Bits and Bytes are Hopkins History?: The Archives Tackles Our Digital Future

Hello, I’m Jordon Steele, recently appointed Hodson Curator of the University Archives. Along with my colleagues Jim Stimpert and Kelly Spring, we preserve and provide access to the history of Johns Hopkins so that generations of the future can learn from the past. But in the digital age, what does preserving Hopkins history mean?

In short, we aim to focus on what lies ahead without forgetting where we came from. Back before the personal computer, the life of an archivist, though not without its challenges, was somewhat easier. People amassed lots of paper. When they were nearing the end of their career, changing jobs, or grew tired of piles of things in their office, they would contact the Archives. Since Archives don’t want to keep every last shopping list or post-it note, we would appraise the collection to decide what had permanent historical value. After separating the wheat from the chaff, archivists took in the collection, organized and preserved it, and stored it in a secure space for future research. All in all, this was a fairly straightforward method.

The onset of the electronic age, however, has changed much of this process, requiring that archivists explore new strategies for sustaining a historical record that is increasingly born-digital. Centralized recordkeeping has now been decentralized to individuals’ desktop computers and handheld devices. The declining cost of server space means people store more things than ever before, with mission-critical information “warehoused” next to digital ephemera. There’s a perception that email is transient, when in reality, it’s analogous to paper correspondence—so archives want it. And digital information is much more subject to corruption than documents in the analog era. For example, my colleagues in Special Collections manage books that date back more than 500 years—do you think your iTunes library will be around that long?

These are just a few of the risks that Hopkins’ documentary record faces as our history is fast becoming totally digital.  So we at the Archives are rising to the challenge by working with all sorts of individuals—senior administration, office staff, faculty, students, and other constituents—to ensure the sustainability of the Hopkins history, whether it exists in print or electronic format. And so, from time to time, I hope to use the Sheridan Libraries’ blog to report on our progress as we set about preserving Hopkins’ digital future.

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