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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 11 | Nov. 6, 2003

Preserving our Collective Memory

By Cristina Calboreanu

Remember the last time you went through your old papers and photographs looking for that something you just couldn’t find and you promised yourself you’d figure out a way to keep it all organized? Just imagine how daunting a task it is to try to preserve the organizational memory of an institution like UBC.

This task falls to the University Archives, home to institutional records of the university, the Alumni Association, and the Alma Mater Society, as well as personal papers of individual faculty members, administrators, and alumni.

Although records are created, altered and destroyed every day, it is the identification and preservation of the permanently valuable, reliable and authentic records that most interests the University Archives.

To this end, this summer, the University Archives has begun a Records Survey to determine what records are being created, used, and maintained by the University’s approximately 225 record-creating units. This survey, explains University Archivist Chris Hives, will help determine the steps needed to encourage the use of standardized records management principles.

“The University is a largely decentralized bureaucracy where units operate independently,” Hives says. “We need to provide some guidance as to what sorts of records should be preserved and how.”

Dr. Luciana Duranti, professor in the UBC School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies, agrees that the most difficult obstacle to overcome is institutional rather than technological.

“The main challenges are related to the nature itself of the university,” she explains. “Unlike government, the university hierarchy breaks down when it comes to centralizing the control of the records, because this goes against the grain of the academic mindset.”

One of the most important issues for the survey is the classification, use, and preservation of electronic records. The amount of electronic records is growing, but, according to Records Survey Project Co-ordinator Alan Doyle, paper is still predominant. “Where there are two copies of a record, one electronic and one paper,” says Doyle, “the paper one is going to trump as far as being preserved, because the systems are in place to preserve it.”

Preservation of electronic records is complicated by their unique nature: digital materials are fragile, and their viability depends on technologies that change rapidly and continually. “With electronic records,” explains Duranti, “preservation is an active endeavour. You could put a piece of paper in a box in the basement and forget about it for twenty years -- but if you forget about an electronic record, it’s lost. Preservation of electronic records is possible, but very expensive, because it requires refreshment of the media every year, and migration to new technology every three to five years.”

Further complicating the issue is the fact that electronic records can be easily altered. “The problems are enormous, ” says Duranti. “They are particularly significant not so much in relation to the preservation of information as such, but in relation the preservation of the ability to prove, for accountability purposes, that that information is the original one, that it has not been tampered with, manipulated, or accidentally changed.”

Prof. Duranti is the Project Director of the InterPARES (International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems) Project, a major initiative in which archival scholars, computer engineering scholars, music, moving images, photographs, theatre and dance scholars, national archival institutions and private industry representatives are collaborating to develop the knowledge required for long-term preservation of the authenticity of electronic records.

The InterPARES Project, whose first phase was concluded in 2001, is based in the UBC School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, and, according to Duranti, it is “the leading project in preservation of electronic records in the world.”

Governments and institutions around the world (from the National Archives of the United States to Yale University) have implemented the InterPARES findings, but Canadian universities still have a long way to go. “We have had enormous financial and moral support from the university for this research,” says Duranti. “What we don’t have, because it would require money well beyond any money we have for research, is the ability to implement the findings of the research project in the context of the university.”

But if we are to preserve the institutional memory of the University, Duranti cautions, we must act soon, because,
in her words, “time is running out and we are losing more records than we are keeping.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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