The Archives, Special Collections, and Libraries of Oberlin College are resources created to preserve the history of the school and community for future reference. The nature of an archive is not just to reflect on the past, but to facilitate the preservation of our present reality for future generations. As content moves from easily classifiable paper documents to more complex encrypted digital media, archives around the world are struggling to adapt their preservation systems to these new multimedia documents.
Prior to the creation of the College’s digital archives, techniques were developed to classify records online. To add a digital document like an email to an archive collection, you would need to print it out and put it in a physical folder.
“It’s sort of our approach to digital content; things were printed and put into the physical archive,” College Archivist Ken Grossi said. “Now we are becoming more formal in terms of handling electronic records. Email is really hard – you can imagine how many people have email accounts and computers on campus. When it comes to maintaining and preserving records, it is no different than the paper record. We want to organize the documents so that they are easy to find. It’s just a matter of how to store them.
Many techniques used to protect documents and records are now unsuitable for the digital environment, as early methods of creating and storing digital content have become obsolete.
“A challenging aspect of digital preservation in general is the amount of time and resources required to reformat media and maintain equipment and software to ensure accessibility and usability in the future,” said Megan Mitchell, Coordinator of Academic Engagement and Digital Initiatives. “For a long time, CD-ROMs seemed like the perfect storage solution. Fast forward and computers no longer have built-in disk drives. If you have an external disk drive, then the problem becomes, who has a computer running the Windows 95 operating system that is needed to access the contents of the disk? »
The Oberlin College Archives currently benchmarks to the standards established by the Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines initiative, which helps schools, institutions, and national archives as they grow online. These institutions must also set their own internal standards for addressing digital archives. The shift to digital archives raises two main concerns: improved accessibility and broader preservation methods.
“[The College Archive] tries to create both an archival record and a usable record so that the images have longevity and are available in the future,” said Heath Patten, Curator of the Visual Assets Collection. “These digital images can be used in many different ways, not only for the community and the College of Oberlin, but for the whole world. [Ken Grossi] and I, along with other library staff, sit on what we call a Triple D task force. It’s about digitization, digital preservation, and digital archiving. This working group is finalizing a report on what our standards will be for digital projects. All of this information will be made public so people can see what we are doing as libraries enter the 21st century.
The many new technologies being developed for digital archives allow content to be used by a wider audience without geographic or physical limitations.
“We are looking for new techniques to capture and present images. For example, I worked with Abe Reshad in the Cooper [International] Learning Center to create a 3D scan for a sculpture exhibit,” Patten said. “Through the use of a digital program, we created a three-dimensional image which we were then able to print. This allows anyone to physically interact with the artwork, addressing accessibility issues. A visually impaired or visually impaired person may not be able to access a digital image, but in a 3D touch format, it also becomes an accessible resource for them. »
The culture surrounding digital media emphasizes its short-term nature. Online content receives little advocacy for long-term preservation, in part because of the limited resources to effectively preserve it. Additionally, the speed with which content is produced and shared and the variation in its exposure to digital audiences has archivists wondering how best to approach the medium. While many archives focus on ancient history and natural history, contemporary content is constantly being created and disappears before it can be saved.
“When we create content, you have to think about its lifespan,” Patten said. “The question is, how are we going to present it? How are we going to store it? What do our repositories look like? Who has access to these? On which platforms will we deliver the materials? These are things we need to think about when archiving digitally. When I was younger, there were tapes and vinyls, then CDs came out; we felt like it would last forever. But now we know that CDs are outdated technology. The latest technology is never permanent. So we always have to think about the future and what it will look like.