| Access to archival records: A review of current issues: A RAMP study |
|1. Factors influencing the consultation and dissemination of archival information|
1.14 Recent technological developments will complicate this state of affairs. In the last few decades, the conjecture of technology and information has given birth to new types of documents that are solely in electronic form. Avra Michelson and Jeff Rothenberg have used the term "information technology" to describe the "computing and communications technology used to obtain, store, organize, manipulate, and exchange information. At an earlier time this information would have been recorded on one of the many other physical, paper-based, formats familiar to archives. But given the great flexibility of information technology, creators are steadily moving to an electronic environment.
1.15 The proliferation of this technology has caused an "electronic information revolution" which is transforming the way people do their work and, as David Bearman has stated, is leading to new "practices of communication and to new forms of records. Like the telephone had done earlier in the century, it is redefining the nature of human interaction and imposing new forms of "orality" to social exchanges. Above all, information technology enables the free flow of information between individuals, organizations, countries, and continents.
1.16 These developments have forced archivists to revisit basic principles and practices. Probably the greatest challenge relating to electronic records is the fact that they rarely attain a finite state, as they can constantly be updated, unless archives intervene. The information can also be merged, manipulated, and transformed. Often, electronic records provide evidence of the process more than of the actual transaction.
1.17 Because electronic information is so easily transportable and exchangeable, it has been difficult to incorporate it into existing record keeping systems that were developed for permanent, textual, paper records. Indeed, electronic records in organizations often are placed under the custody of automation professionals while paper records remain with records managers. If this electronic information is to be permanently preserved, archives will have to adopt new strategies that focus more on timely interaction with records creators and possibly the sharing of custodial responsibilities.
1.18 In its current manifestation, electronic information in many ways ressembles the oral transaction. It may be argued that archives are entering a period of "neo-orality" where much of the transaction loses its preciseness and becomes more symbolic of the inter action It consequently will be even more important for archives to determine the criteria by which records ought to be kept. They will also have to place information in context so that researchers understand the information to which they are gaining access. Furthermore, given the plethora of records available to the technology literate, archives have to be able to guide users in the best use of available sources.
1.19 This situation will be compounded as drastic changes occur in the media base of archives. Increasingly, records that were traditionally on various media will be created electronically. Furthermore, some copying devices such as optical discs will allow for the merging of textual and other records. Already "compound" (i.e. multimedia) documents challenge the traditional descriptive practices of archives and force a more global, generic, and contextual approach to the creation of reference tools.
1.20 Technology is also transforming the way in which research is conducted. During the 1960s and 1970s, researchers limited their "computing" work to the preparation of indexes and similar retrieval tools, the conversion of textual material to machine-readable form, as well as the writing and editing of text. Such "end-user computing" was transformed radically with the introduction of personal computers and the greater accessibility to easily manipulated software packages. Added to this are the possibilities presented by hypermedia tools which enable access to records that used to reside on various physical formats.
1.21 Researchers are now able to devise their own search strategies, manipulate information in new ways, and study issues which previously would have been difficult to address due to the quantity and structure of the data. They expect off-site access to a variety of sources which they can manipulate, share, and discuss with colleagues from all over the globe, and transfer to other colleagues who may manipulate that same information for their own research purposes. In doing so, researchers are of course also creating their own records.
1.22 Archives are also confronted by new research approaches. On-line access to bibliographic databases has increased the scope of information-gathering processes. Archives will be pressured to complement this with on-line access to the information itself - an objective that may be impossible to reach for some years. This will require that a careful selection be made of what will be offered through electronic document delivery systems. As a participant in the process, archives will have to be knowledgeable of the permutations of research, which will increasingly be based on electronic information net working. Concurrently, transitory or "legacy" systems will have to be maintained for those users who either cannot use technological tools or do not have access to them.