Christopher Zaste

Christopher Zaste

Last updated on 3 November 2021

Christopher Zaste is a Digital Archivist at the University of Manitoba.

On September 30th of this year, Canada held its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.  Throughout the nation, one could see people wearing orange shirts wherever they went.  Old, young, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, people of all backgrounds donned this shirt to remember residential school Survivors.  While the number of orange shirts are plenteous, the number of residential school Survivors are not.  Each year, their number steadily decreases.  While archivists preserve the written record in archives, society loses the firsthand experience of those who went to residential school.  Human knowledge has a shelf life, and it is the lifespan of the person holding it.

With the loss of this knowledge, people will lose the opportunity to learn about what happened from those who experienced residential schools firsthand.  The same can be said for the loss of knowledge for other marginalised groups as their truths often vanish when one of their number passes away.  This is a perspective that is not present in the written record, which non-community members often wrote.  With its loss, entire communities can lose their voice in history.

Digital preservation can ameliorate this issue.  By preserving the views of marginalised and other groups, we can bring their voices to the historical record.  This often can provide contrasting perspectives to mainstream historical thought.  As all in this field know, digital preservation is more than just safeguarding the actual digital object, its also about making it meaningful and intelligible to users.  This is where preserving the metadata associated with the record becomes equally paramount as without it the record becomes divorced from the community’s contextual history.

While digital preservation is important for having the voices of marginalized groups remain in the historical record, it is also import for the accessibility of knowledge within an organization.  In addition to clear communication, an organization’s efficient functioning is contingent on the easy access and flow of information.  When such information is not easily accessible or lost, important processes are not able to go smoothly.  What is more, we should also keep in mind the preservation of more human knowledge such as experience.  All of us have felt the organizational impact of the loss of a key employee.  When such a person leaves, their knowledge and experience leaves with them.  The preservation of this experiential knowledge in the form of clear policies and procedures is no less important than the preservation of the records themselves.

Accessibility and digital preservation are intertwined.  Digital preservation without accessibility in mind is a pointless endeavour as nobody will be able to access the record except for a select few.  Likewise, accessibility without digital preservation leads to users taking the records out of their original context.  Worst case scenario, the archives lose these records to degradation or obsolescence, thereby ensuring their loss to history.  It is the goal of digital preservation to ensure that records remain accessible with its original contextual information.  How archives achieve this goal is up to them.  There is no one size fits all approach.  Much like the diverse communities we work with, archivists should tailor their approach to suit their needs.  Through this labour, we can help ensure the historical record’s accessibility for future generations.

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