Blog Post

David Ferriero @ Duke: National Archives, Memory & Digital Documents

This is a revised excerpt from a (not very much longer!) post I wrote for HyperStudio's new blog, which you can find here

Earlier this week, I attended a talk at Duke by the National Archivist David Ferriero, entitled Are We Losing Our Memory? A View from the National Archives. Ferriero is a Digital Humanists librarian: during his tenure as the Director of the New York Public Libraries, he oversaw NYPLs involvement in the Google Books Library Project, and as University Librarian at Duke was instrumental in the push to bring new technologies and cataloguing systems into library culture. He cut his teeth as a librarian at MIT, where he worked for 31 years.

Ferrieros talk broadly explored the challenges facing libraries in the 21st century, from the perspective of the National Archives an institution uniquely situated at the nexus of public information and government record-keeping. As Ferriero pointed out, managing the records of a public body in some ways raises the stakes: indeed, one need look no further than the recent scandal over former Department of Justice attorney John Yoos deleted emails  emails pertaining to the Torture Memos to understand how important it is for government record-keepers to quickly find a way to better manage digital information. The Obama White House is now using social media platforms to communicate with the public: who (and how) will these messages be archived? What constitutes the document of a Twitter feed? How and where should it be stored in the public record?

The systems currently in place are clunky and counterintuitive; for instance, Ferriero noted that when he sends an email from his office desktop, a message pops up asking if that email is a record; if so, it asks him to categorize the email immediately a major disincentive from marking emails as a record! Instead of trying to anticipate future uses of information, then shape the narrative of the archive according to these prophecies, Ferriero argued for saving everything, then expending our time and money constructing better search algorithms to help us find the information we seek. This is a solution that finds sympathy with Digital Humanists, long frustrated by the perils of categorizing and classifying documents whose use is often difficult to foresee.

Compounding problems, the classification system for government documents is bloated beyond control; I have (unfortunately?) had direct experience trying to untangle the different levels of classification through my work with the US-Iran Relations project, which digitizes recently declassified memos relating to the USs involvement in the Iran-Iraq War. (An Executive Order issued by Obama in 2009 lays out a new, cleaner system of classification which precedes all others.)

During the question period, an historian (wish I could remember who!) asked how the proliferation of copies both digital and physical, since the rise of Xerox copiers affects archival strategies, pointing out that as a historian, he only needed a decent Xerox. Ferriero (jokingly) shook his head in shame: its the job of the Archivist, he pointed out, to maintain the integrity of the original document, even if only 1% of scholars requesting the document need bibliographical information contained in the original.

I couldnt agree more but, as always, I wonder how this adherence to the original will play out in a digital space. Manuscripts are unique, making originals easy to identify; printed books become more difficult, since multiple copies of (ostensibly) the same text circulate. In Digital Humanities, we spend an inordinate amount of time assigning metadata related to documents but what constitutes the document in the digital space?

Thanks to David Ferriero for an engaging talk, and the Duke community for an interesting Provost's Lecture Series!


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