A New Model for Archives

Adjusting to North Carolina has been an experience. Coming in to such a large library was a big draw for me. My last university and all its Academic Affairs-managed programs were less than stable or committed to the preservation of manuscript materials. Atkins Library, seemed at the time of my interview, to be well funded, supported by academic affairs, and generally in a growth mindset.

Obviously, states (particularly red states) have a love affair with hating higher education, and when they’re bashing curricula or “ideological indoctrination” they’re slashing education budgets like 1970s ax murderer. So the inevitable budget quagmires that have begun to occur over the course of this summer and into the fall semester for Atkins and its faculty and staff shouldn’t surprise me. However, this state of affairs, coupled with the general lack of committing real time and money from the library in general to Special Collections projects in particular have rankled me. The need for resources, be that in the form of funds towards digital preservation and access systems, or staff time to develop free and open source technologies (or even improve existing technologies) have been in short supply. I understand the need of the library to balance resources between all of its divisions, but I would argue that Special Collections serves the student body, research missions, and public good as much, if not more so, than other divisions within the library. The acquisition, preservation, and dissemination of unique and valuable historical material transcends any one tactical goal or strategic objective of the University. It is a cultural imperative, to preserve and share our collective memory, our public and private histories, to serve as the temple and the forum of history.

We need to be significantly investing in these efforts. The current generation of students, to say nothing of the coming generations of society as a whole, barely comprehend that there is information that isn’t instantly searchable and available online. We can barely deliver the miniscule amount of digitized content we do have today, let alone provide robustly preserved, described, and indexed born-digital records over the internet. To ignore this truth is to be complicit in our own destruction by irrelevance. Libraries, as a whole, understand this truth. The dramatic shift over the past fifteen years from libraries as a repository of physical books and other information, to libraries as knowledge leaders, and a central clearinghouse for digital information and online literacy has been a huge, fundamental transformation in defining what a “library” even is. But it has worked. It is understood now by everyone in libraryland that the role of the library has shifted. Librarians haven’t abrogated their responsibility to create knowledge – indeed, they’ve expanded it by orders of magnitude.

We must do the same for archives. Archivists must serve a complementary role to that of librarians, increasing information literacy and access to the historical record in tandem, and expending significant effort and resources to ensure that the raw material of history – primary source collections – are both well-preserved and fully accessible in our machine age. We’re selling ourselves short if we continue to behave otherwise. If we act as though archives are the stolid temple people think of them as, rather than the boundless repositories of pure information – well curated over the course of decades – then we lose the right to participate in the future. If we don’t act to accomplish this goal, and talk about it as much as we can to everyone, and model it through our successes to stakeholders and the rest of our procession – then someone else, say, Google, for example, will do it for us. And we would be shooting ourselves in the chest, losing our ability to curate, reach out, and provide context to our collective memory.

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