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Archives and special collections in the digital age

Written by
Published date
15 February 2018

Elisabeth Thurlow, UAL’s new Digital Archives & Collections Implementation Manager.                   Photo: Robin Sampson

I recently joined UAL as the new Digital Archives & Collections Implementation Manager. Having previously worked here as an archivist I am excited to be back at the University working in a new role which will help to preserve and provide greater access to our growing digital collections.

There are approximately 128 archives and special collections held across UAL. The richness and diversity of the different collections can be seen within this Into the Archive blog series. Many of these collections contain an increasing amount of digital content, either created through digitisation or materials which are ‘born’ digitally.

The digital environment around us changes quickly. Our digital materials might only be accessible using specific hardware, which becomes unavailable. Or the programmes needed to read them become outdated. Without action these could be lost forever. This all presents a challenge to accessing our digital materials, which are fragile in nature. We need to look after what we create today to make sure that we can continue to access it in the future.

Recognising this challenge, digital preservation is emerging as a new area of work involving close collaboration between IT and heritage professionals, who have a shared goal to care for our digital legacy.

Why should we care?

A great example is a digital photograph. Today it is likely that this would have been taken on a digital camera and uploaded to a computer. This will only ever exist as a digital file, never being physically printed out. Is that the only copy? Is it being backed up and checked regularly? Storage alone is not enough. That copy could be lost through human error or computer failure. Because we can’t see our digital files deteriorating in the same way as a fading photographic print we often don’t realise until it’s too late.

So what can we do?

This doesn’t mean we should be printing out every photograph. Instead we need to actively manage the digital materials we create to ensure that they remain accessible into the future, even if the technology changes.

The UAL Digital Archives & Collections Project is a new and exciting IT-led project, being delivered in collaboration with Library Services and other collection managers. Our amazing archives and special collections are the primary focus and we will be looking to bring benefit to other parts of the university in the future.

With the project team I will be working with collection managers across UAL to ensure that we capture and preserve our digital materials, whilst exploring opportunities for us to share them more widely.

We look forward to sharing updates from the project via this blog.


Elisabeth Thurlow