Archives and the Virginia Tech Tragedy

As we all reflect on the Virginia Tech tragedy, I am reminded of the need for archives to collect the cell phone videos and the digital photographs surrounding this event in order to document it for future generations. I just wrote an essay for a take home final exam for my Administration and Preservation of Visual Collections class and I thought I would share with you all what I wrote about the archives lack of initiative. There have been some archival initiatives archiving digital images such as several 9/11 and Katrina archives. Who’s archiving this event? If you know please drop me a comment and let everyone else know. This issue is important if we are to document early 21st century history. If there is no one archiving this event, shame on my future profession because this is going to go down in history along with the Texas Tower shooting awhile back. Anyway, here’s the essay… it has no title, I just called it Question # 2.


The most critical issue facing visual collection management today is the passiveness of archival planning and inadequate preparation for digital formats of visual collections. Digital formats of visual collections require new and adaptive solutions that archives lack due to their historic passive nature. Two critical issues underlying this main issue include planning solutions for the problems that digital visual formats pose and developing proactive collection development plans for digital visual formats. These two issues will determine the future use of visual archives.

The current trend in archives is creating digital archives of scanned photographs for preservation and access solutions. The trend has been developing for the last decade and institutions seem to be digitizing because the money is there and they are hoping that the collections can be maintained in the future. Digitizing provides advanced access point retrieval systems while also preserving original photographs by limiting their handling. While this can also advance the outreach of archives, these digital resources are causing new sets of problems. First, digital files are not currently archival safe and lack the standards necessary in order for them to become archival safe. The computer technology that hosts these repositories changes so fast, the storage mediums and the technology of the digital images often outdate within ten years. Many archivists lack the training needed to understand these systems, let alone apply archival quality controls and standards upon them.

Digitization brings up legitimate questions. Are funding organizations funding digital projects when they should be funding preservation of original material that is in critical need? What good is a digital file when the original image is destroyed and the digital file can no longer be read? Manuscripts are far more stable than photographic collections in many cases and they will most likely be around after a digital file has failed. A manuscript can be photocopied on archival paper and a digital scan can be made to retain the information. After the digital scan is no longer readable, the photocopy can suffice for providing the information in the original script. If the same is done using a scanned image of a photograph, the image is not as clear and much of the information is lost due to a loss of color, contrast, and sharpness. While digital scans solve this problem, their files have to be migrated, emulated, and copied onto new computer systems increasing costs that could be otherwise going toward preserving original photographs until the archival community has developed standards to deal with the rapidly changing computer technology.

A related critical is revising collection development policies to incorporate digital-born photographs. However, it is not satisfactory just to include digital photographs; collection development policies must become more aggressive in order to collect today’s digital history. While this point may seem contradictory to the previous critical issue, once digital-born photographs are lost due to viruses, hard drive purges, or incompatible hardware, they are lost forever. A digital file is even more unstable than a print photograph and special measures must be taken because digital photographs are the primary means of capturing images. It is the archival community’s responsibility to educate the public now about digital photographs and to institute collection drives to preserve these images. Because of this critical circumstance, the money that is flowing into digital scanning projects (if it is not going towards preservation of print and film formats) should be going toward digital-born photograph projects in order to develop standards of preservation. Developing standards for born-digital photographs will allow archives to apply those standards to scanned images and both can be preserved longer than they will be with today’s unstable digital environment.



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