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Archivists: What’s on Your Mind?

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What’s on the minds of archivists these days?

SAA Chicago logoWell, lots of things, judging from the program from the 75th Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists, held at the end of August in Chicago. The theme of this year’s conference was “Archives 360°,” and the 75th anniversary providing a convenient milestone for the profession to “assess the development and promulgation of our existing and desired capacities and competencies for all or portions of the archives life cycle.”

Archiving encompasses professionals with widely varying backgrounds and interests, situated in even more widely varying organizational settings. The day-to-day work experience of, say, archivists of the World Wide Web and those who process traditional paper collections (PDF, 519 Kb) can be very, very different.

Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. Photo credit: Butch Lazorchak

So the conference presents a little something for everyone, though that makes it difficult to discern a professional zeitgeist amongst the diversity of opinions and presentations.

Still, I get a sense that the community is turning the corner in its engagement with born-digital materials and more openly embracing its responsibilities regarding digitization, preservation, copyright, privacy and creative long-term access.

Every content domain (finance, medicine and government, for example) is generating significant quantities of digital information, but most lack the perspective to address the long-term preservation of their own materials with confidence. There is a tremendous opportunity for the archival profession to take the lead on these issues, but it will take professional energy and commitment to embrace these opportunities while (radically?) reimagining traditional archival roles and responsibilities.

NDIIPP recognizes these opportunities, so I’m hopefully inclined to see evidence of an equal embrace by my professional colleagues. It was cautiously present at SAA in the sessions I attended and in an analysis of the overall program of activities. My (admittedly unscientific) review of the SAA program counts at least 28 out of the 70 session with a digital component touching on some aspect of the issues mentioned above that are of great concern to NDIIPP.

These sessions ranged from “Skeletons in the Closet: Addressing Privacy and Confidentiality Issues for Born-Digital Materials” to “Acquiring Organizational Records in a Social Media World: Documentation Strategies in the Facebook Era.” Most of these sessions were manned by thoughtful presenters with reasonable approaches to thorny problems, offering models and guidance that others might follow.

I moderated the panel “Geospatial Preservation: The State of the Landscape” with a stellar group of participants including Steve Morris, the head of Digital Library Initiatives at the North Carolina State University libraries; John L. Faundeen, an Archivist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Resources Observation and Science Center; and Andrew Turner, the Chief Technical Officer of GeoIQ, and the author of several publications on the newest geographic technologies (Andrew also did his own blog post on our session).

Marina City
Marina City in downtown Chicago. Photo credit: Butch Lazorchak

We had good attendance and got great questions, though I was surprised that a pre-presentation query found not a single attendee at our session with “map” or “geo-something” in their job titles. Still, while geospatial is most obviously about “maps,” it also provides an excellent testbed to address many major digital preservation issues such as the lifecycle of information, organizational responsibility, cross-community collaboration and technological complexity. If we can “solve” these issues for geospatial we’ll solve them for many other content domains.

All in all, I’m optimistic, even while I’d like to see the profession as a whole move even more aggressively into addressing digital preservation issues.

If you want to influence the conversation, keep in mind that the call for the proposals for next year’s conference closes on Oct. 3, 2011, barely a month after the end of the Chicago meeting. This doesn’t give you much time to ruminate and reflect on what you heard at this year’s conference, but you’ve been thinking about these issues for a while…right?

So, what’s on your mind?

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