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O.K., Let’s Make Sure ‘Access’ is in that Definition.

February 19th, 2007 · No Comments · PhD Research, Terms & Definitions

Last week my friend and colleague Ian McAndrew humoured me by reviewing my definition of archival materials. Ian’s sharp mind immediately picked up on a couple of potential cracks in my definition and examples.

In particular, he pointed out that I needed to make an explicit link between preservation and access and he is absolutely right. I am so entrenched in the viewpoint of archives access systems (i.e. working under the assumption that the archival materials I am talking about are going to be made available by an archives access system) that I neglected to make this explicit in my definition. However, I can correct this error by adding a couple of words to my definition for archival materials:

archival materials are objects in any form that record information which is preserved for future access and use as a memory aid or proxy for a past event

I then define access as “the ability to identify relevant archival materials and locate them for retrieval.” The criteria I will use in the scope of my research to determine whether information objects are in fact being preserved for future access is whether they are being made available by an archives access system (which allows users to ‘identify archival materials and locate them for retrieval’). This closes the boundary of my scope fairly neatly and tightly. Quite simply, for the purposes of my research, I am dealing with archival materials if:

  1. I have an object that records information
  2. It can be used at some point in the future as a memory aid or proxy for an event
  3. It is preserved
  4. It is made available for future access via an archives access system

As I discussed previously, I am willing to accept pretty minimal criteria for preservation to allow for the inclusion of archival collections that are not professionally managed (or institutional archival collections that are not preserved very well ;-) . However, these collections must be made accessible by some type of archives access system to be included within my definition of archival materials. Therefore, I will also establish fairly minimal criteria (a core list of system requirements) to determine whether something qualifies as an archives access system. One of my objectives is to create a simple prototype that can run on a personal computer and provide an archives access system interface to personal collection of digital archival materials (i.e. something more structured and based on archival principles instead of retrieving the materials via Google Desktop or the Microsoft Windows thumbnail browser).

Admittedly, the criteria to use an archives access system to determine if access is being provided is specific to the scope of my research and may not apply universally. However if, for argument’s sake, this definition were to be applied outside of the scope of my research, other criteria could be used to determine whether information objects are indeed being made available for future access. For example, whether or not the objects are catalogued using archival description. Or whether the archival materials have been physically stored for easy retrieval, for example, photographs neatly organized chronologically in albums and stacked on a bookshelf in the family study instead of a pile of photographs in a shoebox stashed in a dark corner of the attic.