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Arrival of the Digital Age

Featured Arrival of the Digital Age

The Arrival of the Digital Age.

GCAH has been receiving a variety of digital records for several years now, but  our first major collection built around digital records has arrived in  the records of the Methodists United for Peace with Justice.  

Methodist United for Peace with Justice (MUPWJ) began with the Foundry United Methodist Church's Foundry Peace Mission. In 1987, The group focused on creating a national organization to support The United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops pastoral letter In Defense of Creation: The Nuclear Crisis and a Just Peace. This document called for the end of the philosophy and policies supporting nuclear deterrence amongst nuclear armed countries. MUPWJ’s education and advocacy work manifests itself in their Peace Leaf and Justice Alert publications as well as various seminars. Howard W. Hallman, Executive Director and Chair of MUPWJ, helped to establish and worked within the organization since its inception.  The collection is primarily Hallman's office and personal files which include several manuscripts, correspondence, plays, screen plays and novels whose primary plots involve aging, sports and interpersonal relationships.

A significant portion of the material came in digital format.  Hallman had saved a number of working documents and proposals digitally as well as saving a large number of e-mails.  The documents had originally been saved on 5.25 inch floppy disks, but were later copied to 3.5 inch diskettes and additional files copied to those.  Both sets of diskettes arrived at the Center.  In total there were some two hundred and thirty-three files in the collection.  Many had also been printed out and formed part of the paper collection.

There were some immediate and obvious challenges to processing this collection.  The most obvious was that the files were on obsolete medium.   Modern computers don't have the connections or hardware to support a 5.25 or 3.5 inch drives.  Fortunately GCAH had kept several older PCs which have those drives and we have been able to get modern usb supported diskette drives.  We quickly found that the usb supported drives had more errors than desired.  It took some time, but using both approaches - the older, slower computers and the usb drives - the files were copied to the GCAH network system.  Several of the 5.25 inch floppy disks did not survive the copying process.

The next challenge had potential for serious loss of data.  The working documents and proposals were created using WordPerfect. GCAH staff use this program and are familiar with it.  One of the features of WordPerfect was to create a macro - a small batch file - to assist in writing a letter.  One of the macro's functions was to insert the current date automatically when the document was opened.  Archivists opening the documents, even to print, would replace the original date with the current date with the effect that all of the documents would be dated in the twenty-first century.  With a document viewer, archivists were able to view the document without activating the macro, note the correct date on the document, and only then open the document and replace current date with the original date.  It was a slow and tedious process but it preserved the records authenticity.

There were similar challenges with the e-mails.  In many cases it was not possible to save the attachments but in some cases the attachments had already been saved as a separate documents. The e-mails were originally saved as individual files and not being in their native environment proved challenging.   Like paper documents not everything can be saved.  What was saved was converted to PDF files and is available on our web site via the finding aid catalog.  

The most important lesson learned from this project is patience. It turned out several times that products or approaches that worked for others did not work for this collection.  The next was to be flexible while determining the best workflow.  The conversion of the date code proved labor intensive, but vital in preserving the authentic record.  Given the popularity of WordPerfect in the 1980s and 1990s an application might well be developed to deal with this particular issue.  One can only imagine what other challenges to long term preservation are brewing in the digital age. Considering the number of wordprocessing programs in use in the past two decades (at least 40 to 50), the challenges will only increase as more and more collections arrive at GCAH in digital format.  It certainly helps to have a staff person, or know someone, who worked with these older programs.  Without that knowledge GCAH would have lost correct dates on a significant portion of the records.  

The digital era has well and truly arrived.  The challenge for archivists remains the same as it has always been, to preserve the records and make them available for use to help understand who we are as a denomination, and where we have been.