Archival Principles: Authenticity

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block AI conclude my series on archival principles today with a look at authenticity.  The SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines authenticity as:

the quality of being genuine, not a counterfeit, and free from tampering, and is typically inferred from internal and external evidence, including its physical characteristics, structure, content, and context.

Often times, the evaluation of authenticity focuses on the creation of the record and the path taken by this record before it comes to rest in an archival repository.  This is summed up by the term provenance, or “information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.”  I think archivists have embraced the principle of authenticity because of the desire to demonstrate the uniqueness of archival records.

Authenticity used to be demonstrated by signatures or wax seals, and these could be validated by testing inks and papers.  But with the emergence of born-digital records, there are no tactile measurements of authenticity.  Instead, many archivists have adapted the tools of digital forensics in order to be able to demonstrate that no changes have occurred to the files since they were deposited at the archival repository.

While for some authenticity may also bring the connotation of reliability, that gets complicated in the archival realm, so that will be the topic for musings on another day.


Electronic Records Day

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The Council of State Archivists (CoSA) declares October 10 to be Electronic Records Day.  This is a day to raise awareness among government agencies, related professional organizations, the general public, and other stakeholders about the crucial role electronic records play in our world.  Here is the list of ten reasons they suggest people should be focusing on electronic records:

  1. Managing electronic records is like caring for a perpetual toddler: they need regular attention and care in order to remain accessible.
  2. Electronic records can become unreadable very quickly.  While records on paper can sometimes be read after thousands of years, digital files can be virtually inaccessible after just a few.
  3. Scanning paper records is not the end of the preservation process: it is the beginning.  Careful planning for ongoing management expenses must be involved as well.
  4. There are no permanent storage media.  Hard drives, CDs, magnetic tape or any other storage formats will need to be tested and replaced on a regular schedule.  Proactive management is required to avoid catastrophic loss of records.
  5. The lack of a “physical” presence can make it very easy to lose track of electronic records.  Special care must be taken to ensure they remain in controlled custody and do not get lost in masses of other data.
  6. It can be easy to create copies of electronic records and share them with others, but this can raise concerns about the authenticity of those records.  Extra security precautions are needed to ensure e-records are not altered inappropriately.
  7. The best time to plan for electronic records preservation is when they are created.  Don’t wait until software is being replaced or a project is ending to think about how records are going to be preserved.
  8. No one system you buy will solve all your e-records problems.  Despite what vendors say, there’s no magic bullet that will manage and preserve your e-records for you.
  9. Electronic records can help ensure the rights of the public through greater accessibility than ever before, but only if creators, managers and users all recognize their importance and contribute resources to their preservation.
  10. While they may seem commonplace now, electronic records will form the backbone of the historical record for researchers of the future.

CoSA has also generated a document called Survival Strategies for Personal Digital Records that provides suggestions for dealing with backups, migration, and other issues for personal files and digital images.

Earlier this week, an article was published entitled “The New Digital Workplace,” and some of its points about the future of work are interesting to consider through the lens of archives and records management.  Some of people’s expectations that I believe could (or should) apply to archives are these:

  • search that works — standards and interoperability and catalogs have been discussed for years, but there’s still much to be improved about how patrons can find and utilize archival collections
  • rich media tools to communicate — many repositories have embraced social media, but I think there are still more ways that the reference experience in particular could be improved (e.g., reference interviews could take place via Skype before a researcher makes a trip to the repository)

While there’s no questioning the allure of mobile apps, I think the general lack of budget and IT support is going to make it hard for most repositories to begin designing their own apps (though perhaps a hack-a-thon could offer its services).  What remains to be seen is how archives will handle things like whether to provide access to digital collections only in the search room, as has been the norm for most paper records, or whether to devise a way to provide more robust service online.  Once this is determined, it will also be interesting to see whether the new emphasis on collaboration that is sweeping the worlds of business and education will impact the realm of archival research.


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CBS did nothing to get me in the holiday spirit this year.  In fact, I’ve been mad at them since October, when I read a notice that they planned to air two colorized episodes of I Love Lucy the week before Christmas.  Although I was not alive to watch this comedy when it first aired in the 1950s, I grew up watching the syndicated episodes with my family, and I came to cherish the wacky predicaments into which Lucy entangled herself (and usually also Ethel) each week and to admire the versatility displayed by Lucille Ball in bringing this character to life.  The show was groundbreaking in many ways for its time, including depicting an interracial marriage, acknowledging the pregnancy of Lucille Ball in real-time in 1952, and providing such a powerful platform to a woman.  All of these things are accomplished in the native black-and-white, so I see no reason to monkey around with the past by colorizing these episodes.  Needless to say, I boycotted the airing of these episodes.

Apparently, many do not share my disdain for inauthentic television.  Variety reported that the December 20th episodes were watched by nearly 9 million people, easily winning its timeslot.  I don’t pretend to hold a superior position just because I can differentiate the original I Love Lucy episodes from the newly aired versions, but this has given me pause to consider when it is and when it is not appropriate to repurpose artifacts from the past in order to make them more appealing to a modern audience.  I can still remember being appalled in 1991 when Natalie Cole released her “Unforgettable” single, in which she sings a “duet” with her father, Nat King Cole (who died in 1965).  Many saw this as a remarkable way that technology could allow Natalie to pay homage to the father who died while she was a teenager.  I, on the other hand, saw it as a cheap way to attract attention and album sales.

Archives certainly cannot afford to ignore either technology or the need to attract users.  But I do hope that this can be accomplished while still maintaining the authenticity of the records.  The two examples above are not unique, but I guess they have both stood out to me because the original versions are still entertaining and all the more remarkable taken in context — Lucille Ball in the atmosphere of the Red Scare and Nat King Cole in the civil rights struggle.  Removing them from their contexts only serves to minimize the importance of their impacts in their eras.  So in the end, I wonder whether archives can find ways to provide users with the latitude to repurpose and reimagine the record while still trying to maintain an anchor to the context in which the record was created.

Is it real or is it Memorex?

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The 1980s ad slogan suggested that the quality of recording tape being produced by Memorex could make it hard to distinguish between a live performance and a recording.  While such an aspiration for quality is admirable, for those of us interested in the issue of authenticity, not being able to distinguish the real from the copy can be disconcerting.  Museums have to be wary about forgeries, and archives are careful to trace provenance in order to insure that records are authentic.  With the advent of the photocopier, it became simple to make a replica of a document; the facsimile also incorporates into its name an indication that a fax is a copy of a document.  With these analog producers of copies, it was fairly easy to determine which version was the original and which were copies.  With born-digital materials, authenticity is much more complicated to parse.  There are simple technical solutions like checksums that can guarantee that the file I have today is the same one as the file I received from a  donor two years ago.  But from a records retention standpoint, the ease with which exact digital copies of files can be generated — and attached to an email or copied onto flash drives or stored in the cloud — makes it quite complicated to determine which version of a file should serve as the record copy.

The development of affordable 3D printing may not have much direct impact on archives, which do not tend to collect as many three-dimensional objects, but it is sure to change the landscape for museums.  Rather than fearing the possibility of counterfeit items being produced, the Smithsonian Institution has chosen to embrace this new technology as a form of outreach.  As reported in an Associated Press article this week, the Smithsonian is embarking on an initiative to scan objects from its collections — thus far including items such as the Wright brothers’ first airplane and casts of president Abraham Lincoln’s face during the Civil War.  These scans can be viewed online through the Smithsonian’s 3D viewer, where objects can be browsed individually or viewed in designed tours.  Files can also be downloaded to create replicas of these objects on a 3D printer.  The Smithsonian provides these downloadable files as an outreach effort and trusts that the public will use them for educational purposes rather than more nefarious ones.  It will be interesting to see whether our collective better angels hold more sway, and it will also be intriguing to see whether 3D imaging becomes as ubiquitous as document scanning or whether the drive to provide 3D representations creates a divide between the institutions with the financial and technical wherewithal to embark on a 3D imaging program and those without.