Do Archives have a Place in the Digital Era?
By George Karakostas
Living in the 21st century, it should come to no one’s surprise that the internet has provided an abundance of information for anyone interested in conducting research. This unprecedented access to primary sources found online has raised important questions concerning the current role of the archive. For example, one may question what current role the archival institution serves when there is such an abundance of source material online. It is not uncommon to imagine an archive as ‘ancient’ rooms filled with dusted oversized books. However, this argument is quickly proven null when taking into consideration that archives have not only kept up with the technological trends brought by the information age, but in some cases adjusted in a way that takes advantage of the digital environment (Bountouri ix). For example, many archives possess websites that offer access to several of their sources online.
One benefit found in archives that is unavailable on the internet is the context of the sources read. Archives do not only provide in-depth knowledge on a subject but can also serve as gateways to material related to the source in question (Herring 76). Imagine reading a postcard online yet finding that it lacks information. Archives often have information regarding the author, his/her family, places of origin, year of birth, political beliefs and so forth. This is proven especially useful when referring to people whose lives have been distinctly marked by transnational mobility, such as immigrants, refugees, and expatriates.
Another benefit can be observed in the sheer volume and depth of (often unpublished) sources offered. Archives such as the Expatriate Archive Centre that focuses on one specific theme feature primary sources that the internet lacks. That being said, it is not only the prospect of unknown sources that can draw a researcher to visit an archive. The condition of the source, such as small rips, folded corners, signatures, and additional supplementary materials such as addresses, pictures, folders and stamps, may potentially contain a wealth of information. This richness of information cannot be found on the internet and can prove pivotal in understanding the source at hand and help in establishing an overarching narrative between seemingly distinct sources.
Lastly, and perhaps a more significant benefit than the above two points, is the presence of trained professionals who can assist with the management, finding, and preservation of the sources one is looking. The role of human actors should not be neglected since it is not rare for individuals working in the archive to have read, examined, analysed, sorted out, and even wrote some of the sources. Therefore, they can also help in tracing back and making sense of the information found. Furthermore, it is possible that they possess information, and in some cases the contact information of the author, potentially giving the means to come in contact with the author. Many scholars agree that archives and libraries were constructed to act as central locales that would support documents assemblage where their owners, and even the broader public, could consult, analyse, and compare different texts in the first place (Hedstrom and Leslie King 2).
The three points mentioned in this article only scratch the surface of the plethora of benefits derived from archives. Consequently, it is premature to say that archives have become obsolete in the information age since in several cases they have proven their durability and retaining value despite the presence internet. Hence, not only do archives have a place in the digital age, but one may even argue that because the internet contains a large number of unfiltered information that their role of these memory intuitions has become pivotal.
Bountouri, Lina. Archives in the Digital Age: Standards, Policies and Tools. Chandos Publishing, 2017.
Hedstrom, Margaret, and John Leslie King. “On the LAM: Library, archive, and museum collections in the creation and maintenance of knowledge communities.” Mapping innovation: Six depth studies (2004).
Herring, Mark Y. “10 Reasons Why the Internet is no Substitute for a Library.” (2001).