Related issues surrounding the context and thinking behind manuscripts or policies that were once captured in letters, memoranda, drafts and other ancillary documents need to be considered in the e-mail and instant-messaging driven world.  As a society and as an educational institution, we have a collective responsibility to preserve and make available our digital heritage, but it is evident that an understanding of what preservation means in the digital world is complicated.  Fortunately, we are not alone in the need to resolve these issues.  They are increasingly being addressed by universities, libraries, government agencies and the private sector. Institutions of all kinds are working on best practices, recommendations and policies.

The digital environment provides exciting opportunities for access, analysis and preservation of content that could have hardly been imagined a decade ago at Dartmouth.Careful management of technology and content is needed to maximize the pedagogical, research and operational benefits to the College.  We must also be mindful that we are aiming at a rapidly moving target, with today's technology becoming outdated in a short time.  One of the most pressing issues is the need to decide what core records and collections must be kept and maintained through future cycles of technology.  When this is decided, Dartmouth must prioritize what of the remaining digital materials should be kept centrally, and for how long.  In the print world, we certainly have not collected or kept everything and this will be the case in the digital realm as well.

An equally compelling set of challenges surrounds the organization of a digital infrastructure for the College. For example, should scholarly materials be archived together with the College's administrative records or would it be prudent to have several different archives?  How should they be organized, who has access to them and at what level should they be interconnected?  All of these questions need to be considered within the underlying principles of security, privacy and the ethical use of information. While the questions are daunting, their resolution offers new and interesting opportunities.

We have begun a discussion about digital archiving at Dartmouth.  A small task force, chaired by Malcolm Brown, Director of Academic Computing, and Wess Jolley, College Records Manager, has taken some initial steps by conducting a survey to begin the discovery process of requirements. The task force is interviewing individuals in key administrative and academic departments and will be reviewing how other academic institutions are approaching these issues.  Given the extent of the challenge, we expect this effort to be the start of a more comprehensive planning process that will involve individual faculty members, faculty committees, College councils, administrators and students.  Among other things, we will work to develop long term plans that address which aspects of a Dartmouth digital infrastructure comprising a repository and archive can and should be developed locally, which might be considered for consortial development with other institutions and which parts might be best licensed from appropriate vendors.

Ultimately, we must provide a secure structure to ensure the enduring viability of digital content for the business of the College and for the intellectual assets produced and acquired by and for the Dartmouth community.  Future generations of students and faculty are depending on us.  We do not underestimate the scale, scope and ongoing nature of this task, and look for your help in the months and years ahead.

By JEFFREY HORRELL, DEAN OF LIBRARIES AND LIBRARIAN OF THE COLLEGE AND MARTIN WYBOURNE, VICE PROVOST FOR RESEARCH AND PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND ASTRONOMY

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08