Archival context, digital content, and the ethics of digital archival representation


Jane Zhang

School of Library and Information Science, Catholic University of America

The findings of my two recent studies on digital archival representation have brought to my attention some ethical concerns regarding archival description and representation in digital archives. One study (current project, internally funded) investigates the typological patterns of how archivists organize and present archival collections that are digitized partially or entirely and the major approaches adopted by them to incorporate digital object metadata into digital archival description. The other study (dissertation research completed in 2010), among other things, explores the relationships between original order (structure and metadata) of digital records and their representation systems in digital archives.

The typological study analyzes the online finding aids of 27 sample digitized archival collections selected from a systematically collected pool of 276 digital collections made available online by archives and special collections. The analysis reveals a three-model and two-format pattern in digital archival organization and representation. Digital content can be linked at various levels in the hierarchical archival finding aids (embedded model), made searchable using standard metadata schema and separate from archival finding aids (segregated model), or represented and displayed in both models (parallel model). This leads to a tentative conclusion of the incompatible status of representation of archival context in inventory format, and representation of digital content in metadata format in digital archival environments.  

The original order study analyzes three digital archival cases in terms of identification, processing, and representation of original structure and metadata of digital records in digital archives. One of the important findings is a two-layer representation practice in digital archives, i.e., higher-level representation (archival context) supplied by archivists, and lower-level representation (digital content) transferred from recordkeeping systems to digital preservation systems and linked to digital archival representation systems.

The findings of the two studies raise some ethical concerns about how digital (digitized and born-digital) archival materials are organized, described and made available for use on the Web. Archivists have a fundamental obligation to preserve and protect the authenticity and integrity of records in their holdings and at the same time have the responsibility to promote the use of records as a fundamental purpose of the keeping of archives (SAA Code of Ethics for Archivists V & VI). Is it an ethical practice that digital content in digital archives is deeply embedded in its contextual structure and generally underrepresented in digital archival systems? Similarly, is it ethical for archivists to detach digital items from their archival context in order to make them more “digital friendly” and more accessible to meet needs of some users? Do archivists have obligation (and is it feasible) to bring the two representation systems together so that the context and content of digital archives can be better represented and archival materials “can be located and used by anyone, for any purpose, while still remaining authentic evidence of the work and life of the creator”? (Laura Millar, Archives Principles and Practices, Neal-Schuman, 2010, p.157) This paper discusses the findings of the two studies and their ethical implications relating to digital archival description and representation.