The Future of College and University Archives:
Preservation of Mission by Adaptation to Rapid Technological and Institutional Change
William J. Maher
Cordoba, Spain, September 20, 2000.
Keynote Address presented at the ICA/SUV Seminar 2000 of the
Section of University and Research Institutions Archives of the
International Council on Archives.
It is a great honor to discuss the future of archives in Cordoba, a city that was at the forefront of libraries and learning one thousand years ago.(1) With such a rich tradition, it seems more than a bit incongruous to mention a recent meeting I had regarding the future of central administrative files at my university. An administrative assistant had asked for advice on a digital imaging system for all their paper files. It seems that to fulfill an administrative interest in making the campus "paperless," the office had decided that it was time for all its records to be stored electronically. We discussed several archival and records planning issues to ensure that there would be some kind of future accessibility for these historically important files. But what I really wanted to know was why the office staff wanted to do this."It is being widely done in the business world, and we want to be current," the assistant said, "and we thought we should set an example for the campus by doing it here first." It was an answer that hardly seemed to address the basic management considerations for undertaking such a potentially useful but certainly very expensive system.
At about the same time, I learned that the university was about to embark on the latest management fad--the institution of an Enterprise Resource Management Planning system, called by the rather unpleasant name of "ERP." These large-scale electronic systems are conceived of as university-wide information systems in which data on students, faculty, finance, academic programs, buildings, etc. are stored centrally so that offices throughout the university can share them, examine them, manipulate and modify them. At Illinois, the total cost has been estimated at between $160 and $200 million. Naturally, the planners thought to involve the university's recently installed chief information officer, the many computer gurus, and everyone under the sun except the archivist. When I inquired of a sympathetic computer specialist about issues of authenticity of data, longevity of access to records, and the selection of data for permanent archival preservation, I was told that there was little chance of getting those concerns added to the planning specifications since there were already more than 300 other desiderata that had been cut out of the priority list.
Is this present experience the future of archives? I hope not, but I am sobered by parallels in the library field. A book that came out a few years ago about the future of libraries posed the question, "What would the world know of the library of Assurbanipal-the fabled king of ancient Assyria-if everything he owned had been in electronic form?"(2) I submit that it doesn't matter whether paper (or, in Assurbanipal's case, clay) is superior to bits and bytes for saving information. No, the future--the digital age--has been thrust upon us whether we think it is a wise choice or not, and for archivists the question is not whether books should be digitized, but whether the primary sources of today's universities will even exist once our institutions adopt technologies that are designed to create no tangible record of the processes and actions they complete.
Despite these impending changes in administrative practice, what has not changed is the need for every institution, whether it is a government, a business, or a university, to preserve its history. That need is not just for the benefit of historians or genealogists or other similar users-it is also vitally needed by those same institutions to defend themselves against litigation (the current controversy in the United States about some lost White House e-mail illustrates this rather well). Institutions still need to justify their missions, and sometimes to show the world (and themselves) that there is a heritage behind their organization.(3) Is it really surprising, for example, that during many of the civil wars over the last quarter century archives and libraries were destroyed deliberately.(4) If you destroy the archives, you can destroy traces of historical existence.
Thus, at the turn of the millennium, we, as archivists, are in a strange position. Often, we are stereotyped as only the keepers of boring old paper records, when in reality we need to be on the front lines of the electronic wars. When the ubiquitous computer people at our institutions come up with their seemingly daily plans for bigger and better digitization of personnel or student records, do they consider the need to preserve the future accessibility of that electronic material for all time? When yesterday's hot technology is superseded by the next great advance, does anyone consider what will happen to the existing electronic records if there's no equipment and software available to read them? Unfortunately, the cycle of obsolescence seems to be about five to ten years.
Enter the poor archivist, and I mean that literally. At least in North America, I can guarantee that none of us has a budget near even that of the publicity departments of of our university's technology offices, yet we are the ones with the role of ensuring that, in the midst of all these great technological strides, the critical records of our institutions are not lost. To understand properly the actions we must take to have a viable role in the future, first we need to understand several current trends, which to varying degrees suggest that our universities and our archives are evolving into something different than they were when we joined them.
The first and most obvious trend is the broad deployment of information and communication technologies, especially visible in the Internet and the wide availability of microcomputers. This is requiring us as archivists to become well-versed in the intricacies of technology so that we are able to go head-to-head with the technologists creating the systems. Why? First, there is the increase in the use of electronic records by our universities which, unless we act pre-emptively, will substitute volatile ether for the hard-copy records and manuscripts which have enabled us to document our institutions. Second, there is the ready and widespread ability to make our unique, place-dependent, historical holdings available in ways that were nothing more than extravagant dreams just two decades ago.
A related trend is the rush our institutions sometimes seem to be in to adapt to technology and establish their credentials as forward-looking. Because of this, they institute policy and management changes that often seem more driven by a desire to imitate the business world than to build on academic traditions of intellectual excellence, service to society, and pursuit of knowledge. In North America, there is a distinct trend in university administration often dubbed "corporatization," whereby solutions to problems are developed not by faculty, students, and administrators working in collegial consultation, but by hiring outside business management companies, such as the Anderson Consulting firm, to do institutional studies and design proposals.(5)
A further example of this aping of the business world can be seen in what is called "outsourcing." If a given university service, for example, housing, food service, architectural design, or even legal services, fails the "bottom-line" test of covering its own expenses, the university may close down the office and instead contract with an outside firm to provide the service. From an archival perspective, this can make it impossible to secure key documents, as we and other large universities have found when our institutions closed down their portrait photography studios in favor of outsourcing. This has caused the archives to lose a reliable source of photographs of faculty and staff, which we once regarded as a core collection. Furthermore, with the move toward greater reliance on large business models, there has been a de-emphasis on the personal contributions of faculty and administrators. As a result, recent administrative records and personal papers seem to be less and less effective in documenting history despite their growing bulk.
Another important trend, brought on by technology and the economy, is the rush by many universities toward what is called "globalization." While few have become truly global organizations, even with greater numbers of international students, most all are avidly attempting to jump over the campus boundaries by developing Internet-based distance-education programs. For example, the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science is using the Internet to provide a degree-granting program to over 130 students spread from Argentina to Japan. The role of the archives in providing a magnet for the historical memories for these students will be very difficult when their association with the university is largely through a few hours per week of sitting in front of a computer thousands of kilometres away from the campus. Similarly, reaching these students to provide them with archival sources for their class projects will require extraordinary efforts and uses of new technology when we barely have time to deal with conventional materials and conventional in-person researchers.
Our future effectiveness will also require us to become almost as knowledgeable as lawyers about another trend--copyright policy--because our work is now occurring against a backdrop of the information economy. Thanks heavily to computer and communications technology, world economies are moving rapidly away from a model where economic value depended on some tangible good or product. Now, the most significant value is often in the intangible of information, including such forms of entertainment as music, movies, and video games. For archives, the most immediate effect of this trend is that the commercial exploitation of information has required ever stricter control of intellectual property laws. While the bulk of the information in our archives is unlikely to have any commercial value, copyright laws have made it increasingly difficult for us to make the maximum use of electronic technology by severely limiting the original source material we would otherwise gladly digitize and make available on the Internet.
My own institution has run into problems that illustrate, only too well, how intellectual property rights issues can impede archival and scholarly goals. Our library is the world's largest or second largest repository of original letters and manuscripts written by Marcel Proust. As you may know, he was a prolific writer, but he also had notoriously poor handwriting, to the point that one of our faculty members, Philip Kolb, spent a 50-year career trying to decipher these letters. The French publisher Plon has issued 22 volumes of Kolb's transcriptions of these letters. After Kolb's death, our University Library created the Kolb-Proust Archives for Research, one of whose missions was to place digitized images of Proust's original letters on the Web so that scholars could decide for themselves whether Kolb's transcriptions of Proust's handwriting were correct. The project immediately ran into a monumental problem-copyright. Even though Proust died more than 70 years ago, the Proust family still holds the publication rights for all manuscript correspondence, and the publisher, Plon, holds the copyright to the novel and published letters. So, the Archives must get permission from both the family and the publisher before they can put a handwritten Proust letter on their website. Even if they get permission, they still have to find a way to prevent users from downloading the entire file. Thus, the rules of international copyright, although largely conceived for regulation of commercially valuable media properties, impede archival and scholarly interests in expanding knowledge.
In addition to these environmental changes, the very nature of our holdings and what our users want is changing, certainly from what our oldest colleagues have experienced over their professional lifetimes, and even over what those in the field only 10 years have seen. It is not just the continuing spread of electronic records, but also the increase in non-textual records in photographs, sound recordings, motion pictures, videotapes, and multimedia works. These all present challenges for enduring access as well as for analysis of the nature of the evidence they contain.
In addition, based on my own experience and the comments of my North American colleagues, there also has been a change in the character of use of our archives. No longer is the systematic search for evidence to support a narrative history the sole or even predominant use of our archives. Rather, we are seeing many more users who are seeking narrower pieces of information, driven by a topical or subject interest, with diminished concern for the context or provenance in which our archives have invested so heavily. Assisting these users, and creating finding aids to support their work, adds new demands on our already limited staffs.
A parallel development is the increasing pressure our archives face to move out of our classic role described by Sir Hilary Jenkinson of being merely impartial curators operating at a clinical distance from the records creator and user.(6) Instead, especially through the growing Internet-based digital imaging projects and content-based projects that our users and administrative superiors desire, we are finding we must also take on the role of editors or interpretative historians of our own collections.
Overall, then, university archives, even if they do not share a majority of the characteristics just described, are experiencing rather significant, tectonic, pressures. The documentary character of our institutions that we are charged to record is moving rapidly to an electronic form, which must be managed at its creation if it is ever to be accessible. No longer will there be only paper records that we can rely on resurrecting from attics, closets, and dead storage areas. Effective documentation of our universities is requiring our proactive early intervention into records-making and records-keeping, quite contrary to the model of early twentieth-century archivists. At the same time, the content of our archives is changing with the increase in non-textual and non-paper records.
The nature of our users, the types of their uses, and their expectations for archivists are evolving quickly. Indeed, society's attitudes toward historical study, libraries, and information formats are challenging the very mechanisms that have laid the basis for creating interest among users. Archivists understand the past as complex and multi-faceted, but too often, at least in the United States, we are seeing history used in ways that are superficial. Although often well-funded, such slick media presentations of the past, contrary to reality, generally reflect a single harmonious, monolithic, and monocultural image.(7) Increasingly, we find faculty and students expect the archives to select among historical documents for a distillation that supports their immediate teaching or research needs, rather than simply providing them with a general description of holdings from which they are to select their own documents to support their specific projects.
Certainly these external trends make our work more difficult, but there are three positive developments, at least in North America, which promise to help us face the challenges the future provides. First, there is an expansion in the size of the archival profession, evident in growing numbers of professional organizations on the local, regional, national, and international levels, and there is greater information sharing through publications, listserves, and the Internet. Second, there is greater attention to research and standards development, especially in the critical areas of electronic records, description, and archival education. Third, in the United States, Canada, and perhaps elsewhere, there is a significant growth in formal educational programs to train new archivists and provide a haven for advanced research on critical problems. At the same time, we are witnessing more interdisciplinarity and internationalism on archival issues, for example, the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative.
These three trends suggest reasons for optimism even in the face of at least two professional trends that are worrisome. First, there is the persistent lack of resources--space, staff, and operating funds--for traditional archives while at the same time we are expected to embark on new ventures. Second, there is the fact that in an environment driven by information technology, archivists are becoming increasingly focused on technique and becoming less knowledgeable about the historical and substantive content of our collections.
So, what are we as archivists to do if we are to have a future, and a future in which we have at least as much relevance as we have had in the past half-century? Librarians seem to want to reinvent themselves as some kind of "information technologists." We archivists, however, do not need to and should not break radically from our past or abandon all that has made us successful. We do need to adapt, however, just as our predecessors did in the face of technological change over the past century.
First and foremost, we need to make our highest priority the creation of a role for ourselves in the design and implementation of information systems, rather than hoping against hope that technology specialists will create new systems that actually incorporate records solutions. To gain a seat at the table for systems design, our greatest weapon is likely to be the growing public realization, especially in the post-Y2K era, that computer systems personnel generally do not see beyond the next installation and rarely can work backward any farther than one generation. Our second greatest weapon may be the simplicity of the goal society expects of us--permanence of access--an idea that can strike terror in the minds of most technology and systems personnel.
Second, we must abandon our traditional role of simply passively waiting for records to come to the archives. For new information systems, we may need to make general appraisal decisions even before the systems or records are created by identifying those categories of data and metadata that deductively we imagine might have evidential or informational value. In this way, we may have to take on a new role of deciding, in collaboration with others, what is and what is not to be documented.
Our ability to be effective in these vital areas will require not only improved education and strong communication skills, but especially skill in collaborating and building alliances, and not a little personal courage. Our future, then, may be more full of meetings than working directly with users and historical materials, a trend I personally regret.
Ultimately, we must accept and even plan that we and our archives may not be the physical custodians or even the primary access providers for future institutional records. Rather, with electronic information systems of permanent historical value, the archives may have little presence beyond some graphic symbol or policy statement that appears on the screen of a researcher's computer workstation. Few university archives will be able to manage their electronic records adequately themselves, so we will need to seek ways to influence those who do hold them. At the same time, we will likely need to accept that for electronic records, not all systems will be migrated indefinitely to new platforms, and that we may need occasionally to retain some equipment "libraries" of obsolete technology so that older materials can still be accessed, at least for a modest period of time.
Despite the overriding importance of electronic records work for our future relevance, we must never abandon or devalue the traditional materials we have from the past. We will always need to provide continued care for these items, and we will need to balance our time and resources between the old and the new.
Our relationship to technology must also look to how we can exploit it to deliver our current and future holdings directly to users even when they cannot visit our repository or contact us directly via mail, fax, or telephone. To be able to present a broad and balanced documentary record via electronic networks, we must take an active advocacy role on information policy issues in forums such as the World Intellectual Property Organization, especially to promote access and to prevent intellectual property issues from strangling the cultural and educational possibilities offered by digital imaging of archival materials.
In this highly competitive information era, we should never lose sight of the gold mine on which we sit, both in terms of the archives we presently hold, and in terms of the role society readily has for us. That is, we should capitalize on the fact that in an era of broadly commodified and artificial culture, driven by mass markets, it is archives that hold the "real thing"--the authentic historical record. Even in the case of electronic documents, we have the tremendous opportunity to build our credibility. The more that computer information systems have become available, the more the general public recognizes the questionable reliability of the material found in on-line systems. By focusing on our venerable historical function of securing the authenticity of records, we can and must build a role for ourselves as the authenticators in this new information society. My guess is that, quite possibly, in this role we will be more respected than if we adhere to our traditional image of being keepers and finders of materials tucked away in the stacks.
Through developing an activist role for ourselves with new record systems, with records creators, and with users, we can and should ally ourselves closely with our institutions' mission of discovering knowledge, communicating that knowledge to successive generations, and preserving culture. Doing so will help each of our universities to maintain their primacy in the competitive world they face.
When all is said and done, though, one thing in the future will not, and should not, change--the core archival responsibilities we have in the seven separate but overlapping domains: authorization/administration, authentication, appraisal, arrangement, description, preservation, and use. The way we execute functions within these domains will have to evolve, but their core principles and basic necessity will remain.
Overall, however, our greatest effectiveness and our greatest personal satisfaction will continue to come when we establish connections between our users' immediate needs and the historical documents, between their present lives and the vibrancy of the past. That is, we must continue to create relevance, or at least enable it, through our day-to-day service activities.
1. Cordoba is one of the focal points of James Reston Jr.'s recent book, The Last Apocalypse (New York: Doubleday , 1998), which explored Europe in the period of 900 to 1100. What Reston, describes was not a sudden apocalyptic break in fabric of time at the year 1000, but rather a steady and dramatic change over a 200 year period as Christianity systematically replaced local religions and formed a partnerships with government that became the foundation of a cultural hegemony that has survived at least 1000 years. In 2000, we are in the midst of a dramatic change as the economic structure shifts to an information phase of the industrial economy.
2. Walter Crawford and Michael Gorman, Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness, and Realities (Chicago: American Library Association, 1995).
3. See: "Ex Clinton Counsel Grilled on E-Mail Issue," The New York Times, May 5, 2000, p. A 20.
4. For example, see Andreas Riedlmayer, "Killing Memory: The Targeting of Libraries and Archives in Bosnia-Herzegovina," MELA Notes: Newsletter of the Middle East Librarians Association 61 (Autumn 1994), pp. 1-6 or "Libraries Are Not for Burning: International Librarianship and the Recovery of the Destroyed Heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina," Art Libraries Journal v 21 no2 1996.p. 19-23 (also available at: www.fh-potsdam.de/~IFLA/INSPEL/61-riea.htm). For more recent parallels see "Liberation of Kosovo-Documents Still Being Destroyed," The Independent, June 24, 1999 and John Kifner, "Crisis in Balkans: Horrors by Design?" The New York Times, May 29, 1999, p. A1.
5. For example: David Noble, "Technology Transfer at MIT: A Critical View," in Norman E. Bowie, University-Business Partnerships (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994; Murray Brown, "Cosmopolitans as Heralds of a Vitalized Faculty Role," Academe, 77:5 (September-October 1991): pp. 19-22; and the following articles from The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Canadian Professors Decry Power of Companies in Campus Research," 46:12 (November 12, 1999, and "Universities Venture into Venture Capitalism," May 26, 2000 p. A44.
6. Jenkinson, Hilary. A Manual of Archive Administration. (London: Percy, Lund, Humphries & Co, Revised edition, 1937) see especially pp. 123-125.
7. William J. Maher, "Lost in a Disney-fied World: Archivists and Society in Late Twentieth Century America" American Archivist (61) 1998. p.259