Digital Archives or Archives in a Digital World: To Be or Not to Be

A presentation by Daniel J. Caron at the University and Research Institution Archives Conference, University of Alberta, Edmonton

Going Digital Brings On Disruptive Change

Evidence of the Change
One sign of the transformation from 1950 to 1980 to the information age was that manufacturing goods was eclipsed by information management as the dominant economic activity in the world. The tipping point in information storage occurred in 2002 when more information was stored digitally than in analogue format. In 2000, 75% of the world's information was still in analogue format (paper, videotape, etc.) but by 2007, 94% was preserved digitally (Hilbert & Lopez, 2011).
Our Role is Exercised Differently
Today, libraries and archives are faced with the challenge of adapting their practices which were applicable in an environment that was predominantly analogue to one that it is becoming more and more digital. That is not to say that we have moved completely from one modus operandi to another. Our mandate remains to acquire, preserve, and make accessible information resources, which means that we will continue to operate in a hybrid environment and work with information resources regardless of whether they are formatted in a physical container or encoded into bits and bytes. However, the tried and true practices of the analogue environment cannot be simply transferred to the digital realm.
The Genie Has Escaped the Lamp
Information has been liberated from its physical containers. As a result, there has been a steady decline in a static relationship between particular content and a particular communications medium. Delivery of content has moved to a single platform, the Internet, and as a consequence, the business models for the delivery of content via physical mediums have faltered.
For example, newspaper circulation is down and in response publishers are moving more and more to electronic formats accompanied by the challenge of maintaining revenue streams. As well, the music industry has been totally revolutionized by the advent of digital formats transmitted over the Internet and often through person-to-person file sharing. Vinyl records give way to CDs, which in turn give way to single song downloads through distributers like iTunes. Moreover, in what will certainly be a historic case study, students will examine how the company Blockbuster became North America's leading home movie distributor based on a bricks and mortar distribution chain only to be eventually undone by video streaming furnished by cable companies and Internet distributors like Netflix and iTunes.
Even the staid world of academic text publishing has been severely disrupted. With the arrival of the tablet, a market dominated by the iPad, educational institutions are rapidly moving to replace their printed textbooks with e-copies. In a bold move, the government of South Korea just announced that would replace all printed textbooks in public school classrooms by 2015.
Changing Mandate as the University Transforms from a Place of Learning to a Node in an Information Network
Historically, universities have been geographic centres that have grouped in close physical proximity lecture halls, libraries, and research facilities on campus and peopled them with professors, students, and support staff. This made a great deal of sense in the age of print before the advent of the digital information revolution. The fruits of academic labour were to be captured in print and warehoused in a physical location so to advance the pursuit of knowledge for those gathered in geographic communities governed by a university charter. The manner in which the pursuit of knowledge was organized was site specific, for example, which courses were to be taught, what would be acquired for the collections, and how the material would be catalogued and made accessible. Essentially, in this setting university libraries and archives are basins of knowledge in which access to information is mediated locally by knowledge professionals, traditionally librarians and archivists.
With the arrival of the Internet, the ease in which digital information can be disseminated changes fundamentally the pursuit of knowledge. Physical boundaries become far less important as does geographic location. Controlled access to information resources gives way to unmediated electronic access; marshalling information resources to a physical location gives way to sharing of information resources in multiple locations; and competition for scarce information resources gives way to collaboration to gain access to a superabundance of information.
Consequently, when raising issues of how to improve inreach and outreach activities, we must be cognizant of the fundamental differences in which libraries and archives operate as a place of learning as opposed to node in an information network.
Open Access: Shaking the Foundations of Academic Publishing
Open access, which advocates free access and substituting submission fees for subscriptions, is gaining traction worldwide. With the support of funding authorities, libraries, and scientific service institutions, scientists and scientific organizations see a transmutation of academic publishing from the current scheme into a science-centered open access system. The goal is to expand it, building up a global e-research environment that combines specialized research software with information, communication, and collaboration tools at the researchers desktop.
Scientific institutions and organizations, such as CERN, the U.K. Royal Societies, and learned societies throughout Europe, as well as the research organization the Max Planck Society (MPG), support and promote the movement. But the roles in future academic publishing are not yet assigned. Scientists, librarians, publishers, and funding authorities have learned that the transition from print to digital systems is a huge task. All parties involved in the production, publishing, documentation, and archiving of scientific knowledge are challenged by technical and political issues. How does a globalized science affect national economic interests, intellectual property rights, and personal income from findings?
Recently, the Welcome Trust, the Max Planck Society and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute announced that they will launch an open access research journal that will attempt to compete directly for submissions with Cell, Nature and Science. They will publish the first issue of the as-yet unnamed online only publication for biomedical and life sciences research in summer 2012.
Responding to the Data Deluge
Everywhere you look, the quantity of information in the world is soaring. Merely keeping up with this flood, and storing the bits that might be useful, is difficult enough. Analysing it, to spot patterns and extract useful information, is harder still. Even so, the data deluge is already starting to transform business, government, science and everyday life. It has great potential for good-as long as consumers, companies and governments make the right choices about when to restrict the flow of data, and when to encourage it.
Governments are belatedly coming around to the idea of putting more information-such as crime figures, maps, details of government contracts or statistics about the performance of public services-into the public domain. People can then reuse this information in novel ways to build businesses and hold elected officials to account. Companies that grasp these new opportunities, or provide the tools for others to do so, will prosper. Business intelligence is one of the fastest-growing parts of the software industry.
One of the greatest challenges for 21st-century science is how we respond to this new era of data-intensive science. This is recognized as a new paradigm beyond experimental and theoretical research and computer simulations of natural phenomena-one that requires new tools, techniques, and ways of working. Increasingly, scientific breakthroughs will be powered by advanced computing capabilities that help researchers manipulate and explore massive datasets. The speed at which any given scientific discipline advances will depend on how well its researchers collaborate with one another, and with technologists, in areas of eScience such as databases, workflow management, visualization, and cloud computing technologies.
Linked open data aims to increase transparency and reproducibility of research, emphasizing data quality and utility over subjective assessments of immediate impact. To enable future access and analyses, all supporting data and source code should be publically available and an extensive database and cloud repository that can host associated data, supplementary information and tools should also be provided.
In short, scientific research and publication is moving out of the laboratory and publishing house and into the clouds. As a result, it becomes imperative to determine whether inreach and outreach activities for research libraries and archives are meant to function within the cloud or more locally within a geographically circumscribed location. The response will have a significant impact on the nature of the activities undertaken.
Library and Archives Canada Adapts and Engages
At Library and Archives Canada (LAC), we have come to the realization that in order to perform the traditional functions of acquisition, preservation, and resource discovery that we must be proactive and move further upstream in the process of documentation towards the point of creation of digital information resources. Capturing the documentary moment is no longer a function performed unilaterally by national memory institutions. It is done collaboratively among the partners of a documentary heritage network. This is very different from the past, when institutions such as ours were appointed to preserve the public memory in specific areas, and given a legislative mandate to manage information resources over time on behalf of the public.
Using a whole-of-society framework means new and broader partnerships and relationships between LAC and the rest of society. In doing so, we intend to identify that which meets our archival preservation criteria and also to identify those parts of our holdings that might be transferred to better-positioned partners among other Canadian documentary heritage organizations. This means that we have to become format agnostic and embrace the documentary production environment as it is: less in the way of mediation and more in the way of self-production and publication.
In a parallel process, we have already set out in consultation with other stakeholders to consider the creation of a Pan-Canadian Documentary Heritage Network. As with the creation of any network of this type, we begin with preliminary talks concerning existing holdings, mandates, capacities, and interests to see where there are areas of possible collaboration. Last fall, we held our first successful consultation with external stakeholders, followed by a second round of meetings in the spring. This is a recognition that the new environment is totally decentralised and our monopoly as stewards of the national documentary heritage is over.
Importantly, beginning in 2017 Library and Archives Canada will no longer receives or will receive very little in the way of paper government records. LAC will become a Trusted Digital Repository, but not in the sense of a bricks and mortar building with an ingest method taken from the analogue era. More precisely, we envision ourselves becoming a node in a distributed network, using web archiving services in the cloud to maintain reliable, authentic, and trustworthy information.
In all of this, the important point is the fact that we have to reinvent the ways to do business in all three areas: acquisition, preservation and resource discovery. We need new types of skills and new models in order to insert ourselves in the new environment as a leader more than a doer.