When a Presidential Library Is Digital

I’ve got a new piece over at The Atlantic on Barack Obama’s prospective presidential library, which will be digital rather than physical. This has caused some consternation. We need to realize, however, that the Obama library is already largely digital:

The vast majority of the record his presidency left behind consists not of evocative handwritten notes, printed cable transmissions, and black-and-white photographs, but email, Word docs, and JPEGs. The question now is how to leverage its digital nature to make it maximally useful and used.

This almost-entirely digital collection, and its unwieldy scale and multiple formats, should sound familiar to all of us. Over the past two decades, we have each become unwitting archivists for our own supersized collections, as we have adopted forms of communication that are prolific and easy to create, and that accumulate over time into numbers that dwarf our printed record and can easily mount into a pile of digital files that borders on shameful hoarding. I have over 300,000 email messages going back to my first email address in the 1990s (including an eye-watering 75,000 that I have sent), and 30,000 digital photos. This is what happens when work life meets Microsoft Office and our smartphone cameras meet kids and pets.

Will we have lost something in this transition? Of course. Keeping a dedicated archival staff in close proximity to a bounded paper-based collection yields real benefits. Having a researcher who is on site discover a key note on the back of a typescript page is also special.

However, although the analog world can foster great serendipity, it does not have a monopoly on such fortunate discoveries. Digital collections have a serendipity all their own.

Please do read the whole article for my thoughts about how we should approach the design of this digital library, and the possibilities it will enable, including broad access and new forms of research.

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