Thursday, September 27, 2012

Digitalization and Dying Archives

Here's a fascinating article in the New York Times about the closing of the Georgia State Archives. The article quickly moves from the unfortunate specific case of Georgia to the broader, even more unfortunate case of governments and archives in a world where most documentation is created digitally, lives digitally, and probably slips into a digital graveyard of unreadable formats without anyone really noticing so that most of it couldn't be transferred to paper no matter what. (How do you transfer a Twitter feed to paper? A database? A GIS system? The data from the drone which hovered above Bin Laden's hideout?)

The fact is that archivists and other folks have been thinking about these matters for a while already. But when archivists and adjacent folks think about such things they tend to do so in turgid language that even they don't read, and regular mortals don't even try. It takes a journalist to translate the discussions into a readable article that presents the topic clearly and without gobbledygook. The Times helpfully does so:
The records are often used to settle legal disputes. When two Georgia counties were in a fight over the sales tax revenue from a lucrative Bass Pro shop that straddled their boundaries, they turned to the state archives to settle things.
“The archives are like an insurance policy,” said Richard Pearce-Moses, director of the archival studies program at Clayton State University, which is near the Georgia Archives Building south of Atlanta. “There is a good chance we might never need to know where the county line is, but when we do, we really, really need to know.”
Increasingly, government records are being produced electronically, and agencies use a variety of software to collect and store them. But technology is changing so quickly that few protocols exist on how to gather and protect digital records from tampering. That applies to those once produced on paper as well as new forms of communication, like government Web sites and Facebook pages.
As a result, governments have to decide at what point an electronic birth certificate, for example, will be considered an acceptable legal document.
“A lot of this is untested in court,” said Sarah Koonts, the director of archives and records in North Carolina. “What kind of metadata do we need to have around an electronic record to prove it’s authentic?”
Oops! Metadata: an extremely important word no normal person uses. If you were an elected politician, where would you prefer to cut, in schools (everybody knows about them), public roads (everyone gets stuck on them), or in metadata? Me too.

The odd thing about Israel right now is that the government actually is allocating additional sums to metadata, or at least to the archives. This was touched upon back when Yair Rosenberg wrote about us in Tablet. If you read Hebrew and wish to plow through the legalese of a government decision, you can see how our situation differs dramatically from that of our colleagues in Georgia.

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