If one hundred people were polled about which jobs they believed had the biggest impact on society most would probably reply with an occupation like “doctor” or “police officer.” “Archivist” probably wouldn’t make the list, but maybe it should. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) noted that “since ancient times, archives have afforded a fundamental power to those who control them,” and the same principles apply today. Today archives are still used to preserve information, but in more recent years making that information accessible to the public has also become a key part of their mission.
The most obvious purpose of archives is to preserve information that has been deemed significant for people or organizations of the future to have access to. According to the SAA, archives exist to “strengthen collective memory,” and to “provide transparency and accountability to public and private institutions.” There is a set of standards used to determine whether or not an item should be saved in archives, which Thomas Cauvin outlines on page 37 of his book, Public History: A Textbook of Practice. Archivists often make choices that directly impact what people remember about the past.
The other equally important mission of archives is to take the significant information that has been preserved and make it accessible. According to Jerry Handfield, the digital archivist for the state of Washington, “the records belong to the people,” and are “meant to be accessible to the public.” However, after looking over the SAA’s article on using archives, it becomes apparent that accessing archives isn’t always as easy as it seems. There are extensive rules that mandate every aspect of visiting an archive, making it unrealistic for many to utilize these resources. The reasons behind these strict rules are valid. There have been occasions where original documents have been damaged, stolen, or destroyed. One of the most famous cases involved Sandy Berger, President Clinton’s national security advisor, stealing and destroying highly classified documents from the National Archives. Allowing access to archives too freely invites the misuse of these precious documents, but limiting their use to a privileged few also limits their impact on society as a whole. How should these two purposes intersect?
One recent development that has completely changed the way archives can be accessed is the internet. Cauvin pointed out that digitalization has helped “collection managers to protect and preserve originals while making a digitalized copy not only available, but more easily accessible.” (35) A great example of this principle in action is the Washington State Digital Archives, which house over 184,000,000 records and as of November of 2010 was being accessed 363,000 times a month. (26) Digital archives have revolutionized the amount of information that is easily available to the masses, and greatly reduced the difficulty of retrieving it. Cauvin thinks the change is good because it has shifted the focus “from being about something to being for somebody.” (45) However, digital archives are not without their difficulties. June Timmons, an employee at the Washington State Digital Archives, brings up that fact that “digital formats are constantly evolving and changing over time.” With technology that is always changing, maintaining digital archives in a format that will stay relevant is a constant challenge.
Archivists should strive to maintain a balance between access and preservation, but should always be pushing for innovative ways to make archives more accessible. The rise of digital archives is a great example of how quickly a new technology or idea can change an entire field. Continuing to encourage the preservation and public use of the records, documents, and other items stored in archives should be one of the main focuses of modern-day archivists.