The term ‘hybrid’ is most often used to describe a library or archive collection that is a mix of digital and analogue content. Originally, ‘hybrid’ seemed to be a transition stage, with the assumption being that one day, all content would be digital. In 2017, I gave a talk at the DPASSH conference where I suggested that hybrid collections have become that standard, business as usual type of collections for many archives.
As digital content becomes more common, it is also becoming clear that not all content will be created as digital in the future, and also that for many reasons, not all analogue content will be digitised.
What is a Hybrid Archivist?
My talk explained the idea that we need a ‘hybrid archivist’ to manage and care for hybrid collections. Like the collections themselves, the hybrid archivist would bring together traditional archival skills and new skills. My own career has been very much focussed on working with digital, first in libraries and now in digital preservation. In my current role, I train archivists, librarians, records managers and others in the preservation of digital content. In both our training programme and our consultancy work, my team aims to not just train people to deal with the latest technologies and tools, but to equip them to continue to learn on their own, and to empower them to liaise with technical staff. We want them to feel comfortable and confident with new technologies.
My focus on the new, though, has also made me very aware of the value of the traditional archival skills. I see, through the people we work with, that the solid foundation of the archives profession is a fantastic basis to build on and create an enhanced set of skills. So here are some of the most important traditional skills from my perspective.
The Digital Dilemma
As soon as people in general encounter a lot of digital content, they tend to experience one of two extreme reactions. They either think we should keep everything, or they think we should not bother carrying out any preservation work at all because content will somehow magically look after itself if it is digital. Of course, neither is true. What we need is what we have always needed – the skills of an archivist who can select and appraise content and make informed decisions about what needs to be kept for the long-term.
What is Long-Term?
Understanding what long-term means is another incredibly valuable part of archivist knowledge. Digital content is, even today, often understood in terms of technologists. Technologies and the people who create and manage them on the front line have comparatively short time-spans in their work: two years can seem like a very long time; seven years is prehistoric. But if valuable digital content is being created, we need to be thinking about preserving it and making it accessible for the long term as an archivist would understand it – for decades, centuries, even millennia. Digital preservation is far from a solved problem, but we need the archival view of long term to set our sights, to understand what we are working towards.
Digital is just another medium
Archivists have worked as a profession over a very long period, and have managed the move from clay to vellum to paper and many mediums along the way. They have learned about the different ways of creating content, the different mediums used, and have also learned how to preserve them. Digital is from an archivist perspective, just another medium. It has unique problems and challenges, it requires new tools and some new techniques - but so did everything else. Over time, as digital content and the preservation of that content becomes more embedded in the world, digital preservation will stop being a thing alone and become another branch of archival expertise.
Archivists have always worked closely with the people who use their archival collections. Digital content does offer exciting opportunities for sharing with wider audiences and opening up archives in different ways and for different uses. But the core skills of sharing archival material, teaching people about using that content, and learning from users to better inform and improve the work of the archives will continue. At a recent event at The National Archives, I overheard a senior member of the archives profession explaining the value she saw in giving clear online information and guidance for accessing and using collections.
‘I would not assume a user understood all the nuances of our digital collection any more than I would just chuck a medieval scroll at them and expect them to understand how to handle it without any explanation!’, she declared. And I think she was right. Knowing how to interact with some technologies doesn’t make us all experts in everything.
I see challenges ahead, but also a lot to get excited about. I hope we can all help to develop the skills of the hybrid archivist. Appreciating the value and contribution of the traditional archival skills in creating this new professional is a really important first step into the future.