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Looking Ahead: The Future of Archives

December 19, 2019 • History Factory

As part of our Looking Ahead series, we sat down with Tim Schantz, History Factory managing director and chief administrative officer, to discuss how our archiving business has changed and how it might continue to change in the next decade.

Sam Grabel: What is the current state of archiving? How have the practice and industry evolved past more traditional notions of archiving?

This is a photo of someone archiving a company's news publication. There has been a shift in academic and company archiving methods.

 Tim Schantz: There’s a pretty strong distinction between academic archiving and that which we practice in the corporate sphere. Having said that, there’s been quite a significant shift across all forms of archiving in the recent past.

A decade or so ago, I would say that the focus was still on physical collections that were largely passive in nature—that is, reactive to inward research—and broadly inaccessible to stakeholder communities other than by appointment. Even today, at first-class historical societies, research libraries or museums, one will find that most of the archiving has been performed on individual collections, i.e., by a specific donor. Often, these can be fairly limited in scope and scale and are governed by finding aids to help guide the user to where you might find something of interest. Usually, any research inquiries into that collection would have to be supported by a dedicated archivist with some knowledge of the collection.

Even with the advent of digitization and more sophisticated databases, there’s still very limited access and/or capacity for self-empowered external research in the basic systems. That persists to this day in many collections just because of the sheer scale of material that has to be preserved and organized. Even if it may typically be economically infeasible to “digitize everything,” a lot of effort and energy have been put behind strategically prioritizing elements of collections for digitization, concentrating on those that have highest potential for reuse or are most vulnerable to decay and/or loss (magnetic tapes, nitrate film and the like, as just some examples). Creating databases, including digitized content that can be broadly distributed to the public, makes content more accessible and encourages use. It also has the salutary effect of better preserving the original documentation or images and can be seen to be a “winning” proposition from multiple angles.

When we consider the prospective value of an archival collection, there’s a broad spectrum of potential use cases: everything from risk mitigation—which is really to protect against litigation and other liability exposures that a company may have—to the other end of the spectrum, in which heritage assets can become an integral component of revenue generation. In those sectors for which heritage assets generate revenue and contribute to the bottom line in a very direct way, the benefits of investing in preserving, improving and distributing authentic heritage content are self-evident. However, there are also meaningful cost savings and efficiencies to be won through archival collections that are well organized and that allow companies to cut down on time wasted in search, rights management and comprehensive access to all types and formats of materials.

In this respect, clients can now also save money by deploying heritage assets in ready-to-use formats so that they can be used in social media and with high-resolution images and/or video content that better inform narratives and improve communications with diverse stakeholders.

Business archives help set a high bar for justifying a significant economic investment in their heritage. Our mission is to ensure that our clients’ authentic heritage content is available in formats that engage targeted audiences. We’ve come to deploy many techniques to create what we call “living history”—by collecting materials outside of official established collections through discovery programs and by capturing digital-born content residing in contemporary repositories such as websites, email and social media. Our goals are not just to preserve history but also to ensure that it has a contemporary use that creates a cultural continuum between past and future by advancing the brand value of the corporation.

Today, more and more companies are paying careful attention to their brand value as an important contributor to their overall market value. We believe that heritage is a solid foundation of that brand value. In my view, this takes what we do from the realm of the purely specialized and esoteric to one of present value and enduring meaning.

SG: How has technology changed the way people perceive and interact with archives?

TS: Just to be clear, technology has always been a critical aspect of what archivists do. Even before we get to the topic of digital asset management, visibility of content in archives has increased dramatically in recent years through digitization strategies that are designed to increase access to the most highly valued heritage assets from a given collection. This is integral to our offering to clients. The creation of these vast databases—designed to increase access and allow for relatively sophisticated search functionality—has typically required detailed finding aids.

Technology, of course, is a major driver of change, but it is also one of the complicating features of it. One of the biggest issues we confront with clients today relates to basic misconceptions about the digital realm: the idea that storage is infinite and free, that comprehensive heritage research ought to be analogous to Google searches, and that digital content is forever. One can readily see physical clutter, for example, but few people can imagine how much worse it can be in digital form, given the exponential growth of data, much of which hasn’t been selected, preserved and properly organized based on heritage value and future use.

That’s a central challenge: convincing clients of the cost benefit of anticipating heritage needs and investing early on in the curation, organization, processing and digitization of material. The need for order and intellectual control over content—including the creation of taxonomies, hierarchies and detailed descriptions of assets with associated metadata—will remain a vital part of archival science. The misperception that hitting an archive button on a computer or deploying a storage app on a mobile phone will take care of one’s heritage needs has probably done as much damage to the preservation of contemporary history as the advance of technology has improved archival processes and outcomes. The impression that all of this is simple, or that it somehow happens automatically, has probably done as much to contribute to the growth of the digital heritage “black hole” as the absence of available financial resources.

Often, popular perception is that digital assets are somehow safe and secure—forever. That is far from the case. Think of generations of people who captured and saved valuable content on videotape or cassettes or even on hard drives. That material is all at high risk of loss right now.

I have intentionally highlighted the dark side of technology, simply because it isn’t addressed often, and it is important to debunk the notion that it is a panacea for all ills of the past or challenges of the present. However, current and emerging technologies have helped, and will continue to help, transform and accelerate archival work in the future. More on that in a moment.

SG: Where do you see archival practices in the next five to 10 years? In what ways will they continue to evolve? How will technology continue to drive change?

Pictured: Sherwin-Williams archiving methods via a computer and archiving software.

TS: Technology is not likely to displace the need for the fundamentals of archival work. There are no ready-made comprehensive technological solutions to the challenges of archiving heritage assets for the long term. That said, even if some basic aspects of the work remain the same, technology can significantly improve archival processes and workflow.

In this respect, enterprise records management (ERM) is a critically important source of digitally born content going forward. ERM in major corporations typically serves as the gatekeeper to the vast sea of digitally created content. Although heritage archives may only be a small fraction of that content, it will still be important to actively partner with ERM to identify and select content of enduring significance. This is where one could imagine artificial intelligence and other modern technologies serving as process accelerators and asset gatherers that anticipate future needs and facilitate the early identification of archival assets.

Another aspect of archiving that could improve through technology is auto ID techniques. Although these techniques are flawed, they could greatly accelerate the process by which archivists describe assets. Similarly, incorporating auto-tagging into descriptive metadata for digital images can enhance and accelerate search functionality in digital asset management and other presentation interfaces to enhance user experience. And with continuing advances in imaging technology, organizations can digitize more of their archival collections at a higher quality, and more affordably.

SG: What potential developments are you most excited about in the future of archives?Pictured: Some old archives of Wrigley's Doublemint gum prints and publications. An outdated method of archiving.

TS: We’ve already touched upon elements of them, but they probably are worth restating: continuing the evolution and migration from a predominantly passive, physically based environment, into one that is much more interactive, with curated assets that can be broadly accessed, used and distributed. Everything that goes into creating new life and contemporary relevance for heritage collections benefits our clients and their brands and ultimately makes the preservation of history more broadly possible.

It really comes down to reinforcing time-honored and well-honed disciplines that are part of archival science and enhancing them through constant innovation and adaptation. Without careful selection and diligent preservation, and without the organizational and data management framework to govern a collection, historical assets simply won’t be here in 25, 50 or 100 years’ time.

A number of emerging platforms and technologies are designed to ensure that digital content is preserved, continuously updated, and made available in accessible formats, so that it is not effectively lost within a decade or two of creation. That’s a very hopeful sign for the future.

Given the constant “malleability” of digital content, which calls into question its authenticity, the value of a single source of truth is more significant than ever. It is vitally important that the true and genuine version of documents that are digitally born is preserved. One possibility for doing this involves the use of blockchain applications to authenticate digitally born content and ensure that records are reliable and linked to their original source of creation.

It is particularly exciting to realize that what we’re working on is not ephemeral but rather something that has enduring value for future generations. I think it infuses all of our work with a lot more purpose and meaning. It’s not simply the task of saving distant history without connectivity to the present. By taking good care of a solid archival foundation and bringing it forward to greet the future, our work is well grounded in the enduring cultural heritage of our clients and their respective brand values. It doesn’t get better than that!

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