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There is no doubt that in recent years a real shift has been occurring within which new or re-discovered record-keeping theories are emerging as fresh discourse, and equally that there are members of the record-keeping profession(s) now looking to see how the archival perspective can inform the conceptual models of other information professionals.

-Upward and McKemmish (1994)

Today’s conceptualization of who and what the information professions comprise has expanded and diversified in direct relation to the expanded conceptualization of what kinds of information resources and services make up or should make up the digital information environment. This broadened conceptualization encompasses everyone who manages information content as well as those who design, document, and exploit information context and structure. This includes librarians, archivists, curators, preservationists, technical information specialists, and information systems and museum professionals. The important roles played by the creators of digital information are also being recognized.

The drive to develop transparent, networked, multimedia, multirepository resources has brought these professional communities and information creators into a new metacommunity. The members of this metacommunity are converging around issues of metadata standards and interoperability, electronic record-keeping systems design, interface design, intellectual property, and professional education. Each community brings a unique perspective developed out of its societal role and manifested in specialized paradigms and practices. As a result, convergence requires that each community learn the others’ vocabularies and the principles and practices to which they relate and determine what needs to be accommodated and where new practices need to be devised or new principles articulated.

The rapid development and widespread implementation of networked digital information technology has presented this metacommunity with critical and often seemingly intractable issues relating to the heterogeneity, scale, validation, and information life cycle 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 existing information systems, can be applied universally and effectively in addressing these issues. The paradigms of any of the information professions do not provide adequate guidance for addressing the scope and size of the issues continuously emerging in the digital information environment. This metacommunity needs to develop a dynamic paradigm that draws on those of its constituent communities. However, the metacommunity must also understand and account for the distinctiveness of the societal roles and missions of the different information professions as the boundaries among their practices and collections begin to blur.

The archival community is one of the smallest and, arguably, the least well understood of the professional communities working in the digital information environment and in knowledge management in general. The archival community comprises 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. Archival holdings are noncurrent organizational records of enduring value that are preserved by the archives of the creating organization. Manuscript collections, however, are also often collocated with archival holdings. Manuscript collections are unpublished materials that are created or gathered by an organization or individual but are transferred from the original custodian to an archives, a historical society, or university library.

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. This perspective distinguishes the archival community from other communities of information professionals that manage decontextualized information and tend to be focused more on users, systems, or institutions.

In his 1958 address to the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, preeminent American archival theorist T. R. Schellenberg demonstrated with remarkable prescience his understanding of the exponential at work in twentieth-century information production resulting from the acceleration of record-keeping, information, and communication technologies. He predicted that archival practices, with their focus on the nature of materials, would be shaped by the dominant characteristics of those materials: their organic character, diverse form and content, and sheer volume. Schellenberg also predicted that these practices would be the archival profession’s most important contribution to information management in general (Schellenberg 1959).

Exhortations for archivists to move beyond customary custodial roles and become advocates for information that must be preserved because of its enduring legal, fiscal, administrative, research or other societal value (Dearstyne 1993) reflect a growing awareness among archivists that along with their concern for the nature of the materials, there is a critical need to promote the materials’ long-term requirements and enduring value to society. Maintaining massive quantities of digital materials of continuing value over time, especially the evidential qualities of those materials, is essential but complex. The challenge of identifying and maintaining such materials has led archivists to work with information creators to design systems capable of keeping records that will endure with their evidential integrity intact and with the preservation community to provide testbeds and evaluation for new preservation technologies and processes. A review of recent preservation literature-especially that relating to digital materials-reveals an explosion in writing about preservation as it relates to archival concerns about intellectual integrity and a marked decline in literature about bibliographic preservation and preservation of the integrity of physical objects in general.

This report seeks to explicate the societal role and resulting principles and practices that together form the archival perspective and to identify their historical origins and evolution. It also discusses what the archival perspective offers in addressing issues that arise in the digital information environment, such as

  • information overload,
  • dynamism in documentary forms,
  • pervasive heterogeneity in information resources and media,
  • documentation of relationships within and between resources,
  • resource validation,
  • granularity of description, and
  • exploitation of context and structure in collections of documents.

Examples of research and implementation projects illustrate how the evolving archival perspective is contributing significantly to the design, management, preservation, and use of digital resources.


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