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Trends in the Archival Community—Future Projections

How Will Trends Influence the Survival of Archival Collections?

Digital preservation absorbs approximately 50% of an archive budget in the current centers. This percentage is expected to continue growing annually. FIRELOCK predicts the risk to the collections will increase over time due to reliance on Cloud Storage and the continual need to upgrade hardware and software.

The expenses required to maintain digital collections will continue to increase while exhibiting less perceived value to the funding committees. Ever-increasing volumes of the digital archive, and the increased costs of maintaining these archives, can be expected to diminish the enthusiasm for the archive. Many archivists find that reflecting a return on investment to funding sources becomes more difficult over time. Each and every shrinking budget cycle will be a disincentive to upper management and grant resources.

Archival collections deteriorate over time due to accidental loss and catastrophic systems failures. Those archives that skew more and more to digital collections are shown to develop an overall lack of appreciation for these esoteric digital collections.  This is demonstrated by a loss of funding for growth or even maintenance of the archive. 

In contrast; rare and archival collections in physical and artifact format represent a small percentage of the total cost of the archive upkeep; but have a greater appreciation amongst the funding and executive committees.  Preservation of rare collections is a minor ongoing budget percentage but with a readily appreciated intrinsic collection value.

The growth of archives continues to increase costs, while the growing volume of the budget being allotted for digital storage creates a real problem for continued financial support. As the IT department plays a larger role, they fail to recognize the real goal of the Archive within the organization. Loss or deaccessioned volumes are a real problem to continued appreciation of the archive within organizations. This is a contradiction to the “Born Digital” nature of current records collections and management.

Archivists have much more interest in gaining skills in digital preservation versus understanding and improving preservation skill sets.  The political arena is placing greater strains on the historical collections, as they are viewed as being out of date and not in line with the current political climate. This trend is wiping away some of the historical and cultural artifacts that previously were of archival value.  The greater perception of archives as being another source of political discord, the less support will be provided.

As conservation and preservation align more with conservative support that recognizes value in all historical collections; what actually survives will impact our understanding of who we are as a people and a country.

COVID has also played a role in reducing the visibility of collections as well as financial support. Couple this with the great increase of digital collections and the trend favors movement to more of an IT Base. History has shown that IT staff are more desirous of increasing volumes of storage capacity and processing speed and less concerned with the long-term safety of the archive. This in turn renders them less supportive of the goal and objectives of the archival community. IT Managers will claim to value security but their budgets skew much more heavily to faster and larger platforms for their IT Systems and this leaves the long-term digital archive more and more vulnerable.  This diminishing support is also represented by a reduction in staffing as we witness more and more reliance on volunteers, interns, and student support, rather than full-time archive staff.

Records protection for business records with 3- to 7-year values to the organization is not the same as a collection that requires security and stability over a long-term to permanent model.

Due to ESG and other political factors, the accuracy of collections will over time be more significantly protected by Town Hall, Country Archives, and State Archives that value to historical content and editorially influence the archive collections. These Community Archives will be valued and protected over the long term and will be more sustainable compared with Digital Archives that have serious threats to their long-term survival.

In an archive that can have large volumes of materials deleted through a keystroke by someone who disagrees with certain content. The same people who pull down sculptures of Lincoln and wish to rename everything to titles they agree with are a risk in a world where the only content is easily deleted.

The Role of the Long-Term Digital and Hard Copy Vault Chamber on Survival of Artifacts

From the earliest days of Archival Centers, the Vault Chamber has played a significant role in the survival of hard-copy historical and archival documents. In the mid-80s, the Vault Chamber evolved in concert with the arrival of digital records into the archive. Special fire protection and environmental standards were developed to improve longevity and survival of valuable and vital documents.

Records could be destroyed by environmental destruction (“Slow Burn”), fire, or catastrophic destruction. More fragile microfilm and born-digital records could be destroyed by environmental conditions, as well as failure to evolve the digital platform on which the electronic documents were preserved. Documents such IT.9.11 and NFPA 232 “Protection of Records codified these concerns about environmental control and designing a proper vital records vault chamber.

The singular importance of the vault chamber is that it represents a decision by an organization to protect those documents they have determined to be of the greatest long-term value to that organization.

Communities often see vaults represented within their Town Hall, County Archives, or State Archive Centers, and these vaults preserve Land & Deed Records, Birth, Death, Marriage, and Military Service Records as well as cultural heritage records. Town Clerks often seek guidance on the proper design criteria for building their certified vault chambers.[1]

The State Archive or County Archive Center preserves a wider view of the community’s cultural heritage. State Archivists and Archives, Public Records Divisions will spend years designing a proper archive center to preserve their State’s most vital historical documents. There are very precise specifications on vault design and some records vault design specifications are issued by various state agencies. (Technical Bulletin #1 by Massachusetts “Performance Standards of Safes and Vaults”  and Connecticut’s “Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies – Standard for Fire-Resistive Vaults and Safes.”)[2]

In addition, the National Fire Protection Association is a prolific provider of fire protection standards, and their NFPA 232: Protection of Records defines the proper design of a vault as well as MasterSpec which provides written specifications on vault design.[3]

The role of the vault is very simple; the Owner/Board of Directors or Archivists define and categorize their most valuable and vital documents and they are collectively stored within records within the vault. Records of somewhat lesser value will be maintained in archives and in modern days, this may mean electronic records stored within a Digital Archive. Digital Archives have taken on a more ethereal definition and may be protected through repetitive or Cloud Storage rather than backup disaster recovery digital collections. Overall, Management is finding it more difficult to describe their ability to preserve their most treasured collections in this digital age.

Vaulted storage has proven itself over the centuries. Archivists need continued guidance as we evolve in technology. But care should be given to consider if new technologies will demonstrate the same security and simplicity of design that our vault archives have delivered over time.

Who Will Be Primary Influencers in Archival Collections and Threats to Survival

Who will define what survives?  Will the traditional archivist of 1980 and 1990 and 2000 still have a role?  Will collections reside in the Cloud and the decision process reside with IT Managers with no affinity for the collection?

As Artificial Intelligence (AI) begins to assume control of databases, will AI view Archival Digital Databases at a higher value or just another data set? Historical artifacts and documents survive due to their increasing value to collectors. We have witnessed rare artifacts move to private collectors and at other times be gifted back to subject-specific archives and museums.

Is the fate of historic documents a function of who is in control politically or culturally? When collections can be deleted with a keystroke or simply a desire to maintain collections. Abraham Lincoln moves in and out of favor depending on whether you view him as The Great Emancipator or a president who did not do enough and is therefore a racist. Who controls the delete button, the grant funding, or the desire to maintain history as a fact or as something viewed as being unattractive or not worthy of maintaining?  Will some assume the role of terrorist and seek out and destroy collections that do not agree with their mindset?

As an example; will William Bradford’s manuscript “Of Plimoth Plantation[4]” be viewed as a journal that is regarded as the most authoritative account of the Pilgrims’ early years in the colony which they founded? Will these Pilgrims be viewed through the prism of persecuted Christians fleeing tyranny in Holland and England in a ship called Mayflower? Or; as occupiers in a new world?

In the 1980s, the role of the records manager was precisely defined in organizations.  But in the 2000s, Records Managers started to identify as Knowledge Managers, Information Managers, and Information Governance and no clear understanding of the role of the records manager remained in many organizations. Will the role of the Archivist remain the same, given all the changes occurring in that field? Ironically, only time will tell.




[4] Earlier this month, living history museum Plimoth Plantation shared a new logo featuring two words: Plimoth—an alternative spelling of the Massachusetts colony’s name.