International Archives Week – why it matters to youth (to young or emerging researchers)

Posted on June 14, 2024

Michelle de la Harpe, an archivist for the UP Museums Archive, reflects on how technology is making archives more accessible to young people.

The International Council on Archives recently celebrated International Archives Week (#IAW2024) under the theme #CyberArchives. The University of Pretoria (UP) Museums, the Mapungubwe Archive and the UP Museums Archive are institutional members of this global community.

This year’s theme explores how technology is affecting the field of archives and how archives are adapting to major trends. There can be no doubt that the impact of new technology has reached the corners of archives all over the world.

In the context of Youth Month, the importance of archives cannot be overstated. Archives serve as the custodians of our collective memory, preserving the stories, struggles and triumphs of previous generations. For young researchers, engaging with archives provides a unique opportunity to connect deeper with history, understand the past and to draw inspiration from the past to shape the future. The theme of #CyberArchives is particularly relevant because it highlights how modern technology is making archives more accessible to younger people and emerging researchers, enabling them to explore vast amounts of historical data with ease.

The youth of today are digital natives as such, the integration of technology in archiving processes allows them to engage with historical content in innovative ways. Digital archives and online platforms offer interactive experiences, making historical research more engaging and accessible. This digital transformation ensures that the rich heritage such as primary records preserved within archives is safeguarded and dynamically shared with younger generations, fostering a deeper appreciation of history and its relevance to contemporary issues.

Therefore, during Youth Month and International Archives Week, it is crucial to recognise and celebrate the role of archives in educating and empowering youth. By embracing advancements in technology, archives are not only preserving the past, but also paving the way for a more informed and connected future.

While the adoption of early technology such as word-processing programs and electronic databases has made tedious tasks easier, the fourth industrial revolution is leaving its mark on the concept and purpose of archives in a greater sense. It is no longer a question of whether archives will adopt new technologies, but rather how they will adapt to the inevitable rise in disruptive technologies. These technologies have an impact on the role that archives have in society. It also has an impact on how archives interact with users.

How collections are managed has also undergone major changes with technological advancements, as have how archives interpret and convey information.

There are, of course, many considerations that archivists must take into account with the incorporation of new technology: artificial intelligence’s language processing capabilities, the record creation on smart devices and social media, and the use of extended reality technology that transports the physical realm of the archive to the virtual. All these facets have implications on the archivist and archival holding.

There are also other benefits to be gained, such as the new tools that archivists can include in their toolkit to streamline their work. With the adoption of online databases and the use of social media for promotion, collections are more accessible to the public. Computers have become the modern user’s cabinet of curiosities, and archival collections can now make their way to living rooms, libraries and universities all over the world.

The adoption of new technology also benefits the preservation of archival records. This has been a fundamental practice of the UP Museums placing archive preservation at the centre of its strategy and all archival activities. Because new technologies can help with the management of information – such as the use of electronic finding aids and the storage of large amounts of data – archivists are moving to an era where the post-custodial method can be adopted. This involves a shift in where archival materials are stored. Records used to be stored according to discipline and their thematically related material; now, archival records can be stored under conditions that suit the specific material best. For example, newspapers are best stored away from other material that will react negatively to the off-gassing that newspapers produce. Since new methods of using technology make the storage of metadata easier, the archivist can focus on storing the item where it is best preserved.

As preservation-focused archival holdings, the UP Museums Archive is always looking to find new ways to ensure the longevity of archival records in its care, as it does in caring for physical museum collections. Evidence does suggest that many young researchers are more adapt are accessing archives online and using cyberspace more frequently for research information.

The use of new technology has had other positive impacts on the UP Museums’ archival holdings, such as the Mapungubwe Archive and the UP Museums Archive. Not only are we able to promote the archives online and make them accessible for researchers all over the world, but the archival records themselves are being promoted alongside our other museum collections. A university museum rarely has the opportunity to have two archives associated with its collections, and is responsible for the physical safeguarding and cybersecurity provided by IT.

Archival material is scanned in high-resolution quality and uploaded together with museum objects and artworks on the Google Arts and Culture platform, instantly making some aspects of the UP Museums’ archival material accessible anywhere in the world. Users can access and view archival items from their couches, enabling wider research opportunities.

As proud members of the International Council of Archives, the UP Museums celebrated, commemorated and advocated International Archives Week by looking forward to the ways in which new technologies will help us adapt to a fast-paced technological world and make university museum archival collections more widely accessible and open to users, both nationally and internationally.

- Author Jimmy Masombuka

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