David Carmicheal, state archivist of Pennsylvania, gave the keynote address for the Access and Preservation track of RootsTech, which was held on Wednesday February 27, 2019, at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. His presentation, titled “What are the challenges and opportunities archives face over the next decade, and what role can you play in that future?” was given to a receptive audience composed of important industry associates and RootsTech attendees.
Digital Record Preservation
David told about a first foray into digitization 30 years ago when he directed a New York archive project to digitize a collection of maps. He chose a nonarchival format that became obsolete within a few years. He found that rescanning was cheaper than converting. Fast forward 30 years. Last year, the lieutenant governor had no paper records to transfer. “We have lost the safety net of paper records,” he said. “Born digital records [records that were created and only exist digitally] have both challenges and opportunities.”
He explained three things that excite him about digital records. The first is capitalism. “We [the archivists] are the happy beneficiary that captains of industry are demanding preservation.” Second, digital records create huge opportunities for cooperation. Lastly, digital records give the ability to create virtual communities and virtual archives. Archivists can reach around the world for volunteers.
Challenges of the Past
There are three challenges of the past that no longer keep David up at night. It is no longer necessary to worry about preserving records for hundreds of years. Technology changes so quickly that it is folly to worry about the distant future. All we must do is keep digital records viable for another 10 years. During those 10 years, we can figure out how to keep the records alive for another 10.
Electronic formats no longer keep up. Rather than trying to preserve every format, the archive has a policy that long-term records must be created in specific formats, such as PDF/A, that we know can be preserved long-term.
The idea of keeping every single record no longer worries David. For example, the archive has only one photograph of Teddy Roosevelt dedicating one of the state’s buildings. It is such a good photograph, even if they had more, everyone would use that particular photograph. If you have the right picture, you don’t need to have more. Go aggressively after the right records.
Current Problems for Archivists
David mentioned three problems that still worry archivists.
One is the inertia that exists in IT departments. Because IT has always had all the state’s servers, they don’t understand an archive’s need to manage records actively. David said Pennsylvania is fortunate. The Pennsylvania CIO “gets it” and supports the archive’s approach to record preservation.
Another problem is user expectations. For paper records, it sufficed to describe boxes and folders. For today’s users, if it is not online and individually described, it doesn’t exist.
Lastly, the greatest danger archives face today is irrelevance. Archivists are always answering the question, “Why should we fund you?”
You Know What Records Are Important
“You know better than I why archival records are important,” David told the genealogists in the room. “You need to tell us.” People use records in compelling ways. Examples generate much more support in the legislature. David related two examples.
He told how a 92-year-old woman wanted to visit her Italian homeland one last time before she died. She was unable to provide the documentation of her Italian citizenship necessary to obtain a passport. Fortunately, archival documents made possible an old woman’s final wish.
Decades ago, blight wiped out the American chestnut. In Georgia, biologists used Georgia archives to determine where the American chestnut originally thrived. With an improved American chestnut variety, the biologists wanted to plant in the same places, giving the new trees the best chance of survival.
Genealogical records put the human face on history. Stories help us convey value to others. Archival records are used in so many compelling ways. David said, “As a state archivist, I use stories like these to sell our story.”
“Gather those stories and share them with the archivist. They will use them. The impact is more compelling. Ultimately, what we do is not about records, it is about people.”
David Carmicheal is state archivist of Pennsylvania. Previously he was state archivist of Georgia, and director of records and archives for Westchester County, New York. David’s archival work includes construction of two state archives buildings, national efforts to protect essential government records, and service on NARA’s advisory committee for the electronic records archives. One of his books, Organizing Archival Records (AASLH, 4th ed.), has provided practical advice to small archives for 25 years.