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Technology: Archivists make it work for them

By Stacy A. Teicher / February 13, 2001



When an author starts writing drafts with a laptop instead of pen and paper, Howard Gotlieb says it breaks his heart. "Can you imagine our exhibit halls filled with floppy disks?" laments the director of Boston University's Twentieth Century Archives.

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He knows, though, that adapting to technology is inevitable. After all, many of the people in the BU archives straddle the old century and the new.

In the National Archives and small college repositories alike, experiments are under way to manage records that exist only electronically. But for every problem technology poses, it also opens up a new way to access the materials archivists work so diligently to preserve.

Recently, for example, documents from the original Dred Scott case were posted on the Web (www.library.wustl.edu/vlib/ dredscott). This pre-Civil War challenge to Missouri slavery law was eventually heard by the US Supreme Court, which in 1857 denied Scott and his wife, Harriett, their freedom.

"It's really democratizing scholarship in a way that can't be equaled," says Roxanna Herrick, the project's director at Washington University in St. Louis, which collaborated with the St. Louis Circuit Court and the Missouri State Archives to preserve the fragile papers and make digital images available online. "In the past, documents like this, if you got to look at them at all, you'd have to travel from far away.... [Now they're] available all over the world."

She's received feedback from students of all ages, she says, and even from some descendants of a slaveholding family involved in the case. The site has expanded partly in response to requests for more information. That "dynamic" quality makes it different from a traditional archive, Herrick says.

She adds that scanning technology is so developed that details almost invisible on paper, such as watermarks, can be seen on computers.

When it comes to preserving records at the University of Michigan, archivists have begun to spare some paper and ink. From their electronic-finding aid on the Internet, for instance, anyone can access the collection of James Duderstadt, former president of the school.

That has been the university's biggest all-electronic project so far, says Nancy Deromedi, assistant archivist for electronic records. Originally, 900 files came to her on obsolete software. After testing a conversion to make sure they wouldn't lose significant information, the staff transferred the files to Microsoft Word.

"The thinking is, right now, that we'll continue to be a hybrid society as far as paper and digital," she says.

Of course, fast-changing technology is not a new challenge. James Neff, president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, came across "dictabelt" recordings in his current research for a book about the 1950s Sam Sheppard murder trial. He was able to track down a person who restores these plastic belts and copies the recordings to cassette tapes.

"You're going to have to have a technology room off of all these repositories so you can have MS-DOS, Java, HTML," Mr. Neff says. "We don't know which [program] is going to go the way of the 8-track."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society