Archival Issues: Driven by Change

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives,

The Archival profession is a dynamic and exciting profession with real issues.  Like many other professions, the archival profession is plagued by technological changes, user needs, and finite resources.  The greatest issues facing archives today are those related to how archival collections are created and how an archive decides to make those collections available to its users and other researchers.

Once items are identified as being archival materials thru the appraisal process, they are brought to the archives to be processed and eventually made accessible to archival users.  The process by which these materials are made available and accessible to users is unique to each archive.  However, depending on the material, backlogs of different materials to be processed can be created when certain aspects of the process are not considered.  Additionally, the advancement of technology has once again created new ways for archival materials to be created and accessed.

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Born-digital materials are an increasingly unique issue in the archives profession.  These are documents that have been created in a digital format that have not been converted from another format.  Wikipedia has a nice synopsis, explanation on these materials.  Many of the same practices used on analog materials are used in managing digital materials.  However, the difference between analog and born-digital materials lies mainly in how they exist.  Born-digital materials exist separately, they are not joined together physically as analog or print materials are, in this way born-digital materials are ephemeral (Cloonan & Sanett, 2002).  They exist and are managed as separate pieces, making their archival qualities and the archival management of them unique from analog materials.

There are different types of born-digital records and new ones are constantly being created.  Examples of these materials range from documents created using word processing software and emails to Web site content, digital audio and video, instant messages, and digitally created art (Cloonan & Sanett, 2002).  These diverse archival materials have affected and created new challenges for the archival profession.

Documents and materials considered to be born-digital affect every aspect of archival practice.  Acquiring and processing these materials is quite different from traditional archival documents, since their provenance becomes questionable.  This is because born-digital materials are easily modified or changed compared to analog materials.  The nature of their creation allows for this, bringing into question their reliability and authenticity (Davis, 2008).

Born-digital documents present preservation challenges as well.  Where the preservation of analog materials focuses on maintaining the physical attributes of the materials, preservation of born-digital materials focuses primarily on maintaining a way of accessing those materials (Davis, 2008).  If the software or machines necessary to access the materials are no longer in service or available, then the digital materials can no longer be accessed.  Preservation of these types of archival documents presents the most significant challenge, since without a viable method of preservation the documents will not be accessible and therefore not useful.

In order to resolve these challenges, archival professionals need to address specific considerations.  One of those considerations is that technology changes at a relatively constant rate, according to Moore’s Law.  This ‘law’ states that there will be significant changes in computing technology every 18 to 24 months.  This has the potential to greatly hamper the accessibility of these types of materials.

A multilayered approach can help to mitigate issues related to accessibility.  Archivists should work with creators to institute specific standards that will enhance future access (Guerico & Thibodeau, 2001).  Policies and procedures specifically designed to identify only those documents to be preserved and state not every document will be saved will also help with prolonging accessibility (Guerico & Thibodeau, 2001).  Another strategy is to attempt to control the material by using structured metadata and other documentation to help with the preservation process.  Additionally, finding ways to provide access to materials with the constant change of technology in mind will help mitigate these issues.  The issue of accessibility affects every aspect of the archival processing of born-digital materials, since the whole idea behind the archival process is to allow access to these materials in the future.     

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Another pressing issue facing the archival profession is the level of detail and description considered acceptable.  It is widely known that processing rates vary greatly, it can take three to 35 hours to process one cubic foot of records.  Add to this the fact special collections repositories are taking in more materials than they are capable of processing in a year (Greene & Meissner, 2005).  The level of detail and description a collection receives has a direct effect on an archive’s ability to process incoming collections, the more exhaustive the description, the more time is required to process it and the greater the backlog becomes.

The description of a collection is best delivered thru the use of a finding aid.  This tool has the potential to provide a great deal of detail for researchers.  There are different types, however, the most ubiquitous is called the inventory.  The inventory generally provides a creator sketch, a scope and content notes, and a physical description. The first two aspects of the inventory type finding aid are mostly kept succinct, however there can be a great deal of variation with the physical description between collections.

This is due to the actual arrangement of the collection, which usually guides the level of detail and description a collection receives.  If a collection is arranged at the folder level, then the level of detail and description of the physical collection will be for what is contained in each folder.  However, if a collection is arranged at the item level, then the level of detail the inventory list receives is greatly increased and descriptions of each item within a folder within each box, is required.  This adds significantly to the time it takes to arrange and describe a collection, slowing down the processing of incoming archival collections and taking time away from all the other duties Archivists need to complete.

For the most part, every aspect of the archival practice is affected by the backlog created by inconsistent arrangement and description of a new collection.  The more time Archivists spend on this processing, the less time they have to dedicate to the preservation, appraisal of other collections, reference services, and outreach efforts.

New collections do require arrangements and descriptions unique to their content.  However, with the backlog of unprocessed collections looming in most archives there is a need to find a method that balances the archival profession’s need to process these collections quicker with user needs of having effective finding aids for adequate discovery of those materials.  As Greene and Meissner (2005) state, “it is time to focus on what we absolutely need to do, instead of on all the things that we might do in a world of unbounded resources.”  These authors advocate the “More Product, Less Process” method of processing new archival collections.  It would provide a standard method of processing new collections, which would allow for a happy medium to be met between allowing researchers access, adequate description, and lessening the backlog, as mentioned above.

Another aspect of this issue is to look at what level of description and types of arrangement are practical for the majority of collections within archives.  Different types of collections, especially the more modern the collection, do not require item level description unless those collections will be transferred to microfilm or flattened (Holmes, 1964).  This is because the benefit to researchers from this level of detail does not justify the amount of work required.

In all, there is no single way to arrange and describe archival collections, one size does not fit every separate collection.  Most archivists agree creating item level detail for most collections is not feasible, but also there is a great deal of variation of opinion as to what method works the best.  There is no definitive answer, each new collection requires the Archivist to arrange and describe it in a unique way, since every archival collection is unique.  Similarly, archival material types will continue to change and pose challenges to Archivist as to how to maintain and access those materials.  These and other archival issues will persist, since how we define archival materials will always be changing.

The Library of Congress has a Web site dedicated to the preservation of digital documents.

What are your thoughts on these archiving issues?

Are there others you think should take a higher priority?


Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” The American Archivist 68 (2005): 213, accessed May 7, 2012,

Oliver W. Holmes, “Archival Arrangement – Five Different Options at Five Different Levels,” The American Archivist 27 (1964), accessed May 8, 2012,

Maria Guerico and Kenneth E. Thibodeau, “Principles, Methods, and Instruments for the Creation, Preservation, and Use of Archival Records in the Digital Environment,” The American Archivist 64 (2001): 256, accessed May 6, 2012,

Michelle V. Cloonan and Shelby Sanett, “Preservation Strategies for Electronic Records: Where We Are Now – Obliquity and Squint?,” The American Archivist 65 (2002): 90, accessed May 6, 2012,

Susan E. Davis, “Electronic Records Planning in “Collecting” Repositories,” The American Archivist 71 (2008): 171, accessed May 6, 2012,


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