February 08, 2009

Preserving the Paper Trail

If someone asked you to define the term “archives,” what would you say?

Outdated web pages?...Filed copies of email messages?

At the TWU Archives, we preserve the recorded history of our unique institution. We collect University records from departments all over campus – from the Board of Governors to TWUSA - and have also been entrusted with records documenting the careers of several fascinating individuals.

TWU Archivist Sylvia Stopforth says "Come visit us on the upper level of Alloway Library if you want to know more."

In a way, you could say archives are all about preserving the paper trail. But … information isn’t recorded on paper alone. It's on CDs and DVDs, flash drives and in born-digital packets transferred directly from one hard drive to another. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg … In the TWU Archives, we also have print photographs, slides, reel-to-reel tape recordings, 16 mm films, and even antique codices printed on vellum.

In the vast majority of cases, these archival materials are original and irreplaceable. We can’t order another copy from amazon.com. So we need to do everything we can to ensure that they’ll still be around five, fifty, even five hundred years from now.

Digitize, you say?

Yes, well, that’s a great solution for access, and sometimes for creating back-up copies. However, sometimes the original doesn’t survive the digitization process. Magnetic tapes become brittle, and break. The paper in old books turns yellow, and crumbles after one pass of the scanner.

We also need to be sure that the pdf or tiff we create today will still be accessible to future researchers. The Archives' records have historic value, but some also have legal, evidentiary, or fiscal value. And so the question arises: "If a legal contract has been scanned, migrated, and reformatted, how can we guarantee that it still accurately represents the original?" How can we be sure the content has not been tampered with?

So we digitize to provide access today … but we also take steps to preserve the originals for future users. As a rule of thumb, cooler and drier is better for most items stored in the archives. It’s especially important to maintain stable conditions over time, and to avoid fluctuations.

Last year TWU Archivist and Assistant Librarian Sylvia Stopforth received funding from Library and Archives Canada to purchase environmental monitoring equipment for the TWU Archives. The equipment allows Stopforth to track conditions such as humidity and temperature in the archive and to document patterns, trends and anomalies.

If you’d like to learn more about the archives – or just see what an eight-inch floppy drive looks like – contact Sylvia to make an appointment.

Or visit the University Archives online.

Thanks to Sylvia Stopforth

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