Saturday, April 27, 2013

Preservation Week @MSMC, Part 6

Logs of research requests, each query a learning experience.

WE'VE BEEN LOOKING THIS WEEK at how preservation "happens" at the Mount, the entirely ordinary, prosaic techniques that archivists everywhere use to try to ensure their collections stick around as far as possible into the future. Cool, dry, acid-free, boxed, sleeved, digitized: these just about cover the gamut of options.

There's one more essential technique that has nothing to do with environment or equipment. It's called usage. Archives in most cases are meant to be used, to be referred to, to be cross-checked against other evidence. The archives that aren't used won't be preserved. 

Usage also means that the stuff has to be accessible. Creating what's known as intellectual access is just as important as keeping things cool and dry. Users have to be able to find what they're looking for without having to dig through (in our case) about three dozen four-drawer filing cabinets plus a couple hundred feet of shelf space, not to mention all those 1s and 0s in the Cloud. Creating access is a gradual process, and it often comes about as the result of a search for a tidbit of information. 

The College Archives averages at least one request for information a week, or over 50 a year. Some can be resolved quickly, while others take days or even weeks. But every foray into the "backfiles" turns up some additional knowledge about the whereabouts of certain documents, pictures or other historic material. This is added to the inventories, lists, finding aids and other descriptive material, and the requests themselves are logged, because some questions get asked more than once.

(Here's a test. What is the most frequently asked question in the College Archives? Answer: When were men admitted to the Mount? Here's another test. When were men first admitted? Answer: Fall 1960, to the Music program.)

Archives truly  have a life of their own. They're static and yet dynamic, historic and yet new – depending on what you're looking for. But the important thing is to be always looking. This is especially true with digital archives. Just think about that old laptop in the garage that hasn't been powered up in 10 years.

As soon as archives were invented (in Sumeria, not long after writing was invented about 3500 B.C.), someone came along and asked, "Do we really need that stuff?" Preservation has been a challenge ever since.

We're not arguing for a spot on "Hoarders," but if you're not careful history will end up in the dumpster. We're here to make sure that doesn't happen. Happy Preservation Week, 2013.

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