Beacon Street Diary blog

Acquisitions: Physical and Digital

By Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Now that the staff of the Congregational Library & Archives are back in our offices, or in my case temporarily holed up in the executive director’s office with it’s beautiful view of Beacon Street (oh woe is me), we have been able to resume our acquisitions workflows and accept new donations of archival and library materials. Collecting, to preserve and make accessible, is a key component of our mission. Indeed, a significant portion of our time during the pandemic has been to work on developing and refining a comprehensive collection policy for the CLA. And to return to this key component of our work once again after the long pause due to COVID has been a balm to my archivist soul.

My recent work with the Digital Asset Management System selection project has recently gotten me thinking about how we work with potential donors of archival materials though. We have a comprehensive collection policy that ensures the full preservation of a person, church, or organization’s memory. However, the way we have presented this list of material types has been format agnostic. For example, when communicating with organizations, we would make clear that we will take “Building records: such as blueprints, pew plans and pew deeds, assessors records, and records related to construction/renovation” without reference to the physical medium that these records appear on.

For most of the above listed record types, the first thing that comes to mind is likely something physical. Perhaps you imagine a record book containing meeting minutes related to the maintenance of the building or a large blueprint documenting the construction of a new addition. But the fact is that all these records can just as easily be digital and stored on a computer's hard drive!

Most records that are produced today by individuals or organizations are born-digital, meaning they were created in a digital format. As an extreme illustration of this fact, in 2013 the US Government Printing Office estimated that 97% of federal records produced were born digital (Jacobs, James A, 2014). Even organizations and persons who have been slower to adopt digital technologies are seeing larger percentages of their annual records become born-digital. Photographs from the annual BBQ taken on a cell phone, emails between committee members, the meeting minutes recorded in notepad, the PowerPoint presentation from the last board meeting, and the word document produced during the creation of this blog post are all examples of born-digital records. As an ever-increasing percentage of records are produced digitally, archivists must grapple with how to collect these records, as they are just as crucial to the preservation of memory as that physical record book from 1874.

For now, there are two immediate steps, and the CLA has already begun to do both. First happens at the point of contact with potential donors. Recently rewritten procedures ensure that when talking to donors, we more actively inquire and seek out born-digital materials. We want to ensure that no part of a church’s memory is lost because it was stored on a hard drive instead of in a file cabinet.  And second, the CLA is pursuing a Digital Asset Management System which will allow for the CLA to provide unparalleled access to the born-digital materials we have. The collection of born-digital materials means nothing if we cannot also make the materials accessible to our users, and the DAMS will do exactly that.

For better and worse, the future of archives is inextricably linked to the digital realm. We cannot say we collect, preserve, and make accessible the memories of Congregationalism if we do not collect, preserve, and make accessible digital records. Fortunately, the CLA is ready for this next step, and already working to make the incoming deluge of digital materials accessible for everyone, online and on location.