- The Past May Be the Prologue:History's Place in the Future of the Information Professions
Cool Technologies for a New Generation
Technologies hardly dreamt of forty years ago continue a surprising diversification and growth that show no sign of slowing. Smart phones and personal digital assistants that bring effortless mobile emailing and Internet access are but the newest tools for the wired "cool" generation. While the pursuit of novelty still may be the aim of some, for most of North American society the use of information technologies of all kinds has become a natural habit and increasingly a necessity in personal and professional life. The vast potential of computers and sophisticated software applications linked to wireless communications is reshaping customary lines of civil and corporate life. Formerly clear divides between public and private domains are no longer obvious. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and the expanding blogosphere have rendered the concept of privacy moot. At the same time, networked social habits expose us to risks. Computers may empower us, but they also impose an as-yet dimly perceived set of new responsibilities on people and citizens to participate more actively in politics and policing.1
Computer-mediated communications and born-digital materials constitute a growing presence in cultural repositories such as libraries, archives, and special material collections of various kinds.2 Moreover, looking out to the wider world, well-established practices of court and corporate records keeping increasingly are anchored in digital formats [End Page 206] that depend on machinery and software to render their meaning to us.3 Diverse institutions, from global business to art galleries, are faced with challenges from the special needs of digital media, such as determining and then maintaining the accurate identity and conceptual integrity of materials in digital formats.
These linked questions are particularly urgent for managers of current records in business and government who must find reliable answers to assure accurate and complete records in support of contemporary political, financial, and legal systems. But the questions also are critical for professionals in repositories of historical information who are charged with ensuring continuing cultural authenticity over the long term. How should we preserve digital content? How do we link context, function, and content in transparent metadata regimes? How can we establish interoperability to empower greater participation in public structures? And indeed, what digital materials are fundamental to protect for future history, healthy community identities, and continuing personal memory? Grappling with these issues has spawned a considerable literature in the past decade.4 Moreover, what were considered to be stable historical distinctions among cultural institutions based on form of media or place of activity increasingly are blurred in research and in reality.5
Technology appears to be driving us all "fast forward" into changed professional lives where lines of interest and responsibility are no longer clear. Technology enables novel ways of connecting and working that have no obvious history and whose future, it seems clear, will be marked by even more change and its attendant instability. It is ironic that just when the archivists' relationship with records managers appeared to be stabilizing into a mutually beneficial alliance based on the synergies in each one's role in an information "life cycle," new technologies have leap-frogged this partnership and inserted new players in the information field whose practice privileges system and technology rather than human processes of policy, procedure, and participation.6 The information and records model of the "life cycle" is challenged by new configurations such as the information "continuum," which leads to reformed roles and relationships around records keeping and archives. Different models of information and documentary processes have broad implications for the education of information professionals, especially for those seeking to work in large bureaucracies of governments and global businesses.7 Dichotomous positions seem to be poorly suited to modular flexibility, which is proving to be better able to support incremental responses to multidimensional challenges. [End Page 207]
The Notion of Convergence among Information Professions
Alterations to the established relationships of those managing current and historical records are but one example of larger changes at work more generally in the information field...