I once heard an archivist say that the reason so many archivists worry about digital content is because archivists are “in the business of permanence, and digital isn’t permanent." Although this may seem a bit cynical, there is no doubt that the issue of managing and preserving digital content offers great challenges — as well as great opportunities — for the profession. The resulting worries borne from those challenges stem from the high level of dedication many archivists feel towards fulfilling our responsibilities for preserving important, unique digital content indefinitely, so that it can continue to be used by future generations.
Just last week, I spoke on the phone with an alumnus who was the editor of a 1960s volume of the Debris (Purdue University’s now defunct yearbook). He and a group of fellow Debris editors had come together recently to reminisce, and they were very troubled by the demise of the yearbook. They felt something had to be done to continue to document student life on an annual basis; after all, how would alumni in the future remember their college years in a meaningful way without a yearbook? How would they look up the name of that classmate they wanted to reconnect with, or confirm the date for when that new tradition their class started first came into existence?
I completely sympathized with their concerns. In the Archives and Special Collections, we use the yearbooks on a daily basis to answer reference questions about when a certain person was a student, what clubs and organizations they were involved with, what their majors were, and, most often, to provide photographs of students, organizations and faculty. Many of these requests come from alumni and their families, but many also come from researchers creating biographical articles or documentary films on noteworthy alumni. Faculty from Purdue as well as other institutions writing about trends in higher education, the history of land grant universities, and social and political events during certain eras seek to understand how events such as wars and civil rights movements affected campus life. These researchers have found the Debris a critical source for this information. A fair number of requests come from the University Development Office when seeking to write persuasive funding proposals to alumni and their descendants, and even the President’s Office requests information on past classes that can only be answered from the yearbook when gathering content for commencement speeches on how student life has changed from, say, 100 years ago.
In addition to the yearbook, two of the most critical sources on University history are the course catalogs and the Board of Trustees minutes. These sources are used most frequently by faculty and historians seeking to demonstrate the growth, evolution and accomplishments of Purdue, whether it is the university as a whole or the history of a particular college, school or department. Finding information about the past is not a problem, with print catalogs and trustees minutes available in the Archives; however, for future historians, this could prove a challenge if we are unable to preserve the catalogs and minutes being created today, which exist only in digital form. Someone seeking to write an updated history of Purdue (as we approach our 150th anniversary) would find it impossible to include coverage of the last dozen or so years in our history, without access to preserved digital content.
So what are we doing about this? Well, there are many things. We are actively seeking out the official Purdue publications that used to appear in print format but are now web-only; we are crawling websites regularly to capture the content, especially given the ephemeral nature of most websites and how often they change or disappear. We are working actively with groups such as the Board of Trustees to make sure that the digital meeting minutes they create now are transferred regularly to the Archives. We are reaching out to donors and departments on campus to offer guidance on file formats, software and digital files management with preservation in mind. And we are proud members of the MetaArchive initiative, working as part of the cultural heritage community to maintain control over (and open access to) our most important digital content in a way that it can be accessible over time, even as file formats and software evolve or become obsolete.
Carly Dearborn, Digital Preservation and Electronic Records Archivist, has led the charge to identify the University’s most significant content and begin capturing it first. In addition to the webpages documenting President Cordova’s tenure, she and her graduate student have located the university publications that now exist on departmental websites and set up crawls with the CDL-WAS. The web crawls have to be monitored for quality control, and many sites with complex content (moving images, live feeds, etc.) can only be partially captured and preserved. However, the amount of content already saved is exciting, and we are pleased to announce that Purdue’s web archive is now live! Check it out at http://webarchives.cdlib.org/a/Purdue. And if you are aware of a critical information source for Purdue University history, please let us know about it. It will go through an archival appraisal process to determine if it meets criteria for long-term preservation, and if it does you may just see it in our next crawl!
Our most recent development has been as part of our membership with the California Digital Library’s Web Archiving Service (CDL-WAS). With support from the Dean of Libraries and the Provost’s Office, we joined CDL-WAS to capture at-risk but historically significant online content created by Purdue — things that typically would come to the archives in paper, but now are at risk because they only exist in digital form. This initiative had a sense of urgency as President Cordova’s retirement approached and with it the likelihood that the documentation of her presidency, almost exclusively digital, could be lost if swift action was not taken.