In my intro archives class (LBSC 605 Archival Principles, Practices, and Programs), one of the first ideas that made a light bulb go on over my head related to the theory that archivists want to retain the original order of records. For example, if someone choose to put a series of 10 letters together in a file – then they should be kept that way. A researcher may be able to glean more information from these letters when he/she sees them grouped that way – organized as the person who originally used them organized them.
Our professor went on to explain that seeing what the person who used the records saw was crucial to understanding the original purpose and usage of those records. That took my mind quickly to the world of calendars. Years ago, a CEO of some important organization would have a calendar or datebook of some sort – likely managed by an assistant. Ink or pencil was used to write on paper. Perhaps fresh daily schedules would be typed.
Fast forward to now and the universe of the Palm Pilot and other such handy-dandy hand held and totally customizable devices. If you have one (or have seen those of a friend) you know that how I choose to look at my schedule may be radically different from the way you choose to see your schedule. Mine might have my to-do list shown on the bottom half of the screen. Yours might have little colored icons to show you when you have a conference call. The archivist asked to preserve a born digital calendar will have a lot of hard choices to make.
These days I actually use Google Calendar more often than my Palm. While it has more of a fixed layout (for the moment) – I have the option of including many external calendars (see examples at iCalShare). Right now I have listings of when new movies come out as well as the concert schedule for summer 2006 for the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. In the old style paper calendar, a researcher would be able to see related events that the user of the calendar cared about because they would be written down right there. If someone wanted to include my Google calendar in an archive someday (or that of someone much more important!), I suspect they would be left with JUST the records I had added myself into my calendar. When I choose to display the Wolf Trap summer schedule, Google calendar asks me to wait while it loads – presumably from an externally published iCalendar or other public Google calendar source.
This has many implications for the archivist tasked with preserving the records in that Palm Pilot or Google calendar (or any of a laundry list of scheduling applications). This post can do nothing other than list interesting questions at this stage (both ‘this stage’ of my archival education as well as ‘this stage’ of consideration of born digital records in the archival field).
- How important is it to preserve the appearance of the interface used by the digital calendar user?
- Might printing or screen capturing a statistical sample (an entire month? an entire year?) help researchers in the future understand HOW the record creator in question interacted with their calendar – what sorts of information they were likely to use in making choices in their scheduling?
- Could there be a place for preserving publicly shared calendars (like the ones you can choose to access on Google Calendar or Apple’s iCal) such that they would be available to researchers later? What organization would most likely be capable of taking this sort of task on?
- Could emulators be used to permit easy access to centrally stored born digital calendars? At least one PalmOS Emulator already exists, created mainly for use by those developing software for hardware that runs the Palm operating system it mimics how the tested software would run in the real world. Should archivists be keeping copies of this sort of software as they look to the future of retaining the best access possible to these sorts of records?
- How can the standard iCalendar format be leveraged by archivists working to preserve born digital calendars?
- To what degree are the schedules of people whose records will be of interest to archivists someday moving out of private offices (and even out of personally owned computers and handheld devices) and into the centralized storage of web applications such as Google Calendar?
I know that this is just a tiny bite of the kinds of issues being grappled with by Archivists around the world as they begin to accept born digital records into archives. Each type of application (scheduling vs accounting vs business systems) will pose similar issues to those described above – along with special challenges unique to each type. Perhaps if each of the most common classes of applications (such as scheduling) are tackled one by one by a designated team we can save individual archivists the pain of reinventing the wheel. Is this already happening?