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Archives in the Digital Era – An interview with Anna Sobczak

Dr. Anna Sobczak (Poland/France), archivist and records manager, recently published her research ‘Traditional vs. Virtual Archives – The Evolving Digital Identity of Archives in Germany’. We spoke with her about the role and future of archives in relation to digitisation and the web.

What are the biggest changes in the roles archives play in society?

In my opinion, the biggest change is that archives are now more open to their clients and more transparent. Archives publish their descriptive metadata (inventories) online and make available digitized copies of records, both of which improve archives accessibility. Another important change is the fact that the archives try to attract people’s attention by organizing more events aimed at wider audiences including students, children, adults and seniors.

How has the role of archives changed because of digitalisation?

They became digital, went online and then archives started facing new challenges related to digital preservation and insufficient description for search engines. We have tools that we could program to make more complicated search queries.

What are archives biggest challenges?

From my experience: digital preservation, digitisation, description, semantics and artificial intelligence are the biggest challenges for archives nowadays. People (users and records creators) want documents to be easily found and searchable and nowadays technology lets us achieve a lot, but it is still very time consuming to provide efficient and good quality services.

Are there stages you can discover in the development from analogue to digital archives?

Yes, I define the four stages or crucial implementation steps in the digital development of the archives in Germany:

  • 1: workflows for archival processes: archives tried to automate their work by describing processes
  • 2: digital inventories (experiments with databases, word processing software) and going online
  • 3: digitization as a preservation method and facilitator in accessing records
  • 4: born-digital holdings curation: when the archives start accessioning and preserving electronic records.

How do archives see (use, want to use) the web?

The internet is a new field of exploration for archives and archivists. On one hand, they see it as a space where they can present their digital or digitized holdings, build relationships with their customers and share knowledge. On the other hand it is seen as a medium which should be preserved.

So far nobody has found or created a tool to preserve the Internet. I don’t just mean a website but the whole network in a way that future generations will be able to understand how we were using the internet and for what. Archives and libraries, in Germany and worldwide, try to preserve selected websites that cover their interest. The most advanced project is the Internet Archive in the USA. The Internet Archive tries to preserve as many websites as possible. But it is not 1:1 copy of the Internet, because website and the internet is like a live being – constantly changing (new information is being added or old changed) and developing (new technology, contributors and concepts, etc). However, the achievement of the Internet Archive is impressive.

How do archives deal with born-digital content?

In Germany the archives try to develop and share software and concepts for building digital archives. The oldest project DIMAG (Digitales Magazin (Digital Warehouse)), which is now being developed by many state archives (Germany is a federated country with 16 lands and each land has its own state archives) is probably most advanced.

But I am observing a bigger problem globally. Around the world we do not really have a solution for preserving born-digital or digitized content (especially replacing physical content) or even a common understanding of the issue. We are also not really talking to the big global IT market players to make them aware about the digital preservation problem. The biggest companies outdo and compete in creating the fastest systems and software solutions, with the biggest storage and most entertaining devices but nobody really cares about the content and if we and our descendants will be able to access our data as photos, emails and music in 100 or 1000 years later. There is already a percentage of digital public (not mentioning private) content from the last century that we have already lost, or, in the best situation, cannot access because they were created by a technology that is obsolete today.

How do you see the future of archives?

When thinking about the future of archives I always recall the image of an archive from the film Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, where everything is digital and there is no paper at all. Will our immediate future be like that? I do not really think so. We still love to keep paper and have not yet managed to integrate descriptive metadata in a way that we can access using one interface. There are some trials at the national level (e.g. in Germany – Archivportal-D) and European level (e.g. Archives Portal Europe), but online portals are still more or less in the development stage since only a small percentage of archival holdings can be searched and accessed online.

Are there books or research you could recommend if people want to know more about this topic, besides reading your research?

I would recommend starting with my bibliography though as it is a list with many interesting titles. Most of the sources are in German since I focused on German archives. It is also worthwhile searching for books, papers and presentations (there are some in English) by Angelika Menne-Haritz, Christian Keitel, Kai Naumann, Gerald Maier, Oliver Sander or Susann Gutsch to get your own impression about German archives and also European archives since there is a strong cooperation between archives in the EU. I would also recommend following the blog: Archive 2.0 and the conferences they organize if you are interested in archives and social media. This year they met in June in Duisburg and have people attending from many countries around the world. And on the topic of conferences, it is also worth following AUdS. At this conference archivists and records managers from all German speaking countries and further afield, present their developments related to electronic records management and preservation. For digital preservation I would recommend visiting websites of consortiums such as kopal or nestor. These sites publish a lot of their material as handbooks or reports online for free.

Read Anna’s research ‘Traditional vs. Virtual Archives – The Evolving Digital Identity of Archives in Germany’ on Academia or CeON (Repository of the Centre for Open Science, an open-access repository for research output of Polish scholars).