When I was in university at a time on the brink of the computer age, doing research meant going into an archive and bring out clusters of maps around a topic. All communications, e.g. missives, letters, internal documents, drafts, media, etc., could be found in such maps, where I could have them copied or could take notes from. On these documents it was completely clear who had added what to the first, the second, etc., draft, all the way up to the minister. That sort of research is no more for future and current scientists of modern history.
When I became a civil servant the work was digitalised, although I still worked with a paper file. What was printed and filed was the outcome document. All the versions in between were in maps on my computer or pieces of paper thrown away after use, later in a central database and probably by now in the cloud. When I stopped being a civil servant I was asked to delete most of my maps. In other words destroyed most of the files of potential interest to future historians.
Communities and archiving
The recent news that local councils have problems with archiving, because of systems or tools they can’t access any more, does not surprise me (see: http://tweakers.net/nieuws/111517/steekproef-gemeenten-hebben-problemen-met-archief-door-opslag-op-floppys.html?nb=2016-05-21&u=0900). Any one who lived through the change from Word Perfect to Word, knows that after a while these documents couldn’t be accessed. So if a pc no longer has a floppy driver, first the soft big ones and then the small hard ones, how is someone to access the floppies? It’s nothing new, that happened to older systems as well, but they were not as commonly used. Still, the people with that experience could have sounded some more alarm bells. People just don’t learn it seems.
It’s far worse
As I started with, archiving has in part become a private consideration. What does somebody keep or not? A finger on the delete button is an easy and very private decision for the past two decades. This way a lot of the reasons behind decisions and outcomes in public and private realms are no longer existent. Someone deleted them, by request, through leaving, having too many maps or for whatever reason. This unconscious, perhaps unlawful, deleting prevents organisations from learning lessons from its own past and historians from coming to weighed and informed conclusions in the future.
The world does not have to store everything, but a conscious decision following the local law would be a fair judgement to go by.
Wout de Natris, De Natris Consult
Haarlem, 23 May 2016