Appropriating the word “archive”

Gmail uses the word “archive” to describe the action of moving mail out of your inbox and into the “All Mail” folder.  Barnes and Noble, on their new nook ebook reader, uses the word “archive” to actually mean delete!  When you click on the “Archive” button, it deletes the file off of your nook, although it is still available to redownload from their website.

The technology world has appropriated the word “archive” and have made it mean “hidden from view, but still accessible.”  Gmail is telling people that they don’t have to delete any email anymore: just keep it all, and archive it.

Archivists don’t have the resources to keep everything.  In the digital world, the phrase that is commonly used is “disk is cheap.”  However, the time of archivists isn’t cheap and that don’t have a lot of it to give.  Processing backlogs are already big, and even the advent of “More Product, Less Process” style processing hasn’t cut into backlogs that much.

But what about digital files? Surely we can keep all of those, since we don’t have to worry about physical space nearly as much.  However, describing these files properly is just as important as describing physical, paper files.  We have a Google site search on the Southern Historical Collection’s website; it is not that sophisticated of a search system, but it is a popular search system.  And it basically does a full text search of all of our finding aids; with the system, you get a lot of hits that aren’t the best collections for the for which topic you are searching. Trying to do a similar sort of thing, the full text searching of all of our digital files, would lead to an explosion of that problem.  It would be very difficult to actually find the materials for which you are looking.

Is there a way to get the word back?  I don’t think we can just abandon it, since a fundamental word of our profession.  The general public probably doesn’t need to know everything about archival theory, but they should probably know that we’re not just “the people who keep everything.”  I guess what we need is a sentence or two, an elevator speech, about who we are and what we do.  I think there might have been an SAA project about this, but we need to come up with something thats easy to understand, short, and lacking in jargon that truly explains what we do for people who don’t know.

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