Taking Stock

At work, we’re just days away from replacing the software we’ve been using for the past 20 or so years with a new and improved system with all the modern bells and whistles: it can store digital objects, it will allow other authorized programs in our agency to log in and upload records, and the public can even search and view unrestricted electronic records through an integrated web portal.

That last component is likely of the greatest interest to readers of The Schedule. Without having even set up this software yet, I already predict that this is going to significantly increase the ability of the public to access our records. We will finally have a platform for hosting digital content in a meaningful, searchable way.

The tool provides the portal to the records, now all we have to do is…well…everything. Promotion. Digitization projects. Updating Archon with links. Online exhibit development. The list goes on.

This means that as the dust settles from the technical aspects of implementation, our path towards modernized access to our archives will just be beginning. In addition to providing access to digital objects, the website will also provide access to the metadata about physical collections that have not been digitized.

When I first decided to pursue a career in archives, I thought that my primary mission would be in preserving the past. I suppose at the core it still is, but I hadn’t realized then that a large part of preserving historic information for the ages would be analyzing current trends in an attempt to predict the future. How do our users expect to access our archives? And for what purpose? What do we need to do to keep up with the trends of how users want and expect to access information?

Hopefully some of these questions will be answered in future blog posts. For now, I am excited and hopeful for pursuing how records management software will allow us to provide better access to our archival holdings.

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Notes from the Underground Records Center

Having the role of Records Officer for my organization has been an interesting juxtaposition to my archives training. It’s changed the way I think about how information becomes a record, which in turn may become part of the historical archive.

In archives, preservation is king, and while the fine art of reappraisal comes up in discussion from time to time, once a collection is processed, we don’t typically expect for the contents of that collection to change. In contrast, the primary duty of my Records Officer role is to approve destruction of non-permanent records that have met retention. So on while on one hand I am jumping through hoops and patching together solutions to ensure that digital archives will be stable and viable for long into the foreseeable future, on the other I am working to ensure that records are destroyed “in the normal course of business” to ensure that our retention schedules are followed in a way that complies with the spirit of public records laws.

If anything, these duties have led me to be more aware of the value of objects, whether physical or digital. I recently read Bruce Sterling’s book Shaping Things, which goes into the more theoretical end of “what is an object” and “how have material objects changed with human culture”? One particularly relevant point that Sterling makes is that so often an object comes into our lives only briefly during its entire existence; think about the timeline of a Styrofoam cup, used for perhaps 30 minutes, but destined to sit in a landfill far longer than I can honestly expect our paper archives to last.

In our work, we encounter objects of temporary value with some regularity. We use our historical and institutional knowledge to make the best guesses we can at the objects that will retain or increase in relevance or cultural value over the years, discarding what is mundane or abundant or otherwise seemingly irrelevant. Anyone that has turned down a potential donor’s newspaper from the Kennedy assassination or the first moon landing has experienced this relevance change first hand.

Essentially what I’m saying is that archives and non-permanent records are all on the same continuum. Though this is far from a new idea, for me, my records officer duties have led to a shift in my thinking away from archives as the end of the records life cycle to another, longer point on the timeline.