This is not your father’s history.
Conventional wisdom is that the appraisal process for electronic records is the same as for paper. Richard Pearce-Moses made that statement in his 2006 Presidential Address to the joint meeting of Archivists in DC. Randall Jimerson quoted him in Archives Power.
However, conventional wisdom isn’t always all we need to know.
Buried under Richard’s statement is the assumption that research with electronic documents will be much like research with paper, and we are beginning to see signs that suggest new research methods might change the way we think about what ought to be kept.
Last December, Jean-Baptiste Michel and his colleagues at Harvard published “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books” in Science. Their work has been dubbed “culturomics.” You can also read about this research in a New York Times article and at www.culturomics.org
In short, Michel and his colleagues have created a tool that allows you to examine the use of single words or phrases across 200 years of books digitized as part of the Google Books project. This can be as simple as looking at the use of terms like “the North” and “the South” during the nineteenth century:
Michel and his colleagues use the tool to look at the transformation of verbs across time such as burnt/burned:
To show that Jimmy Carter was more popular than Marilyn Monroe:
And to show the effect of Nazi censorship on Marc Chagall:
They have even provided a tool where you can run your own experiments: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/
Interesting, you say, but what does this have to do with archives?
If the way historians are going to use our collections changes, we might want to reconsider what we keep. It may be that keeping all 200 million emails from the Bush White House was not such a bad idea. It will provide a rich database for an analysis of the terms and topics discussed over those eight years. How often was terrorism discussed before September 11, 2001?
It has always been the responsibility of archivists to keep one eye sharply focused on the past, and the other with a vision of the future. That job just keeps getting harder every day, and more important too.