Digitalization & archives: public memory for society and science

Usually, when we talk about digital archiving and digital files in this blog, we’re talking about companies or management who want to get ahead in their everyday work or make information available in acute decision-making processes. Recently, the Vice President of the Federal Archive in Koblenz addressed another – and no less important – aspect of the topic: research. In fact, it’s a topic that applies to some major social issues. Sounds like a good time to broaden our horizons a little bit.

 

New requirements for political archives

Even though we don’t usually focus on this fact, it’s true that increasing digitization does have an influence on society. Changes are already underway today, and they will only become more intensive in the future. Anyone who wants, for instance, to do scientific research on Willy Brandt’s policies towards eastern Germany in the 1970s, or the reunification process of 1990, can visit archives to find correspondence, notes, interview transcripts, third party statements, and much, much more. It’s all safely stored on paper and filed away. Or maybe it’s already been digitized. All in all, you’re likely to encounter fairly complete records.

 

Sources: e-mails, texts, minutes of the Bundestag…

But how do political decision-making processes happen today? In contrast to earlier, political discourses and development processes are often completed through cell phones, e-mails, or other digital media. Minutes from Bundestag sessions or committee meetings are available digitally, but are just a small segment of what might interest science in the future. How will historians in thirty years be able to get a full picture of, for instance, the euro crisis without logs of text message conversations or e-mails exchanged between the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor?

 

Digital data (also) has a place in the archive

It’s an interesting question. And it’s a question we need to find a solution for. Political figures need to ensure that digital data belonging to office holders is transferred to the archive. And the archive urgently needs IT solutions to be able to quickly categorize data from widely varying sources and add keywords. This will allow the data to be made available many years down the road (after a waiting period), and keep it secure for the long term. All this in the service of science – and for the benefit of public memory.