Why Does the Archive Not Want My .jpgs ?

A local researcher was perplexed.  She “digitized” some letters and photographs and shared them with an historian.  He was grateful and delighted.  -But when she offered the same electronic records to an archive, the response was a polite, “Thanks but no thanks.”

“I want to keep the original letters and photographs to give to my granddaughter,” she said,  “but the historian thought they should be shared with other Canadians.  So it seemed that offering the scans to the archive was a good solution.”

I can’t  be certain that every professional archive in Canada would have declined these electronic images; however, I am sure that many would have done so.  Why?

Archives are expected to take good custodial care of every accession “forever”, which means as long as it is reasonably possible to care for and maintain the document.  Caring for an electronic record will require “migrating” the data every time there is a leap forward in hardware and software, which in turn requires rigorous watchfulness, staff time and up-to-date understanding of technogy.   This investment is not without financial cost to the institution.

If a zealous donor presents the same electronic copies to (say) three archives, then multiply this cost by three within an heritage community with is hardly rich in resources.

Public funds will pay for this custodial care.  Many archivists feel that public funds are best deployed in caring for original materials where there is the justification of intrinsic value (“cool” and “antique”), and perhaps also monetary value.

Moreover, no matter what the industry hopes, it is likely that electronic records will deteriorate (“become corrupted”) over time, and with no original, the archive cannot replace them.

Add to this the legal concept of evidence.  It is possible to tamper with an electronic record, and this is likely to get easier with time, not more difficult.  Without an original, there is no way of knowing for certain that the electronic file in fifty years is not different from the original.

Most archivists are now challenged with the care of records which have always been electronic and have never been fully available on paper, such as large databanks.  There is much debate in the profession as to how best to do this.  At the moment, many archivists see this as challenge enough, without adding the care of a digital copy of something which does have a physical entity.

Scans and digital photographs are super ways to share collections, but at present expect the archive to want the original.

My answer was, “How do you know that your granddaughter will always have a lifestyle sympathetic to care of old, original records?”  I  recommended that the client make good copies for her granddaughter and present the originals to an archive.  In years to come, the original letters and photographs can be accessed there by the family and fresh copies made, if needed.


Filed under Archives, Material culture, Museums

3 responses to “Why Does the Archive Not Want My .jpgs ?

  1. Robert Hammond

    As usual a good argument. It will be interesting to see how the question of what archivists do with purely digital images from digital cameras is finally answered. One would hope that progressive archives will recognize that this new media is not just a fad and start collecting these digital data before there are too many to catch up to.
    One thing I’ll bet that archivists don’t even want to think about the days and years of video from surveillance cameras. Aside from the privacy issues, most of it would be painfully boring but what information would a day long movie from 1909, taken at the corner of a city street in any major city hold for researchers today?

  2. Janis Bisback

    I had the pleasure of visiting the Stratford Festival Archives this summer, What a treasure! volumes of reviews, playbills, scripts, and photos, and when someone in the group asked if they were digitalizing them, the Curator said no. originals are best. Bravo to archivists who know the real deal. love your blog!

  3. I like museums that put their materials out on the internet. It allows interested folks to view things that they may never see-either because they will never make it to the museum itself because of distance or because the item is to fragile/valuable/common to be put on display in the museum itself. It would be terribly hard to keep this up but I do value the effort of the museums that do this!

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