On National Humanities Day, Duke Librarian Talks Preserving Record of Humanity

It felt a little unusual to ask an archivist to describe “what’s next” in the world of record-keeping since, by nature, archiving is a field more concerned about what’s happened than what’s coming. But then again, Naomi Nelson, the director of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, doesn’t seem like your typical archivist.

Her past projects include archiving the records of U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga), which included the first attempt to capture the digital copies of constituent letters sent by Members of Congress; and salvaging the digital files of Salman Rushdie (including files from a laptop ruined by a spilled Coke) — not your run-of-the-mill “primary documents.” In recognition of her leadership in the field of library sciences, in October of 2014, President Obama nominated Dr. Nelson to serve as one of 15 members of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which is tasked with promoting “the preservation and use of of America’s documentary heritage essential to understanding our democracy, history, and culture.”

So in the midst of a week that had Washington atwitter with the preservation (or lack there of) of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and in honor of the National Humanities Alliance 2015 Advocacy Day on March 17, Duke in Washington checked in with Dr. Nelson to learn more about her work at the Rubenstein Library and the role archivists play in preserving the record of humanity:

DIW: How would you describe your work, as an individual scholar and at the Rubenstein Library as a whole?
Nelson: As a special collections librarian, I preserve the stuff of history.  The Rubenstein Library’s collections contain rare and unique materials that provide a window into a wide variety of human experiences and evidence of what happened and why.  These collections are Duke’s contribution to the larger scholarly endeavor to document human history.  Through these materials, researchers can literally touch the past.

How information is presented affects how we interpret and understand it.  In a special collections library, we preserve not only the information in a book or manuscript, but also the original format in which it was used and shared—from papyrus to websites.  This has become more challenging in the digital age where what we see on the screen is dependent on the interaction of the specific hardware, operating system, software, and digital object.  My own research has focused on how we might apply archival principals to digital content.  For example, in a digital world where we can make endless exact copies of a file, what is the “original?”

DIW: What does society stand to gain from the work of archivists, like yourself, to preserve our records?
NN: We all have a stake in maintaining an authentic record of our shared past.  What happened in the past shapes the present, and it’s important that we be able to challenge the histories we’ve received and to re-examine them from new perspectives.   Alice Walker has noted, “People are known by the records they keep. If it isn’t in the records, it will be said it didn’t happen.”  Archivists have an important role in determining which records will be available to future generations.

In the twenty-first century, archivists must be public advocates for preservation in ways our predecessors couldn’t have imagined.  If we are to preserve our digital present, we cannot wait patiently for records to come to the archives.  Archivists are working proactively with technologists and scholars to test ways to preserve digital objects and to ensure that they can still be rendered authentically in a hundred years or more.  University and governmental special collections have the institutional backing and mandate to provide the stable, long-term storage and access required to make those plans a reality.

DIW: You were recently named a commissioner on the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). What does that organization do and how will that experience broaden your exposure to projects around the country?
NN: The NHPRC was founded in 1934 and is charged with encouraging the broad use of documentary sources.  It’s affiliated with the National Archives and Records Administration and annually distributes grants to support innovative and impactful preservation and access projects.  Being on the NHPRC provides a great opportunity to see the variety of ways that archives across the country are connecting the public with history.   Two examples demonstrate the significance of these projects.   The NHPRC has long supported projects to publish the documents related to America’s founding fathers—making those key documents widely available to the public.  The ‘Founders Online‘ project, a collaboration between the National Archives, the NHPRC and the University of Virginia Press, builds on those individual projects to provide online access to over 166,000 records from the Founding Fathers Paper Project. The Commission also funds projects proposed by the State Historical Records Advisory Boards across the country.  It’s been fascinating to see the different ways that the individual states are engaging the public with their local histories.

DIW: How does Duke as an institution support research in the library sciences?
NN: The Duke University Libraries (DUL) have a long tradition of emphasizing innovation.  In the 1930s, Duke began coordinating collection building with UNC.  That collaboration became the Triangle Research Libraries Network (now including NC State and NCCU), which is one of the leading American library consortia.  Our many projects together include developing a joint library catalog (http://search.trln.org/) and a grant to explore large scale digitization (http://www2.trln.org/ccc/index.htm).

In the 1990s, the DUL developed some of the first digital collections for rare materials.  The Duke Papyrus Archive, Ad Access, and Historic Sheet Music projects served as models for other special collections across the country.  The DUL has been a leader in exploring the preservation of electronic records as well.  Duke and UNC co-led a project funded by NHPRC to study computer file management practices in academic units and university administrative offices.  Rubenstein Library staff are regular contributors to cutting edge research on digital forensics, managing legacy formats, processing digital collections, and using digital visualization techniques to analyze library metadata.

We are also exploring the library’s role in knowledge creation and publishing.  For example, the DUL is partnering with the Center for Documentary Studies and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Legacy Project to develop a new documentary website that will allow SNCC veterans to tell the story of their work and impact.  The site incorporates historic documents, photographs, and audiovisual recordings with new analyses, maps, profiles, and multimedia presentations.  The activists are coming to campus as Visiting Activist Scholars and fully partnering in every aspect of the work.  The resulting site will, itself, be a historic record.