As we go about our daily lives we create and consume things of archival interest. Some items are meant to be kept and revisited many times over, such as websites, books, film, and music. Items like email, letters, and work documents, may be kept for sentimental or reference reasons. And others may be ephemera intended to be used once and then discarded. All of these things help show a snapshot of an individual or of a certain point in time and are therefore interesting to archivists. Preservation comes with several challenges, however, that range from the particular preservation requirements of a document, to determining and recording an item’s provenance, to deciding what items should be preserved and for how long. Digital preservation, a fairly new consideration in the world of archiving, comes with its own unique set of considerations, as provenance can sometimes be difficult to determine and must also take obsolescence into consideration. Is it possible to properly preserve and display a digital document with an emulator or would true preservation require the preservation of a device capable of displaying the document as it was originally intended? Also, as we put out a huge amount of digital documents, what exactly should be preserved? Just as with physical documents, only a select number of digital documents can or should be preserved.
With such a vital and rich topic, it’s no wonder that students at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies in Adam Kriesberg’s Introduction to Archives and Digital Curation class chose to edit in this topic area. They edited a wide range of articles that include core topics and digital curation to key figures and institutions in the world of archives.
Students contributed to the articles on archival research and processing, two areas of obvious importance for any archivist. When documents are taken into an archive they are processed, meaning that they undergo a series of steps that include recording and describing the new holdings. Basic preservation measures are also undertaken, with more advanced methods employed depending on the type of document, its importance, and level of need. Organization is also a key step in processing. Whenever possible, an archive will strive to retain the order in which the documents were arranged by the originator. If they are only semi-organized, it is up to the archive workers to determine how they should be arranged. There are more steps to the process, all of which are of great importance if the documents are to be properly archived. This in turn will make it easier to conduct research on the records. Researchers use a variety of methods to extract data, from primary research and empirical investigations to secondary research. For example, researchers may look to see if a collection of personal letters maintains their original organization, which could be by date or by their importance to the originator. This can in turn give them valuable insight into the records and originator – showing whether a particular event or person made a large impact in their lives. Research conducted on digital documents is no less intricate, as the organization of data can also give insight – as can the way a document or website was coded, giving the researcher a look into say, the evolution of HTML usage among Internet users.
Students also improved Wikipedia articles on archival institutions themselves. (It must be noted that archival work is not limited to major museums or archives – archival work is also regularly conducted by individuals, businesses, and organizations such as churches or historical societies in a variety of formats and degrees.) Two of the more well known archives are the Vatican Secret Archives and the Royal Archives, which hold collections pertaining to the Catholic Church and the Holy See, and the British monarchy and government, respectively. While there are some obvious differences between the two, both archives are devoted to preserving the records and history pertinent to their scope and purpose. Access to these archives is limited, as each will only allow qualified researchers entrance and even then, those researchers must have established a qualifying need for those records. That isn’t to say that all of these records are accessible, as the Vatican Secret Archives prohibits access to large swaths of records depending on their date and area. The Royal Archives likely has similar limitations. Another article that interested students was one on the Egyptian National Library and Archives, the largest library in Egypt. It is also one of the largest of its type in the world and houses some of the oldest and most valuable existing manuscripts. Housed in these walls are manuscripts on the Qur’an, collections of Arabic papyri, medieval Arabic coins, and other treasures that would fill any scholar with glee to research, a veritable horn of historical plenty. Sadly, some of the institution’s displayed holdings were damaged as a result of a 2014 car bomb intended for the Police Headquarters located across the street. The blast also damaged the building and furniture, but thankfully did not cause any human casualties. The Library and Archives was able to repair damage done to the building and salvage the holdings, much to the joy of scientists, researchers, and patrons all over the world.
Wikipedia has a wealth of knowledge, however the site cannot grow without users contributing and correcting information to the site. A Wikipedia writing assignment is a wonderful way to teach your students about technical writing, collaboration, and sourcing in a unique learning environment.
If you are interested in using Wikipedia with your next class, please visit teach.wikiedu.org to find out how you can gain access to tools, online trainings, and printed materials. Or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.