At the Modern Records Centre we spend our time caring for collections covering a wide range of topics such as trade unions and employers’ organisations, pressure groups, fringe political parties as well as records of cycling and the motor industry. It’s a wide remit and the majority of our holdings date from the late 19th century onwards. “Late 19th century?” I hear you say “I thought you were the Modern Records Centre?” Well of course for archivists who often may spend their time with much older material this is relatively modern. Our colleagues at Cambridge University Library for example have things like the Nash Papyrus in their care which was written in the second century BCE – now that really is old! So yes – we are talking about modern in a relative sense, but of course like most archives our collections include material created in the last few months – our most recent archives are records of the University dating from this year. It’s been a while since the University wrote its records on papyrus (I am joking – the University of Warwick is only 53 years old – although if you want to see a really old university have a look at this fantastic guide to Al Quaraouyine University in Fez, Morocco – I wish we had those tiles…) and of course it does now conduct its business digitally. As archivists we are responsible for taking care of the university’s records both as part of the history of the institution and also to ensure that there is a permanent record of the outputs and achievements of the staff and students.
And it’s not just the University which has digital outputs – every individual and organisation to a greater or lesser extent does, whether it’s texts and emails or digital brochures, spreadsheets, photos or video – the rate at which content is being created is snowballing. This is part of what has been referred to as the Information Explosion (or Digital Deluge) where we are surrounded by an ever increasing amount of data which becomes increasingly unmanageable. And whilst there are technical challenges around ensuring that all of this digital output remains intelligible and readable in the years to come, a far harder challenge in some ways is coping with the sheer quantity of digital material that exists. We want to ensure that we capture the relevant material in a way that that represents and bears witness to the individuals and organisations whose records we care for. We also want to make sure that these important records are kept safe but made available for people now and in the future to be able to access. We are trying to improve access to our physical archive collections by a programme of digitisation, and these digitised files also need managing and preserving so they can also continue to be accessed long into the future. I wonder what the men and women who were using LEO (the world’s first office computer) would have thought of all this!
So how are we tackling these challenges? Well, we are working with the people who create records to ensure those records have the maximum chance of being accessible and understandable for as long as possible. This is to do with choosing the right format and capturing the right contextual information so that the record can still be retrieved and understood at a later date. We are using a range of tools which can help us manage our digital content and we are also trying new ones to refine our practices so that we understand the material we are looking after and help to keep it accessible. We are looking to improve how you might search and access digital materials and working hard to make sure that the background to these materials is captured as well so that they can be understood in context.
And just as more traditional archives are not just letters, journals and reports so digital archives are not just “bit streams” or collections of bytes of storage, they are all the building blocks of stories about people, about their work and leisure and about their struggles and triumphs. Looking after and these records and making them available is a privilege and one which we are continually working at.
Digital Preservation Officer