This morning, I am going to say a few words about one of the newest of new things, the Internet and its relationship to what is usually thought of as the epitome of old, archives, linking cyberspace with cuneiform, so to speak. I certainly do not speak as an expert on computer technology or communication software or electronic networking applications. Rather I speak as a workaday average practitioner of the archival craft, someone who is hesitantly and with many scratches of the head and blinkings of the eyes, is trying to figure out, even as he is already caught, what the Net, and its progeny, the Web, means for his profession and what might be its implications for the future. I want to consider not the technological but rather the human meaning of the Net. I'll describe how my own institution was computerized, a process I think typical of small archives and illustrates a pattern experienced by many instituions. Then I will talk about some of the uses archives are making of the Net and some of the thoughts and expectations they have about it. Finally, I'll talk a little about some of the implications of this new medium which we realized had come before we knew it was coming.
My personal experience of the automation process that led to Internet and then to the world wide web is probably not too different from that of other archivists and librarians that work at small institutions. The Billy Graham Center archives founded in 1975, so we are moderately new, for an archives. Still, after we got it up and running, it did not differ much in essence from archives that had been around much longer. We had a card catalogs as well as written guides to each of our several hundred collections, each typed out and corrected by hand, as were, of course, the cards in the catalog. People heard about what we had and sent us reference inquiries by letter or phone, which we answered the same way.
Automation came upon us in disorganized, overlapping waves. The college got a mainframe computer, then state of the art, now as trendy as a brontosaurus. The computer staff wanted a guinea pig department to help train their programmers, so we volunteered. The archive staff went through the agony of preparing a system analysis of how we carried out our functions of acquisition, accession, arrangement, description, reference and outreach. Then the computer staff went through the agony of having us explain it to them. From all this came a archives program on the mainframe.
There were aspects of the program that never worked because no one could figure out how to debug them. Then too, there were features of the program that seemed splendid in the planning, but weren't as attractive or weren't worth the effort once we actually had them. And then there were the features we had never thought of before which slapped us on the forehead when we started wrestling with the computer. Hey! We could do printouts! If someone wrote us asking about collections with information on Miami Beach, we could pull together a list of collection descriptions with a few key strokes. Before we would have had to make a list of the cards, pull them from the card catalog, Xerox them, and get them back in the catalog in the right order. The ease of using this option was so mesmerizing that we on the staff looked for excuses to use it.
The archives computer program was prepared around 1982, I believe. The it was done, we could actually start using the various options of the program and unnoticed and unrealized we slipped into our addiction. Our professional live began to revolt more and more around the computer and potentialities. Then the personal computer revolution meant instead of dumb terminals we had cpus at our command, for preparing guides, for writing letters as well as accessing the archives program. The electric typewriter joined the card catalog in the dustbin. We developed the capacity to desktop publish our newsletters. And for the creative speller like myself, the spell check option was like giving eyes to the blind man.
Of course, we also discovered less pleasant aspects of the beast. We discovered down time and incompatible formats and crashes and suffered for the sin of not backing up. We saw the streamlined pcs we were so proud of because clunky, then quaint, then obsolete in about eighteen months time. And of course there were the strains on our wrists, backs and neck as we distorted muscles our ancestors never knew they had.
When the Internet became available to my department in 1993, it was deja vu all over again. I could talk to someone in Hong Kong with just a few key strokes. Of course, I could phone him with almost equal ease, but the e-mail was so smooth and simple as to be almost bewitching. I know others were equally beguiled by the speed and ease. One morning in March, 1994, I received a phone request. I formatted it and sent it off by e-mail the same morning and after lunch heard back from the patron again, "Thank you for your prompt attention to my request. I received your lists at about 12:25 and was able to use our exchange in my 12:30 class on research methods here at Ouachita University." His amazement was clear.
I have gone on a such great length about my own institutions's experience of automation because I think it suggests stages of a process that also apply to entering the Internet and the Web and perhaps will apply to whatever the next major automation wrinkle will be. First we were oblivious, then overwhelmed, then elated with the prospects, then caught up in learning, then frustrated and confused by the drawbacks and hidden costs we discovered, and then accepting. We learned that the best system had to be adapted to our particular needs, and that the application of particular computer hardware and software to our particular situation produced unexpected possibilities and problems. Now we are in the midst of setting up a local area network (LAN) and putting together our home page for the Web, and I detect many of the same symptoms, less severe this time, perhaps because we have had the virus a couple of times before.
Let me describe for you a little of what archives are now doing in cyberspace. Much, of course, of the archival activity is part of efforts made by the libraries of which they are a part and many of the things archives are doing as far as providing information over the net is concerned closely parallels what libraries are doing. I will try to stick to discussing areas where there are significant differences or where there are uniquely or particularly archival issues.
Internet for archives has predominantly meant e-mail, gophers, and the World Wide Web. E-mail has provided another avenue for communicating with researchers. In e-mail archives can combine the speed and ease of phone calls with the more detailed and exact responses that can be provided in letters or faxes. My own institution first started using e-mail to answer requests in 1992. The first year seven percent of our reference requests were e-mail. Last year it was 19%. For the first quarter of this year it was 25%. Most archives are poor and understaffed, even compared to libraries. it will be some time before they can take advantage of all the options offered by today's servers. But e-mail has already proved its worth and provided a very direct link to users.
E-mail also provides a means for archivists to communicate, kibitz, and speculate with other archivists. The main archives listserv, called Archives and Archivists, currently has over 2000 subscribers, mostly in North America, but with a very significant contingent from Australia, Great Britain, and other English speaking countries. It has been one of the most heavily listservs, with mostly serious debates on a wide range of technical and philosophical topics. Messages can be matter of fact, passionate, furious or sarcastic, dealing with issues at every level of theory and practical application.
For example, in preparation for this paper I sent a message asking archivists to tell me about their positive and negative experiences with the Net and their expectations. In two days I received fourteen replies, from New York, Alaska, North Carolina, Idaho, Connecticut, DC, Texas, Ohio and Arkansas, as well as Canada and New Zealand. I will be peppering their comments through the rest of this paper.
The net, in fact, has become an important part of many archivists professional lives. In my informal survey, many stressed its importance as a means of archivist-to archivist communication. An archivist from the east coast described how it had lead to contacts which helped her to find mentors and get published much quicker than she would have otherwise. An archivist from west of the Mississippi wrote. "I only wish to say the largest impact that the Internet has had on me personally in my archival role is to allow me to feel a part of the greater archival community to a much greater extent than would have been possible otherwise.... My opportunities for face-to-face interaction with colleagues is limited to the one meeting every few years that I can afford to pay for out of my own pocket. The Archives & Archivists list, though, has let me get to know some of my colleagues and borrow from their professional expertise when necessary." There has always been this feeling of isolation among archivists who were not at institutions with large staffs (and large in an archival context can mean twenty). The Archives and Archivists listserv, supplemented by other lists, fills a need that has not been successfully addressed before.
Not long after we became aware of e-mail gophers started springing up. These directories of written information made it possible to consult the catalogs and collection guides of archives thousand of miles away. Search programs allowed wide ranging searches on a particular topic through the holdings of many institutions, something that had not been possible before this easily at this level of detail. Here was an easily updatable method of making the most detailed descriptions of our collections available, a method infinitely easier and more current than publishing guides. Of course, many archives were also searchable through the online public access catalog of their library or historical society. But the archival gophers offered access to the complete guides for collections. And a collection guide bears the same relationship to a MARC record that a full size locomotive does to a Lionel engine. To allow researchers such complete access to the basic guides of their collections was indeed a dream come true for most archives, a first step to removing the many practical and mental barriers that keep people from using archival collections.
The gopher sat on the cutting edge for about two blinks of an eye. Now archivists started finding out about home pages. While e-mail and gophers made possible new methods in description, reference and outreach, the web made them sexy. Still, although gophers may have become yesterdays news, but they are still the workhorse of most archives Internet services. Even for those with home pages, the Web site often serves as a kind of facade that leads you back to old reliable gopher that has the collection guides you need to use.
Several hundred of archives, mostly in the United States and Canada, not to mention other countries now have their own home pages. These pages all give basic information on hours, etc. and provide an opportunity for users to e-mail them. Most list a significant number of their guides, which can be searched using various methods. Quite a few contain documents from their collections as a sample of what users can expect. The home page for Notre Dame University, besides allowing alphabetical searching of collection titles, contains often asked for information, like lists of alumni and faculty. Or you could go to the University of Miami and see a splendid selection of color postcards of scenes and buildings from various periods of the city's history. A few archives are offering considerably more than samples on their home pages. The Library of Congress' American Memory collection offers access to huge collections of historical documents on such topics as the Civil War, women's suffrage, history of photography, transportation, early history of movies. And they offer not just written records and photographs, which are becoming common, but also video and audio clips In fact, they are making documents available on a large scale, documents which are tagged so as to be searchable, so that now significant research can be done in the Library of Congress from your chair in Kansas City or Katmandu. Others archives have started putting on their home pages transcripts of oral history interviews. From articles, e-mail and conversations, you can sense the excitement many feel at the creative possibilities of this new means of communications.
That is a little bit about what archivists are doing. What are they thinking about the Net? A great deal of recent discussion has centered on the creation of electronic documents, like e-mail messages, and record keeping systems. A series of closed related cases called the PROFS litigation, concerning the disposition of the e-mail sent over the White Houses' IBM Profs system, has highlighted the importance of e-mail as a historical source even as it underlines the reluctance of even a major institution like the National Archives to come to grips with how to appraise and preserve such material. E-mail messages are just one example of increasing numbers of records that are essentially electronic and which may never pass onto paper at all or have paper as only one of many formats in which it appears or could appear. . E-mail provides almost a mass stream of consciousness reaction to current issues and events. Historians in the future could quote from e-mail for the insight into today's society. Or they will be if e-mail is preserved, or at least a representative sample. But this e-mail seems so temporary and spontaneous and voluminous. How should it and other computer documents be appraised and preserved? The computer has been creating electronic records for some time, but they have largely (not entirely) been records of the old, non electronic type created on a computer instead of a typewriter - memos, reports, budgets, etc. E-mail. although certainly similar to memos in some respects and to letters in another, has other characteristics that are its own, such as its spontaneity and high degree of inactivity, that mark it as a new type of document of the Internet.
And what about WEB pages themselves? The World Wide Web is barely out of the box before the debate begins about how to preserve its history. Here is a quote from a recent newspaper article: "Nathan Myhrvold, one of the top executives at the Microsoft Corporation ... [is] concerned that much of the information produced for the Web and other digital media is disappearing almost as fast as it's created. This isn't an idle concern,' Mr. Myhrvold later wrote in an E-mail message. 'Every day the Web becomes more and more important in academics, business and ultimately contemporary culture itself. The surprising truth is that the early days of the digital age will appear almost pre-literate to future historians....The Web is the ultimate time capsule, but if you don't store it, it's gone."
Over the last few years, archivists have been developing new definitions for "records" and guidelines for evaluating both electronic records and record keeping systems. Checklists have been developed of the necessary qualities of a recordkeeping system, checklists applicable to paper and electronic systems. There is increasing concern on the part of the profession that archivists be involved in the radical changes that are occurring in what is supposed to be our field, record creation and preservation. The Society of American Archivists in March 1995 issue a statement emphasizing that electronic records are indeed documents, that archivists should have "exclusive authority to determine the long-term value of records and the most appropriate methods of ensuing preservation and continuing access to records," and advised revisions in record keeping policies to deal with electronic records, including an enhanced role for archivists in designing said systems. David Bearman, in his 1993 on the Profs case in American Archivist stated, "if archivists do not use this and other opportunities to articulate forcefully what we expect from records creators and systems designers and to extent our mission and authorities both legally and in practice, we will lose most of the archival record of the next decade and squander our role as protector of the public interest in documented and accountable government." As if to underline this point, the advisory council set up by president Clinton to help in the creation of the National Information Superstructure, a planned set of standards for information created and transmitted over the information superhighway, included librarians, labor leaders, representatives of the disabled communities, broadcasters, lawyers, music industry executives and many others -- but no archivists.
The Profs case, the history of the WEB debate, the redefinition of records, are all outgrowths of the archival's attempt to come to grips with the meaning of the computer and the Internet for acquisition. But the implication of the Internet for description of what we already have has not been neglected. The Berkeley Finding Aids Project, under the leadership of Daniel Pitti, and with institutional participation by the University of California Berkeley, the University of Michigan and the Library of Congress, has been involving several teams of archivists and other information specialists in developing a set of standards for putting archival guides to individual collections or record groups into Standard Generalized Markup Language or SGML so that these guides and subsections of them could be tagged and searched. Several sample guides from different institutions have already been entered and examined and the beta version of these standards (know as the EAD or Encoded Archival Description) should be available for review to the entire archival profession this summer. This should allow archival guides, the basis of description and access, to be linked to catalog records, to be searchable to a much deeper level than before and to allow global searches (in a literal senses) in a way impossible before.
Shakespeare said, "The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together." That also applies to the electronic Web and the Internet. Let me describe some of the potentialities I see, starting with negative and then positive.
The first negative aspect relates to the hierarchy of the Internet. It anti-hierarchical nature has often been proclaimed and truly so. But that relates to its function. A definite hierarchy is emerging in terms of its users. There is the cutting edge where enthusiasts are trying the newest possibilities. Then there is the middle ground, of those who are content to be less avant garde, or who do not have the time or staff to make the adaptions necessary to used the latest techniques or programs. And then there are those who are not on the net, period, because they do not have access to it through an institution or personally or they do not see the value of it or they have other priorities. These divisions are real enough and they reflect mainly very real economic differences. The local country historical society, with the part-time archivist, can sometimes just manage to afford one pc. Its staff cannot hope to keep up with the work being done at the larger cultural institutions, let alone emulate them. They are on the outside. Of course, you can say that this is a temporary condition. The enthusiast will say everyone will eventually be connected. This certainly is the ideal and certainly efforts are being made to make the net widely available. Perhaps all will be connected.
But perhaps not. It is perhaps also possible that institutions of already limited resources will be stunted further because they are not benefiting from the increased exposure and use available from the net. In the race for resources, perhaps the net will favor those already ahead.
The same point applies to people as well as institutions. We continually see new words and acronyms coming into use. The spell checker on my three year pc does not recognize Microsoft or Netscape or WWW or HTML or OCR or even e-mail. By being involved in the Internet, people stay current with its jargon and possibilities and uses. But what about those who are not using it everyday? What about those who are not using it at all. As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. For those unfamiliar with computers, the Internet becomes just another story on the tower of Babel, another barrier to moving away from society's margin to its center, perhaps in time the main barrier. For those who have not had the years of experience of using keyboards and getting to understand how a computer thinks, so to speak, use of the computer, let alone the Internet, is frightening and learning now to do it can seem impossible. It is a commonplace that in our age that information is power. Information is starting to flow in great rivers through the Internet. And there are many in the world, a majority we need to remember, who have no expectations of having access to it. We talk as if the Internet connects the United States with China with England, with japan. But in fact what is connected is a portion of the society of each of those countries, a portion of the population of the world. Even for those on the Net, a hierarchy may be imposed. Last Sunday's edition of the New York Times contained an article about how English currently doiminastes the Web and includes this quote from Russia's leading Intenet proider: "It is just incredible when I hear people talking about how open the Web is.... It is the ultimate act of intellectual colonialism. The product comes from America so we either must adopt English or stop using it.... If you are talking about aa technology that is supposed to open the world to hundreds of millions of people you are joking. This just makes the world into new sorts of haves and have nots." Might we be at the beginning of a stage in history when the noncomputer users are looked at as less than human, a stage when "everyone" is just understood not to include them, since they are only capable of lesser tasks. I hope not, but I don't think it is impossible. It would not be the first time that people used the latest technology to reinforce they oldest prejudices, fears and hates. [Later note: As a remonder of how much of the world is cut off from communication channels Americans take for granted, page 102 of the April 13-19/1996 issue of The Economist reported that, "More than half of the world's population lives in countries with fewer than 10 million telephones in total; two out of three people have no access to a telelphone."]
Another negative potential relates to expectations. It is so easy to do things on the Internet. We have all read about soon we (that is, we with access to the Net) will ordering a pizza or book a plane flight or select a candelabra over the Internet and do a hundred other tasks with a few keystrokes. Three million people have already made some purchase over the Net, twenty million in the United States alone regularly use the Web. People can access whole libraries of without ever needing a library cards. In your own home you can search the finding aids holdings of the manuscript division of the library of Congress and the special collections of Sanford University, and numerous archives between. Ah, but then you hit the existential speed bump. The researcher in Singapore can find out almost anything about my archives from the Internet, but he or she has to come to Wheaton, Illinois to use the materials. The potential researcher can't view the actual documents or even get them through interlibrary loan in most cases. Archives in that sense are still pretty firmly based in a reality that is not virtual. To use the documents, you have to hold the real papers in your own hand and to do that, you really have to come to Wheaton. Now, we, the BGC Archives, are rather backward in our use of Net, but even archives at the forefront are only putting samples of their holdings on the net. No one, that I am aware of is engaged in or planning to put everything they have on the net. Dreaming of it perhaps, but not yet planning. Meanwhile, the user of the net is being trained to expect instant fulfillment of his wishes.
This was a frequent concern of the archivists who responded to my inquiry. One Midwestern archivist e-mailed me, "Self-serve remote information retrieval will become the mechanism of choice for both work-related and avocational information needs. If the information in our collections is not readily accessible via these channels, we will become an endangered species."
Vising an archives, sitting under a green shaded lamp for several hours or several days as you turn over old pages from folders brought from the closed stacks deep in the bowels of the building - such activities may be beyond the patience or the comprehension of researchers of the next generation. It is a reality too distant from the reality of the Internet. Statisticians have a saying that what counts best is not necessarily what counts most. But what fits most easily onto the Internet may be what is, in fact, used as and considered as the entire historical record. I mentioned the fear that people who are not on the net are considered less than human. Possibly resources not on the net will be considered not worth using and the institutions that preserve them not worth preserving.
There too are certain archival experiences that cannot be sent over the Net. To hold a man or woman's diary in your hand and read creates a link with that person, a link not created from viewing the same text on a terminal. One of the values of archives have been that through actual records from the past, they create a real connection between past, present and future. Will the Net dilute this intrinsic value of documents, even as it makes their superficial contents globally available?
Then, too, there is the question of what kind of information is transmitted over the Internet. How reliable are the electronic documents preserved in the archives? You can cut and paste with digital documents, revising Matthew Brady prints so that Bugs Bunny is present at Lincoln's first inauguration. And it is much simpler to add, subtract, change text documents. And even without changes, if basic bits of data about time and place of creation, address and destination are not preserved, electronic documents, like paper records, lose much of their value. This, perhaps, is not so much a negative as a reminder of the problems archivists need to deal with. How do you insure the authenticity of the millions of government, business, academic and personal reports, letters, memos, and other records which will be in the electronic archives? Archivists must intensify their efforts to answer questions like these.
Maybe its because it is all so new that we cannot not yet sort out in our minds and emotions what this tool can and cannot do. Or maybe it inherently and inevitably promises more than it can deliver. It seeming omniscience causes us to forget the old hacker definition of a computer: "An idiot who can do very simple things very quickly."
Even in the joys of the net I can see a negative. The net and the Web particularly shows us such a perfect world of handsome home pages and striking designs and unimagined resources. I talked of expectations about archives. What about the expectations for living in the Net world itself. How much of its perfection is a mirage? Anyone who uses lists servs or chat lines knows that these technological marvels can be the channels for almost pornographic rage and anger and pettiness. The net can frustrate, even as it charms. Waiting for the film clip to slooooowly load, reading the message that an application has failed and you must shut down your computer now, discovering that the electric Eden you were set to enter is closed to you because you lack the .dll file you need or the right software or the correct card, these are examples how the net gives with one hand and takes with another.
What are the positives? The obvious ones have already been touch on many times. The speed and ease of communication which allows searches and research strategies which would have been unrealistic in the past. The potential of bringing the researcher, when a Ph.D. candidate or the most casual browser, quickly in contact with the information her or she needs, if not in the document, then at least in the guides and other finding aids.
Plus, there certainly is the potential for archives of explaining themselves and showing a portion of their wares to people who would never come to our reading rooms. An archives is a remote entity from the lives of most people. But on the Internet with the help of a scanner, we can put up and leave up exhibits that educate and encourage further use of our collections. We can create connections with similar resources or home pages or gophers of similar interests. The Archives of Jazz can have a remote link that takes you to Jazz magazine or to dealers in Jazz disks. The interconnectedness of our resources, which we have theoretically upheld for so long, can take a long step forward to realization. As an archivist from Idaho e-mailed me, " The biggest impact is the ability to counteract the isolation and remoteness of archival and special collections materials. By posting inventories, descriptions, images along with the rest of the world; we are participating in (and are not cut off from) the communications explosion."
Another positive: Internet, as I have indicated before, is forcing us, with much reluctance and great dragging of feet to think anew about what a document is, who are users are, how we put the user in touch with what he or she wants to use. More than that, we need to reconsider our whole relationship with librarians, record managers, information specialists. The new problems and opportunities created by Internet are forcing us to look a new at what we do and that could release creative energies which will out pace the importance of the technical innovations that led to them. certainly that was the view of the archivist in the District of Columbia who wrote me, "I think this is the most important development in information exchange since Gutenberg, and thus of the utmost importance to everyone."
Sound a little overblown? Perhaps that is related to the last positive I want to mention. The rapture of the Internet, the joy. When I was in high school, I had a friend who loved to surf. When I asked him why, his spoken replies were inarticulate. "Its just a whole other world," he said. But his body language and the look in his eyes showed how the act of surfing and the environment and his attitude toward coalesced to almost create a new reality for him. Surfing the Internet, at least in the beginning, seems to produce that same euphoria. The excitement of communicating with such ease and of seeing how sometime so new can be used is like a drug, especially for those of us who are in the profession of communicating information. One of my correspondences wrote, " It can become a bit addictive if one allows it to be. From my participation in peer review of some of the librarians...I have the impression that some of them spend a good bit more time communicating on the net than they do in research and publication, which will actually get them promotion and tenure." Internet is more than the sum of its listservs and gophers. It is a new way of looking at the world. And it has to be experienced to be understood.
Perhaps you noticed how close so many of my positives and negatives are related. The joy of Internet is related in part to the unreality of the Internet world which can be alienating. The ease of access is definitely related to the unduly heightened expectations. And so forth. I think there is a reason for that. If you would excuse me a vulgarity, there is a saying that on the finest throne in the world, you are still sitting on your own behind. Internet is a magnificent artifact, polished to the highest sheen by our technology, and when we look into....we see ourselves. We find our own strengthens and weaknesses. Our hands are now using keystroke to create home pages instead of pressing wedges into clay to make cuneiform, but human heart is the same. That was the subject of the preacher of Ecclesiastes study and the whetstone on which he sharpened his understanding. He was right when he saw nothing new in the world, because the human heart was the world he was considering. The Internet is an electronic marvel and its positives and negatives and potentials are really just our own writ large. It is still ourselves we need to understand.