On Digital Archives

On 24 May the National Library of Medicine announced its release of  “’Medicine in the Americas,’ Featuring Digitized Versions of American Medical Books Dating Back to 1610“. The announcement notes that material dating up to 1920 will be continually added to the digital collection, and points out that the collection will be of use to researchers “who wish to use primary materials”. On 26 May, I did a quick search of the material. Those of us interested in the history of naval medicine will be disappointed just now: only four listings under “naval medicine”, none under “maritime medicine”, and just one under “scurvy”, a beautiful digital copy of 1798 treatise by “John Claiborne of Virginia”, written for his MD candidacy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Digital copies of historical materials and digital records are a researcher’s dream because they offer convenient access, often searchable, from the comfort of one’s laptop. Archivists may love them, too, because they permit access to rare historical documents without the risk of physical damage, or worse, their disappearance. For documents of legal or evidential value, digital archiving is almost ideal because it permits archivists to get rid of the reams of paper that bear these documents. And, as governmental and other entities work toward the paperless office, “born digital” records will multiply in number and volume.

But digital copies are also an archivist’s nightmare. Here’s why: have you tried looking up some document you saved on a 5.25″ floppy? Created on your Apple IIe?  What about that PhD thesis you wrote using WordPerfect? The march of technical progress has made older storage  media and older software almost completely useless. And there’s no reason to assume that almost annual upgrades and changes will not continue in the future.

So the real issue is technological “forward migration”. Archivists know that unless some consensus on an “archival” format for saving electronic files emerges, they face the prospect of perpetually updating ever larger numbers of electronic files.

At least one format is gaining broad support as an “archival” one: PDF/A. It’s a format that carries all necessary information–about font style, color–and file-related metadata in the file. This means that the file should be easy to read for a very long time. A PDF/A file cannot be altered by third parties, so it remains a “permanent” record.

It’s pretty easy for you to make as sure–as is currently possible–that your work will be electronically accessible in the indefinite future. When you go to save the final version of whatever document you are working on, in Word® or Excel®, do “Save As” -> “PDF”. In the window that opens, click “Options…”, then under “PDF options”, tick the box “ISO 19005-1 (PDF/A)”. I searched the internet to find out how to do this on the Mac, but had no luck. Apple users, please “comment” the steps required to save in PDF/A format on your machines.

©2011 Thomas L Snyder

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