Archives: Byting off more than they can chew?

So now we come to the aspect of the historiographic experience with which I am most familiar: the interface of archives and the people who use them. Sixteen years of working on the “front lines” and behind the scenes (in special media – photographs – and in “traditional” paper records) have shown how excruciating it can be for institutions to play “catch up” with technology.

In 1993 I assisted with the digitization of selected images across many formats and media, in order to ascertain the optimum resolution, file size, and compression quality for several prospective projects highlighting the holdings of the Archives’ Still Picture Branch. We used a Kodak scanning unit (with Nikon 35mm camera lens), a bulletproof copy stand, and a Kodak military-grade dye-sub printer. This setup was a monster ! And balky as the day is long…

This small-scale initiative was emblamatic of what was happening throughout the National Archives at the time: optical disk exploration (the short-lived ODISS project), the Electronic Access Project (EAP), and the National Archives Information Locator (NAIL) database, culminating in the present Archival Research Catalog (ARC) familiar to users of the NARA web site.

 Current digital initiatives of the National Archives include the Access to Archival Databases  (AAD) system, and certainly the fothcoming Electronic Records Archives (ERA), which is well on its way to development.  And you can imagine that each of these projects has had its share of “What do we include? What do we leave out?, How do we present it?” clashes among staff who work with the records, and the people who design the  systems.

 The National Archives has had to play catch-up with regard to developing standards for digital creation and storage issues with Federal records, and it is only now developing a fee schedule for digital reproductions of its archival holdings.  But one can see how this experience is playing out across all public and private institutions.

The big issue for the National Archives now is: How much do we put on the Web? Right now, we’re in the midst of a budget shortfall, and staff resources have shifted to the processing of a serious backlog of retired records. Of course, no none knows how long either of these conditions will last.

Its amusing for me in my capacity as a reference archivist when a researcher will ask if an entire series of 400 boxes is available online (it happens about as often as you’d think !) Or when a law firm would ask me to fax over an 800 page NSF grant file (yes, that has happened too.)

Expectations are always destined to exceed abilities… 

 I have trick or treat duty on Tuesday nite, but my colleague Billy Wade (my former colleague in Still Pictures) can certainly share some anecdotes of digital life at NARA…


3 Responses to “Archives: Byting off more than they can chew?”

  1. Misha Griffith Says:

    All these older failed attemps at the National Archives begs the question: “Who on earth wants to be an early adopter?” Especially with a collection as irreplaceable as the National Archives? A medieval archive in Minnesota is running into serious problems with choosing a format to digitize its collection. They were all excited with CDs several years ago, but then a study came out that showed in certain cases CDs did not last as long as 1/4″ tape! I realize most archives will get one monetary opportunity to digitize their collection. And if they blow it on an inferior medium…
    I was searching the Archives’ mash-up with Google Video last week. I started to panic when all I saw was NASA footage and the United Newsreels of WWII. Where did all the other newsreels and the military raw footage go? Then I went into the NA site itself and found all my old favorites. Am I correct in supposing the NA has put the most popular stuff on Google, mainly to keep the tire-kickers out of College Park? If so, I think it is a brilliant move.

  2. Michael Tim Says:

    I love your site! 🙂

    Experiencing a slow PC recently? Fix it now!

  3. stephaniewhite5087 Says:

    I try not to blog at work. My laptop died on the trip out west, so I’ve had no internet at home for over two months. I actually blogged from Cristal Click

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