In depth: Digital Divide

As most of us are aware, sometime in the ’90s more people in the U.S. started using computers than typewriters, mimeographs, or pens.

It was an interesting time to be a teenager, using the school’s computers to type research papers that you researched from physical books and newspapers and microfilm, or perhaps from a CD-ROM. Most people didn’t get onto the internet until the late ’90s. But the move from paper to electronic was so incredibly fast it’s a wonder that heads weren’t spinning.

Here at UHD, things were no different. In the archives, the challenge is to try to create accessible collections which straddle the physical/digital divide fairly evenly. But it’s a very complex problem to navigate. There is a bright line for UHD in terms of how records were created over the years: pre-2004, most reports and documents were created with the intent of printing. Post-2004, most reports and documents were created with the intent of never or rarely printing them. There are two noticeable outcomes of this shift in practice:

1) most records now came with embedded searchability, thus diminishing the need for traditional tables of contents, page numbers, indexes, etc, and

2) records could be and often were much longer and more detailed. Graphs from a spreadsheet or database, embedded into a WordPerfect document? No problem for the creator, but a potential headache for the archivist down the road who now has not one, but two or even three documents that could be considered “archival.”

So relatively quickly the university (and all universities, and all businesses, and all regular ol’ human beings) moved from the physical to the digital. The divide is deep, terribly deep, and one that the archival community is still coming to grips with. For 10,000 years (give or take), archivists have built their work around physical objects that could last for centuries if only kept away from wind, water, and sun. Now we are faced with a huge amount of material that, quite honestly, may not be able to be saved (or at least, not on the same timescales as we were used to before). This has placed archivists in the position of thinking not just about what a document was written ON, but what the document is written ABOUT, and considering the content to be the thing that must be preserved. The information, not the book or tablet or scroll, is paramount, because for digital objects, their physical format is so incredibly fragile that there is no known way to preserve it long-term. It’s been a sea change in archives, and will probably continue to change our work in fundamental ways and change how we give our communities access to the materials we save.

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