November 2009

A homecoming

In archival parlance, provenance refers to the original source or creator of a collection of material. Provenance is fundamental to preserving context for records and is the principle that provides the authority we give to records as being original.

After establishing provenance, archivists seek to preserve the original order of the material. This is generally considered the same sequence the original creator stored the records. It preserves the context of the materials.

Then there are times when records come to the archives without any provenance and are out of sequence. When enough clues are available, the restoration of original order is the best possible solution.

Such is the case with two folders labeled “Wilson, Dr. L. B. Mayo Foundation Rochester Minn.” One dated “1921-1925,” the other “1926-“.

img0130.jpgFound among 1970s Medical School administrative records, the look of the folders, the dates of the material, and the content they contained all support the conclusion that they were not created by the dean’s office of the 1970s and were thus out of context and without an established provenance.

These folders primarily contain correspondence between Louis B. Wilson and Clarence Jackson, then head of anatomy at the University of Minnesota. The letters pertain to the transfer, release, and burial of corpses used for dissection between the University of Minnesota and Mayo.

It can be said that due to their intimate knowledge of an institution and changes in an organization over time that archivists figuratively know where all the bodies are buried. Yet, these two folders quite literally tell the story of where they are buried. The “they” being unclaimed bodies available for anatomical study and managed by the Medical School according to a 1913 state law.

A review of existing collections in the archives proved to be fruitful. A two box set of records transferred from the Department of Anatomy to the archives in 1951 contained identical folders, similar correspondence between Dr. Jackson & other individuals regarding the management of bodies for anatomical study, and a noticeable absence in the alphabetical order of correspondence files for an entry under “Wilson.”

At some point between 1926 and 1951 someone removed these two folders from the Dept. of Anatomy, yet the folders managed to remain paired together as they moved from office to office, hand to hand over the next 60 to 80 years until finally sent to the archives. The transfer of these seemingly miscellaneous materials to the archives was the key step in restoring their provenance and establishing their original order.

8 is the loneliest number

img0129.jpg8 mm film, 8 track tapes, 8 inch floppy disks, all once promising media storage formats are for the most part gone from our daily use and even popular memory. Replaced by modern day equivalents of WAV files, MP3s, and cloud computing, our common media storage and delivery has moved from the tangible to intangible.

What is an archivist to do?

The time has come where archives and libraries are better equipped and staffed to manage the latter rather than the former. Maintaining AV rooms filled with half-working equipment for playback is a no win situation. Institutional repositories and internet based applications are better able to store, playback and preserve digitally created information than ever before.

A recent discovery of a box full of 8 inch floppies all marked as correspondence from the office of the Vice President for Health Sciences demonstrates the conundrum in the collection of historical documents. On the one hand, the content of the disks are absolutely central to the collecting focus for the History Project, yet on the other, the media is so obsolete and likely degraded to the point of being unable to retrieve any information.

The 8 inch floppy, like its successors the 5 in., 3.5in., Jaz and Zip disks, were tied to specific hardware operating systems. Yet, it often had multiple formats, disk densities, transfer rates, and spinning heads that made them even in their prime incompatible with other 8 inch disk drives. The ability to rescue data off any 8 inch diskette today would be beyond most IT skill sets and, due to the low data capacity they actually held, not worth the expense.

1980s computing taught us in the 1990s to fear the question of “how will I be able to save, read, open, edit this after the media, format, software, hardware changes?” However, in the last ten years the migration of electronic records has become easier to understand and to accomplish with only minor cautionary steps.

Changes in storage media will always challenge our preservation techniques and cause a few gaps in recorded history. This is to be expected and for the most part accepted as progress to better record keeping. I’m sure the first few recipes for baked clay tablets didn’t quite turn out as expected, yet I’ve never heard anyone mention cuneiform tablets as an unstable media.

So with this in mind I will look at my box of 8 inch floppies, and the information they might contain, and realize that this gap of documentation is an example of the jumps made from one media system to the next that is likely lost to history.