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Technology Trends: Digital Archiving - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Digital Archiving

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Digital Archiving

Most organizations have refined systems for dealing with archived documents. Financial records from pre-digital days are kept for X years, then destroyed or locked up in long-term storage. Analog photographs have been scanned. Professional correspondence, before the days of email, is in bankers’ boxes carefully marked with year and department. As we move more deeply into all-digital records and record-keeping, managing our documents is usually only a matter of some kind of file-keeping system, plus reliable, redundant digital storage, in the cloud and on physical drives in our possession.

As convenient as all-digital communciation and record-keeping are, they come with a few problems that should be addressed by the serious maintainer of your institution’s archives. Older, physical content may not be a simple matter of scanning a few sheets of paper, such as physical books containing data, memories, or other relevant history. The photos you’ve saved of the company Memorial Day picnics thirty years ago may be an important part of the company culture you’re preserving, and while they may be scanned, someone’s going to have to get them out of those weird, sticky-paged photo albums without destroying them first, or removed from frames where they’ve surely become stuck to the glass by now.

Many archival conversion services are available, some with drop-off services in your local areas and some with mail-in services, and they can get pricey, especially if you have material that needs special handling, such as fragile photographs or material in weird formats, such as slides or VHS.

Once you’ve got everything converted into digital formats, you’ll probably need some kind of management system. Sure, you can keep all your JPG, MP4, PDF, XLSX files in folders organized by year, or type, or category, but finding a specific document or bit of info can be a challenge, especially once your archive is decades long. Also, that staff photo at the picnic: does it go in the personnel folder or the morale folder? And how will someone looking for that photo ten years from now know where to look for it?

Archival management systems handle these issues. In the same way a music player such as iTunes manages your thousands of digital music files, an archive manager organizes your photos, narratives, and spreadsheets. The reason you can sort your songs in iTunes by title, year, artist, album, or even length of song is that your MP3 files contain more than just the digital version of the music. The MP3 also contains “metadata,” or important info about the music. You don’t hear it when you play the song, but iTunes reads it and manages it.

Here is where things can get a little tricky. The point to archiving material is so that you have it later, when you need or want it. Just a few years ago, you may have thought digital recordings of your meetings would last forever, but if you saved them to an external firewire drive, you’ll have some difficulty finding a computer that will read connect to it. If the files exist but you don’t have anything that will read them, they don’t really exist in the real world. Similarly, if you save your material in file formats that will someday be obsolete, they aren’t saved forever either. And if your archive management system uses metadata that only it recognizes, your files may exist but all that work you put into tagging it will be a waste, and you’ll find yourself doing it all again when you move to some other management system.

Museums and libraries have run into this problem well ahead of you, and fortunately, some standards are already in place. Among the more popular is the Dublin Core Schema, a set of vocabulary terms used in describing video, images, web pages, and documents. Because the standard is in widespread use, most archival management software, whether proprietary or open source, will read the metadata and save it in this format. So if you really need that Memorial Day photo from 1992 but you can’t remember where it was taken or when, you can open your archive software and search for “picnic” or “Tom Smith” among your JPGs, and you should be able to find it quickly, just as typing “dice” and “Rolling Stones” in your iTunes will bring up the “Tumbling Dice” song you’re looking for.

Archival software exists as software you manage yourself as well as web-based services you pay storage fees or membership fees for. They are both worth looking into, as you figure out what your needs are and who needs to have what kind of access to your archive. Some management software worth a look (if only to give an overview of what’s out there) are Omeka, ArchivesSpace, and ArchiveMatica. Additionally, the United States Library of Congress has a repository of information for personal archiving, a good place to start as you decide what you want for a larger organization. Topics covered in the repository include “How to scan your personal collections” and “Low-cost ways to preserve family archives.”

Reference Link:
The U.S. Library of Congress: Digital Preservation: http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving


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