Future archives: problematizing digital archives

Posted on September 2, 2013
Archives are only useful when individuals have access to the information stored in them. A way in which some archives are limited is that the information they house is not available to people who live in places far away. In South Africa our National Archives are housed in Pretoria, while provincial archives are housed in provincial capitals such as Polokwane, Bloemfontein and Cape Town. For individuals living in towns far away from capitals getting to these places might be very difficult or impossible. It would seem that a digital archive would be a great benefit to a person living in a remote location.

However, often one has to purchase the rights to use these archives. The process of digitizing is lengthy and costly and often libraries and archives need to make the money spent on the digitizing process back by charging users. Thus, digital archives could in the future prove to be more open and accessible to a variety of communities, or on the other hand digital archives could become more difficult to access.

A growing number of archives have taken to the task of digitizing their collections. The process of digitizing archives cost millions and often needs state or private funding. The Times Media Group, who hold the rights to the newspaper The Rand Daily Mail have recently announced their plans to digitize the newspaper. An online research aggregator has expressed interest in the project. Although there are already hard copies of the newspaper available for public view in the national library and at various institutions such as The University of Johannesburg, the Times Media Group wants to make this very important publication available to a wider audience.

An additional benefit of digitizing is also related to the preserving of the documents. Newspapers deteriote fast due to acid in the wood pulp that discolors pages making then easy to tear. Often researchers paging through these documents damage them by mistake. The newspaper files from popular historical times are often in a dire state. Allowing the researcher to read documents without actually touching them has preservation advantages. Digitizing newspapers not only makes them more accessible to people but it also helps in preserving collections.

Digital archives also make the task of the researcher searching for relevant information far easier. The Sunday Times digitized their collections years ago through a company called Olive Software. Pages from the newspaper were scanned using microfilm and optical character recognition software was used. The software allows the researcher to search the thousands of pages in seconds. One simply types a keyword into the search engine and a few seconds later hundreds of relevant articles are found (Wright, J, The Media, July, 2013).

Digitizing archives does not, however, assure that the information will be accessible. Currently in South Africa government archives have a legal obligation to the public to make some information available. If these archives are digitized by companies wanting to make a profit from internet archives then those who cannot afford it will not be able to use these digitized archives. Michelle Leon, chief librarian for the Times Media Group, states that newspaper archives are not just about preserving the past but also about making money (Wright, J, The Media, July, 2013). To use the digital archives of the Sunday Times one has to pay a fee of R300. If state archives buildings are not accessible then digital archives might only be accessible to those who can pay.

In 2002 the internet company Google began a project in which they were to scan millions of books to create a giant globally accessible library. For the past several years Google has been in touch with some of the world's most distinguished libraries. Their aim is to create an internet database which consists of most of the world's published texts. Of the 10 million books that Google has scanned so far 6 million remain copy righted. Google obtained permission to digitize books from libraries and not from the authors or publishers themselves. This prompted many academics and authors to ask the question, for what purpose was Google doing this? When filmmaker Ben Lewis asked the project managers of Google books about their aims in his 2013 documentary 'Google and the World Brain' the company declined to comment.

This has led some to ask some pressing questions about digital archives. It certainly is very expensive to digitize large collections of data. Many archives and government departments do not have the funding and expertise to digitize. With the growing demand for digital archives, companies will take advantage of the market, and those who will have access to these archives will be those who will be able to make the process profitable. If digital archives become the norm then archives housed in public spaces may become irrelevant.

Digital archives clearly are needed by people who cannot travel to public archives. Digitizing archives also makes the job of the researcher far easier with new text recognition technology. Taking away the long hours of searching for relevant information makes finding information an easy task. However, when archives are digitized for profit they remain inaccessible. When information is in the hands of those seeking to make a profit some of the ideals of public archives fall away.

Carolien Greyling is a Master's student in History at Wits University attached to the History Workshop examining the effects of coal mine closures on a community.