Systems as the Rosetta Stone

April 28, 2011

I am working on another degree. Computer Information Systems. Working full time as an archivist, part time as a volunteer archivist, and trying to live makes this interesting, but not undoable. The thing is, this is very much an archives related degree. It is the business side/user side of the technology as well as some of the design of systems. Quite enlightening.

I have been for some time advocating that archivists pay attention to the world of “Web 2.0,” social networking, cloud computing and the like. This is not because they offer us opportunities to serve our users and reach new patrons but because these things are part of the context in which the records are created. The “virtual original order,” if such exists, would be found here. Regardless, we can better place the records in the context of their use, part of our jobs as archivists.

What I am coming to discover is how much more there is in the context of the record creation than I had previously realized. While we have argued and discussed what to do about digital records, I find few of us discussing the importance of the digital records behind the paper record. In a recent school project, we created many versions of electronic records on a variety of software that was used to work out problems and create a set of “deliverables.” The final product, the deliverables, were issued at various steps of the project and on the surface look like the documentation of the project that will eventually be archived.

In fact, that is true. The problem is, each deliverable is a final product of a complex process that is not understood by the end user. Without knowledge of that esoteric process, the documents are misleading. They are the single answer to a user’s question with no context provided, no provenance or order. In short, no intellectual control. It will not be found by appraising the collection and following standard methods to arrange and describe because the other records of the “original order” do not exist anymore.

It is not just electronic records we should be struggling with, but paper records created in a digitized environment. Knowledge of the collection could once be gained from the records themselves, a core principle of appraisal. Now, much of the printed material is the end product of a long, detailed system. Without knowledge of that system, which may be documented in an entirely unfamiliar way or not at all, appraisal becomes very problematic.

For those of you who tell me that it is only a record if it is physical (I say baloney) you may wish to think about what you are going to do with the physical records that have no meaning. The digital systems that helped create the records are like the Rosetta Stone.

The Heretic


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