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Enduring Paradigm, New Opportunities:

The Value of the Archival Perspective in the Digital Environment

report cover

by Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland
February 2000

Copyright 2000 by the Council on Library and Information Resources. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transcribed in any form without permission of the publisher. Requests for reproduction should be submitted to the Director of Communications at the Council on Library and Information Resources.

About the Author


Executive Summary


The Societal Role of Archives

The Archival Paradigm-Genesis, Rationales, and Evolution of Archival Principles

The Sanctity of Evidence
Respect des Fonds, Provenance, and Original Order
The Life Cycle of Records
The Organic Nature of Records
Hierarchy in Records and Their Descriptions

Utility of the Archival Paradigm in the Digital Environment

Integrity of Information
Knowledge Management
Risk Management
Knowledge Preservation

Achieving the Full Potential of Cross-Community Developments in the Digital Environment



About the Author

Anne Gilliland-Swetland is assistant professor in the Department of Information Studies of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. She teaches in the graduate specialization in Archives and Preservation Management. She has published widely on electronic records administration, digital archives, and archival education. She is currently co-director of the US-InterPARES Project. Dr. Gilliland-Swetland holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, M.S. and C.A.S. degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and an M.A. from Trinity College, Dublin.


The Web is spawning a large mass of information of varying quality and value. From that huge, undifferentiated mass, librarians must sift carefully and assiduously to find material for their patrons that is valuable and trustworthy. Selecting published items for acquisition has presented many challenges over the years, but librarians have been trained to meet those challenges and to shape collections that best serve the needs of their users. What skills and practices will help them in the realm of electronic information?

As intellectual content migrates from print, film, and tape to electronic formats, it moves from a world characterized by the fixity and relative permanence of the medium into one in which the stability of the text is easily compromised, the permanence of the intellectual content hard to ensure, and the means of accessing the information controlled by the user, not the creator, publisher, or librarian. The new forms of electronic communication often have more in common with unpublished materials and gray literature than with the materials librarians usually see. Even electronic journals pose problems of version control and challenges to long-term accessibility that are unknown in the print world.

In developing new tools and skills for assessing, acquiring, cataloging, and preserving this type of information, librarians often seek answers to questions that archivists and other information specialists have dealt with for years. As Anne Gilliland-Swetland persuasively argues in this report, digital technology is erasing many of the distinctions between custodians of information and custodians of artifacts-museum curators, librarians, archivists, and information technology specialists. This report provides an overview of the roles that archives and archivists have traditionally played in collecting and managing historical evidence. The author describes how archivists are relying on old theoretical approaches while developing new skills to grapple with the avalanche of electronic records. In clarifying the roles that process and context play in determining the value and integrity of electronic records, she offers to librarians and other information specialists fresh insights into how digital information behaves, carries meaning, and gains (or loses) value for users over time.

The differences between archives and libraries will continue to be significant. While archivists deal with only one type of document-a record-libraries deal with many. And while archivists are responsible for information within a controlled environment, librarians routinely handle information that crosses many technological and administrative barriers in the course of its life cycle. Nonetheless, digital technology is creating an information landscape characterized far more by fluid boundaries than fixed landmarks. The old paradigms of information collection and custody demand re-examination, and the archival perspective offers many promising directions for librarians in the digital future.

Abby Smith
Director of Programs

Executive Summary

As the digital information environment has expanded and diversified, so too has the community of professionals responsible for designing, managing, disseminating, and preserving digital information resources. This community, really a metacommunity, includes librarians, archivists, preservationists, museum professionals, information system designers, technical information specialists, and sometimes information creators themselves, brought together not only by new opportunities but also by common concerns. Each of these parties has a unique perspective developed from its societal role and manifested in specialized paradigms and practices.

Rapid development and widespread implementation of networked digital information technology has presented this metacommunity with unparalleled opportunities to enhance the processes of knowledge creation and use. These opportunities, however, come coupled with critical and often seemingly intractable issues relating to the heterogeneity, scale, validation, information life cycle, and intellectual accessibility of digital resources. Not even the bibliographic practices of the library and information science communities, which are the most extensively articulated and widely implemented in information systems, can be applied universally and effectively to address these issues. The paradigms of any of the information professions come up short when compared with the scope of the issues continuously emerging in the digital environment. An overarching dynamic paradigm-that adopts, adapts, develops, and sheds principles and practices of the constituent information communities as necessary-needs to be created. Such a paradigm must recognize and address the distinct societal roles and missions of different information professions even as boundaries between their practices and collections begin to blur in the digital environment.

This report examines the experiences and contributions of the archival community-practicing archivists, manuscript curators, archival academics, and policy makers who work to define and promote the social utility of records and to identify, preserve, and provide access to documentary heritage regardless of format. The report addresses how the archival science perspective can make a major contribution to a new paradigm for the design, management, preservation, and use of digital resources. The archival perspective brings an evidence-based approach to the management of recorded knowledge. It is fundamentally concerned with the organizational and personal processes and contexts through which records and knowledge are created as well as the ways in which records individually and collectively reflect those processes.

The report traces the historical development of archival principles and practices and examines, with reference to key research and development projects, how they are currently being transferred into the digital environment to address issues that include the following:

  • life cycle control of high-volume, dynamic multimedia collections of born-digital and digitized materials, from creation through final disposition;
  • establishment and preservation of the integrity of digital materials;
  • identification and preservation of the evidential value of digital materials through design, description, preservation, and evaluation of information systems;
  • exploitation of context and hierarchy in the design and use of digital materials;
  • elucidation of the nature, genesis, and use of digital materials by their creators; and
  • identification and exploitation of the interdependencies among digital materials, related nondigital materials, and their metadata.

The report concludes with a discussion of what is needed from the archival, library, and other information communities engaged in the development and preservation of digital resources in order to achieve the full potential of cross-community dialog and development.


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