Growing Pains of Digital Archivists

The phrase “No Pain, No Gain” can apply to many endeavors, but in this case I will focus on the pains caused by the growing digitization of archives as well as the growing digital knowledge requirements of the archivist.

In 1979 French sociologist Jean-François Lyotard predicted “that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable” into computer-readable packages of information “will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language.”1   With the increasing efforts by many institutions to digitize as many collections, archives and records as resources will allow, it appears that Lyotard’s prediction could become reality. And it appears that the key driving forces behind digitizing museum and library archives is the potential for digital archives to reach much larger audiences, and to be accessed in more independent and interactive ways. As these goals are achieved in the increasingly digital world, the traditional archives may become increasingly irrelevant. Some archivists have expressed discomfort with this growing trend. And caution that in the quest to digitize archives with the goal of achieving easier accessibility and reach larger audiences, we must not overlook how and why archives were developed in the first place. Adeline Koh writes, “Many have noted that the archive is not a static repository but a form where knowledge is made legible by modes of power. Scholars have argued that archives are not sites of knowledge retrieval but of knowledge production; not recorded moments of history but monuments of states, colonies and empires. The archive is thus an integral site of power in its ability to shape and create knowledge.”2 Traditionally, archivists have played an integral role in the production of this knowledge through the ways in which they organize information and offer them to their users. As this knowledge becomes increasingly digitized and digital records are turned to as the standard, the structure of digital archives in turn will determine the shape and form this knowledge takes. For example, Koh writes, “The march towards digitization of the entire human record appears to be an almost inevitable circumstance. Yet this effort at digitization has been uneven. Many open access, publicly funded projects on the literature of the nineteenth century concentrate primarily on people of European descent, and obscure the impact of imperial endeavors in the nineteenth century. This is in stark contrast to historical and commercial databases, many of which do have extensive collections on people of color and the role of the Empire.”3 With this in mind, “the existing open-access literary nineteenth-century digital archive has several problems in terms of the broader issues of race and ethnicity. One of these is the lack of easily accessible online digital projects on or by people of color.” 4

Furthermore, despite the language adopted by the digital preservation community, it may be somewhat misleading to think about archives in terms of computer-readable information packages. “Archives are about relationships and for their evidence and informational value to be fully explored and exploited they must reveal relationships between contexts and records and among sources. There must remain the possibility to expose what is missing.” 5 And there are issues like copyrights and social prominence that are compounded by the digitization or archives. In this sense, archival digitization remains a largely un-automated endeavor relying on the ‘trained mind’ of the archivist, or collaborations between archivist and researchers. This bring us to the another source of discomfort for some Archivist which is the shifting education and preparation required to be an archivist in the digital age. Traditionally, Archivists are specially trained in preserving the original material and helping people obtain it. Archivists may work at museums, libraries, government agencies, foundations or corporations, where they collect and organize materials such as paper documents, photographs, maps, films, computer records and seek out new items for archiving. Many begin their careers as historians and then attend classes to learn from experienced archivists. Archivists possess broad, deep knowledge about records and are involved in many, if not all, phases of the records life cycle. Their extensive research and analysis skills help in serving records to the public. Archivists appraise, process, catalog, and preserve permanent records and historically valuable documents. Now the education and preparation needed to become archivist is growing in and in some case shifting towards digital content. According to the U.S. Bureau of labor Statistics, Most Archivist employers require a master’s degree in archival science, library science, or a related field, but because of the growing use of digital technology, archivists with knowledge of digital storage are far more likely to be hired. Many employers even specify “Digital” Archivist in their job posting. In addition to the job duties of a traditional archivist, Digital archivist collect and organize materials such as photographs, electronic data, film clips, paper documents, recordings and basically anything that can be converted into digital format. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for archivists in general were expected to increase by 17% from 2012-2022. The BLS also noted that demand for archivists well-versed in electronic media will be greater than the need for those with experience only in traditional formats.

So, despite the pains that archivists are facing as a result of the digital age, they are also realizing that it is creating more job opportunities as well as new job opportunities. Obviously these digital trends would not be occurring and almost every institution and affecting almost every discipline in those institutions in ways that we are still discovering, if it wasn’t for potential advantages that the digital archives can provide. So ready or not the digital age is here, and for the archivist that is willing to endure the pain of growing their digital knowledge, the opportunities seemingly endless.



  1. Katrina Dean, “Digitising the Modern Archives,” Archives and Manuscripts 42 (2014), 171-74.
  2. Adeline Koh, “Inspecting the Nineteenth-Century Literary Digital Archive: Omissions of Empire,” Journal of Victorian Culture 19 (2014), 385-95.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Katrina Dean, “Digitising the Modern Archives,” Archives and Manuscripts 42 (2014), 171-74.

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