From Preservation to Digitization: Thinking about Archives in the 21st Century

Debris of Cologne City Archives. Courtesy of © Superbass / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons).

By Erica Fagen, Ph.D. student, Department of History

This past June, I participated in the German Historical Institute’s Archival Summer Seminar for graduate students. Along with nine other doctoral students from the United States and Canada, I visited archives in Speyer, Koblenz, Cologne and Munich. (For a full report on the trip, click here). During this trip, we learned how to read old German script, visited the Federal Archives in Koblenz, and saw the digitization project of the State Library in Munich. One of the most interesting parts of our trip was the Restoration and Digitization Center of the Cologne Historical Archive. This Center serves as the temporary home of the city archives of Cologne; the original building collapsed in 2009 with thousands of documents destroyed or severely damaged.

During our visit to the restoration center, we heard a presentation by one of the Center’s archivists who described the history of the archive and more details about its collapse. We learned that the restoration for this archive’s collection would span more than twenty years. Following this, we received a tour of the facilities by a preservation specialist. We saw how documents were frozen to prevent the growth of mold. We also watched archival technicians clean damaged documents. The documents were separated into different rooms depending on the severity of their damage. Though we left the Center on a sad note, it did make us think about how archives deal with disastrous events.

The bigger questions from our visit dealt with the fragility and preservation of documents. How do we prevent disasters like these in the future? How can we properly preserve documents for future use? How do we preserve cultural heritage? As historians, we should ask ourselves these questions regarding preservation and accessibility. We must ask how sources are not only preserved but presented to the larger public. With digitization projects such as the one at the State Library in Munich, which digitizes book manuscripts, and the Israel Museum pairing up with Google to digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls, accessing materials is getting easier for researchers around the world.

Visiting the Restoration and Digitization Center of the Cologne Historical Archive also made me think of online archives. How do we archive material online material such as blogs? How do we ensure that they are not destroyed or lost? The Internet Archive, a repository for thousands of online items such as blogs, live video, and music, gives the researcher the opportunity to look at items dating from the early 1990s. Wikimedia Commons and Flickr Creative Commons prove to be excellent repositories of visual sources for historians. With almost twenty million “freely-usable” media files on Wikimedia Commons alone, the Internet proves to be a rich source for researchers. Though sites like Internet Archive and Wikimedia Commons contain a breadth of information, the question of social media sources remains. How do we ensure that tweets are not lost to the historical record? With recent world events such as the Arab Spring unfolding on social media sites such as Twitter, YouTube, and Fickr, it is important that these primary sources are available to future researchers. From preserving 800-year-old water-damaged documents to GeoCities blogs, thinking about archives in the 21st century is crucial for any historian.

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