Archives in the News: The Instability of Digital Formats

In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, journalists were interviewed about their concerns over the instability of their digital work.  As we discussed in class, digitization is not the equivalent of preservation and when an online platform folds, its digital presence is wiped. The article asks a simple question: are journalists concerned that their work could disappear in a matter of seconds?

“The internet is more like an Etch-a-Sketch than a stone engraving—over time, some marks endure, but the rest are swept from the canvas.”

Tiffany Stevens, freelance journalist

The journalists interviewed had mixed reactions to the lack of preservation of their work. Some created their own personal archive, printing each of their articles and storing the physical copy. Others were relieved that their early professional work was erased from history and could not return to haunt them.

One journalist noted that she relies on the Wayback Machine and then, after a moment of contemplation, realized “that that’s still online, so if this website goes down, then all my archive links are also gone.”*

Many of the journalists saw the issue as just another manifestation of the ways journalism has changed in our time. Ultimately, the digital instability of their work was not an issue they were overly concerned with.

However, the issue of the instability of digital forms is not as trivial as some of these journalists might think. In fact, it can have serious effects on understanding history when our work begins to rely more heavily on these digital-first documents. Digital instability has also proven to have damaging effects on our politics.

Last week, a U.S. Senate memo, “An Overview of the Impeachment Process”, which provides legal interpretations of different Senate powers during impeachment proceedings, went missing. The URL for the document, which has been online since 2005, suddenly directed users to a “404 error message.”

The explanation for its disappearance has been that the information was consolidated into a new document, and the original must have been removed during maintenance. However, the old (now missing) document, “has been widely cited during the Trump Era, using its URL as a citation.”**

Used in official government proceedings, an oft-cited document no longer exists. Citations now lead to a “404 error message.”

In a moment when truth feels less tangible than ever, the disappearance of online media coupled with our increasing reliance on them, is a recipe for instability that extends past the lives of our digital documents and effects our history and our politics.


*Stevens, Tiffany. “Preserving work in a time of vanishing archives.” Columbia Journalism Review. November 5, 2019. Accessed November 21, 2019.

**Wofford, Benjamin. “An Important Impeachment Memo Vanished From a Senate Web Server.” Washingtonian. November 13, 2019. Accessed November 21, 2019.

The Politics of a Presidential Archive

President Obama is breaking from tradition. Unlike his predecessors, he is forgoing a traditional library and museum; a process used by past presidents to process their historical records and to “control their own legacies.”* Instead, the Obama Foundation is funding the digital processing, through NARA, of some of the administration’s unclassified materials. The rest of Obama’s records will be stored in other NARA facilities.

In lieu of a traditional library and museum space, the Obama Foundation is planning the Obama Presidential Center, a multi-use, publically accessible, community space located in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago. The center will include classrooms, meeting spaces, a branch of the Chicago Public Library, a performance space, and playgrounds; all designed for public use. The function of the building is path-breaking, as is the choice of location.

While it is common for a presidential library to be located in a place significant to that president, those places tend to be prestigious in their own right or remote in location. The South Side of Chicago is a highly stigmatized neighborhood, but one incredibly significant to urban history, African American history, and the Obama’s family history.

One of the goals of locating the center in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago is to increase community engagement and open up new job and education opportunities for community members. The center is expected to have 700,000 annual visitors who would frequent neighborhood businesses and revitalize the neighborhood, without gentrifying it. The Obama Foundation wants to strip away barriers of accessibility, improve the community, and redefine what a presidential library can be.

Obama Mock Up
A digital rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center.

Jackson Park was originally designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted and is a registered National Historic Landmark. Because of its historical status, the plans for the center are now under federal review and approval. Many, including community members, are concerned with how much the center will alter Jackson Park and the neighborhood as a whole.

But Michelle Obama asks for the community’s trust; that she and President Obama would never do anything to damage a neighborhood that is so close to their own heritage and family history. “We had to think, where do we put this resource?” she asked. “Well, what better place to put it than in our backyard?”**

For Anthony Clark, the author of The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies, the Obama Center is establishing a significant precedent for the transparency of presidential records. “Freeing NARA to process and produce those records without the interference of the Obama Foundation will be our best hope for learning what really happened during the Obama presidency,” Clark noted, “and, if others follow his example, future presidencies as well.”*

In many ways, the center will still be a place where the narrative of Obama’s legacy is being crafted, just through different means. While it will be interesting to see how the Obama Center continues to proceed, it is also intriguing to think of the precedents he is setting for future libraries.

One can only assume that the future Donald Trump presidential archive, if enough material survives for its existence, will revert back to a more traditional format for a presidential library, or will set new precedents based on President Trump’s own set of values and his perception of his legacy. If I were to wager a guess, his presidential library will be located somewhere near his Mar-A-Lago residence, and subject to the climate change threats that he continually chooses to ignore. But, only time will tell.

*Clark, Anthony. “Presidential Libraries Are a Scam. Could Obama Change that?” Politico. May 7, 2017. presidential-libraries-are-a-scam-could-obama-change-that-215109.

**Quig, A.D., “Obamas defend Jackson Park site at Foundation Summit.” Chicago Defender. October 29, 2019.

Finding My Grandfather in the Archive

My maternal grandfather, Richard Nolan was a pilot in the Air Force. He flew reconnaissance planes in Vietnam.

A few weeks ago, I taught a lesson on soldiers’ experience during the Vietnam War. To connect the history to my students’ lives, I asked them if anyone in their family served in the war. Six students raised their hands. They all knew that their grandfather’s served in some capacity but they had never asked them about their experience. My students’ homework was to go home and call their grandfathers and see if they were willing to share their story.

Both of my grandfathers served in the Vietnam War but neither are still with us. Thankfully, they were both fairly open with us and with my parents about their service, so I grew up knowing a little about their experiences. However, I still wanted to know more. Not having the option of talking to them, I turned to google. I searched my paternal grandfather’s name: Thomas Austin, and the title of his position during the war.

My paternal grandfather, Thomas Austin. He was the Senior Advisor of the Phuoc Tuy Province in Vietnam.

To my delight, I found a book that not only references my grandfather, but references several reports he wrote during the war. My grandfather was a graduate from West Point, and by the time he was deployed to Vietnam, too many of the men from his graduating class had died in combat that he was not allowed to be in a combat zone. Instead, the Army sent him to learn Vietnamese and in 1976 he became the Senior Advisor of the Phuoc Tuy Province. As part of his job, he submitted monthly reports on his province. I read some of his direct quotes in the text and immediately flipped to the footnotes to see where these materials were located. I found the following footnote:

LTCOL Thomas Austin, ‘Province report — Phuoc Tuy Province — period ending: 29 February 1968 (2), Box 1575, A1 731, RG 472, NARA.

I went to the NARA website, searched for the reading group and started digging through the finding aid. What I found is that the NARA website and their finding aids are extraordinarily confusing and difficult to navigate. It was seemingly impossible to find where the files were located or how to request them. I ended up reaching out through their contact page and am hoping to hear back.

My dad followed in his father’s footsteps and served in the military. He reveres my grandfather’s service and seeing those reports would mean a great deal to him. NARA holds military personnel files that are accessible for family research, but it is these more detailed primary documents of a person’s work that I think can provide the opportunity to really connect with a family member’s impact on history.

A page from my grandfather’s scrapbook

My grandfather returned from Vietnam he put together a scrapbook of photos from his time in Phuoc Tuy and the people he met with. These scrapbook pages have lived in my parent’s secretary desk, along with other family albums. But when I saw them recently, I thought back to the book where I originally found my grandfather’s records.

Another scrapbook page, filled with photos taken by and of my grandfather.

In the book, my grandfather is just another Army official whose records were consulted, but these scrapbooks tell a different history of his service in Vietnam. These accounts are filled with his personal interactions with South Vietnamese provincial leaders and citizens. His personal papers made me think of all of the family papers that exist outside of archives that would make our histories so much richer. How can we write a history of the experience of the Vietnam War without these rich sources being organized in a repository? Will these stories ever make their way to an archive? I am not sure what the answer to that question is, other than to continue to encourage my students to learn their own family history and emphasize how important their stories are to our collective national history.

Archives in the News: The Digitization of the Nuremberg Trails

In keeping with the theme of this week’s class, I found myself getting lost in story after story of archives in the news until one piece in particular caught my attention.

One week ago, archivists at the Shoah Memorial in Paris announced the completion of a two-year long project to digitize the audio recordings of the Nuremberg Trials. The announcement came just days after a shooting in Germany, outside of a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. The timing of this anti-semitic incident coinciding with the increasing accessibility of these records,  emphasizes the pressing importance of making this history more accessible to a broader public.

While transcripts of the court trials have long been available, the audio recordings give new life to this history. The head archivist of the project, Karen Taieb, argues that hearing the actual voices of the people on trial adds new emotion and weight to understanding the power of the history.

In addition to digitizing hours of auido files — previously stored on “2,000 large discs housed in wooden boxes” for the past fifty years — the files will now be accessible in three different institutions: the Shoah Memorial in Paris, the International Court of Justice library in the Hague, Netherlands, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

Herein lies one of the primary advantages of digitization and the power of this particular project. Sending the files to three different institutions further increases accessability and also places the materials within different insitutional and historical contexts. Hopefully, more people are able to interact with this moment of history, connect with it emotionally, and learn from it more effectively.



Parker, Claire. “Public to get access to Nuremberg trails digital recordings.” Associated Press. October, 12, 2019.

#AskAnArchivist Day

As part of American Archives Month, the SAA christened October 2nd “#AskAnArchivist Day”. The purpose of the day, according to the SAA website, is to “break down the barriers that make archivists seem inaccessible.”* Last Wednesday, archivists took to social media to responsed to questions, post creative content, and interact with other archives around the country.

I spent the day following along and marveling at all of the delightful ideas archivsts used to engage followers and make the archive both more accessible and more fun. I found the hashtag a really successful method to draw focus, not just on the materials within the archive, but how the archive itself functions.

One of the most common approaches archives took was to highlight unique archival materials. The Newberry Library answered the question, “What’s the strangest thing you’ve processed in a collection?” Their answer was a book of intricately braided human hair from the 1840s. There’s a common misconception that archives mainly hold traditional “papers”. Answers like this expand public perception of the types of materials that they would find in an archive.

The University of Minnesota took us on a ride. They placed a camera on an archive box so we could follow it on its journey from storage to the reading room and back.

The Utah State Archives showed off the cousin of our very own book bot.

But one of my favorite posts shined a light on a small, yet very hazardous threat to every collection — the paperclip, or as the Smithsonian Archive called them, the “Artifacts of Paper Torture”.

#AskAnArchivist Day was a creative and engaging way to make the archive more accessible. These tweets merely offered a glimpse into all the fun that lies behind archival doors and within document boxes.


*”#AskAnArchivist Day – October 2, 2019″, Society of American Archivists, updated September 11, 2019. Accessed October 7, 2019.

Chaos & Order

Last week we did an accessioning exercise where we looked at an unprocessed box from a new collection and thought about ways to establish order. It was a fun exercise to dig through the contents of the box, and think about ways to organize the chaos. Ultimately however, it was overwhelming and intimidating to see the sheer volume of work ahead for the archivists who will make the collection accessible.

Fastforward to today, where I spent the day in the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland. When I arrived, the archivist wheeled out a cart of boxes I had reserved and we chatted about the collection. Ten minutes later I was diving in to a tidy box of viewer mail, roughly organized by year.

While I was excited to see the sources and each one felt like a fun discovery, I was continually reminded of the number of hours of work and care that went into establshing the order of each folder and each box.

Not only can I imagine the chaos that this collection may have arrived in, and marveled at how much sense each box made. But I also thought about the detailed work done on each folder. Metal paperclips were replaced with plastic ones. Photos are sandwhiched with acid-free. Some fragile materials had duplicated photocopies.

In the course of the day, I only made it through four boxes. There are seventeen more just on Sesame Street, and about 300 more in the entire collection. Sitting here, processing my day of research, I cannot help but be awed and incredibly thankful for both the work that went into making this collection accessible, but also for being more informed about this otherwise invisible process so I could truly appreciate it.

This All Seems Familiar

Touring the Special Collections Resource Center at Temple this week and seeing some of the chaos induced by the move and new work flows vividly reminded me of my struggles with an archive of a different sort. Before coming to graudate school I worked for a television network, where my day-to-day job relied heavily on working with a media library that was responisble for maintaining an archive of episodes, movies, and promotional materials.

Throughout the three years working for this company, the library went under constant and drastic changes, many of which happened with little to no input from the people using the materials. Each change resulted in more precarious preservation and decreased accessibility, all for the sake of office aesthetics.

When I first started, I was shocked to see that all of the company’s media assets were almost exclusively archived on HDCam tapes. If an old episode or arhived promotional spot was needed, a digitization request had to be submitted. The process was slow; digitizing an episode could take up to one week. Once digitized, there was no method in place to store the digital file. So the company perpetually wasted time re-digitizing files whenever they were needed again. This led to the creation of an informal archive at my desk of digitized files on various hard drives.

HDCams that were frequently used were initally kept on site in the office. These tapes were used weekly by multiple producers and editors. However, when the library was rennovated to house new desks, the company decided to move almost all of the tapes off site, to an office fifty miles away in Connecticut. A truck would deliver assets from offsite twice a week. This led to the creation of many mini-libraries, as people began hoarding assets at their desks and in offices so as to not lose accessibility. What we did lose was multiple tapes.

I did have control over our online archive of promotional campaigns. I inherited a hodge-podge collection of our show’s campaigns and reorganized the entire system to be more accessible. However, a month or so before the leaving the job the company announced it was switching platforms, meaning that terabytes of files needed to be downloaded from the old site and reuploaded and reorganized on the new one. I am not so sad to say that I left before the chaos ensued.

So Many Boxes, So Little Time: Planning a Visit to the Archive

The archive used to intimidate me. Thankfully, after a few weeks in my Archives & Manuscripts graduate course, I feel more prepared to plan my first visit to an archive for my dissertation research.

In two weeks, I am visiting the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland to look at their Children’s Television Workshop collection. I started planning my visit by looking through the collection’s online finding aid. The entire collection contains 14 series that amount to 456 linear feet of material. The volume was initially overwhelming, but I know I’ll be making several return trips. For this visit, I narrowed down my search to the series specifcally focused on Sesame Street (which totals 30 linear feet).

Having never conducted research in an archive, it is difficult to know how many boxes to request or what material to start with. My hoarder tendencies want to see as much as possible, but I know I need a more realistic approach.

To find a starting point, I browsed the boxes within the four sub-series: Planning and Production, Promotion, Viewer Mail, and Ancillary Materials. I scanned each box for folders that either caught my attention or surprised me. One box contained over twenty folders labeled “Anti-Abortion Mail”. I have yet to read anything about the issue of abortion in relation to Sesame Street; I was hooked. Other boxes contained folders on playgrounds, Sesame Street magazine, and folder after folder of viewer criticisms, praise, and letters from parents and kids. I ended up with a list of eight boxes that picqued my interest.

Before putting in a request, I reached out to the archivst to let them know when I was planning on visiting and to give them a broad overview of what I was interested in looking at. One of the archivsts wrote back and said the viewer mail is some of the most interesting content in the collection and it was a great place to start.

After an hour or two of work, I was surprised at how learning basic skills like navigating finding aids and understanding an archive’s structure, made the entire endeavor seem more inviting and doable. Hopefully that feeling continues when I step into the archive to begin my research.


If a tweet doesn’t make it to the archive, does it still exist?

In 2010, the Library of Congress (LOC) announced they would be archiving Twitter’s arsenal of tweets, dating back to 2006 and moving forward in perpetuity. However, the volume of tweets quickly overwhelmed the collecting process. In 2013, when the LOC finished cataloging tweets from 2006 to 2010, the collection included over 170 billion tweets. While tweets might seem small, billions of them add up. The tweets collected required over 300 terabytes of data storage.*

In December of 2017, the LOC changed its collection policy for Twitter. For all tweets posted after 2017, the archive would be far more selective about the historical importance of tweets entering the archive.

The decision to archive tweets was ambitious and the hurdles that have come up in the collecting process will establish lasting precedents for the archiving of other social and digital platforms. There are already a number of concerns I have had with the twitter archive in my own research.

The first is access.

The collected tweets are currently inaccessible to research due to a series of concerns with Twitter’s privacy policies and LOC’s resource priorities. According to a LOC press release, “There is no projected timetable for providing public access.”**

When the tweets do become accessible, there is still the issue of what tweets will meet the standards of the collecting policy. Tweets are significant sources for multiple disciplines, but in history they give us unprecedented access to understand history from the bottom up. Twitter is an open forum for social interaction, public opinion, and political debate between average Americans. If the archive is too selective about whose tweets are worth saving, we risk losing access to these conversations.

The inclusion in the archive isn’t just about access, it is also about the prestige of the archive in the historical profession.

When writing about a seemingly trivial subject like Sesame Street, I often face criticism over the legitimacy of my evidence as historical sources. Archives help to legitimize source material, elevating material as historically significant. On a practical level, when applying to research fellowships, you include a list of archives you wish to visit. You cannot receive a fellowship for trolling Twitter for tweets about felt puppets.

These are just a few of the challenges posed by the Twitter archive from a research perspective. I am wary, but excited, to continue to navigate these turns as I continue my project.





The Pitfalls of a Keyword Search

The ability to search by keyword through terabytes of files may at first seem like a helpful shortcut to cutdown on time spent rifling through unrelated sources, but as Ian Milligan argues, we cannot simply “outsource our intellectual labor to a search engine like Google.”* Instead, as historians, we must equip ourselves for the age of digital research by increasing our data fluency and understanding the pitfalls of abundance.

One of the main concerns to methodology in the digital age is the threat of losing the evidential value that defines the traditional archive. Evidential value is the organization of archival materials so that researchers understand the context of the sources. Archivists work to establish as close to the organic whole for each collection and organize it in such a way to maintain the historical context. A keyword search has the potential to isolate a source from its place in a collection and remove the original context completely.

As we  lose our “paper trails” maintaining the context will become an even greater responsibility for the historian. That being said, context is not impossible to retain within in a digital archive, but it will require historians to think about context more carefully as they sort through digital sources.

Another concern is that the traditional questions we apply to archives – who created this archive, where did the material come from, what has been removed or is missing – may be harder to ascertain unless we learn an appropriate level of data fluency. Historians need to actively think about how data (and metadata) operates, how digital files are stored and retrieved, and “humans’ role at all stages” of the creation and use of data management.*

While some skills in a historian’s toolbelt will come in handy in a new age of digital archival research, for new methodological obstacles we may currently be ill-equipped or ill-prepared to do our research responsibly.


** Ian Milligan, “Historians’ achival research looks quite different in the digital age,” The Conversation, August 19, 2019.