My Walkman Obso “left me”

Let’s play a game. What do all of the items in these photos have in common?

Aside from them all being intense triggers of nostalgia, the items in these photos share a special characteristic. They are all … obsolete! In other words, they suffer from an incurable disease that frequently haunts pieces of hardware and software in the world of electronic and digital preservation. Obsolescence, or the condition of being obsolete, means that a resource is “no longer in use” or has “fallen into disuse.”[1] Car phones, cassette tapes, U-matic tapes, VCRs, portable CD players (aka Walkman), Apple Macintosh software, and Microsoft Word Perfect are just a few examples of the many obsolete pieces of hardware and software that are fading further into history with each passing day. Though obsolescence is inevitable in a technologically advancing world, it presents a challenge for archivist attempting to persist electronic and digital media into the future. This is because electronic objects are “performances.” They require a source which is the content (ex. a data file), a process that can read and interpret the content (ex. a piece of hardware), and a performance of the object that makes it understandable and accessible to humans (ex. a specific software).[2] So, we can save a source all we want, but if we do not have the hardware we need to process it and/or the software we need to perform it, the content is as good as lost.

Oh geez … I’m getting emotional. Am I the only one who gets emotional during discussions of obsolescence??

However, there is hope. Well, hope for saving the content anyway. In order to preserve information that requires obsolete hardware or software, archivists often engage in migration, emulation, or a combination of both. Migration is the most common preservation approach. It means copying or converting digital objects from one technology to another while preserving the object’s significant properties.[3] Emulation is a bit different because instead of manipulating the object, it manipulates the object’s environment. Emulation involves “preserving the bitstream of the object and creating an access version by using current technology to mimic some or all of the environment in which the original was rendered.”[4]

While there’s no doubt that saving the content of digital objects is crucial, it is interesting to think about what we lose when an object’s original form becomes obsolete. For instance, I distinctly remember sitting in the car on family road trips listening to Brandy’s Never Say Never CD on my mom’s Walkman. Thanks to the advent of digital audio files, I still enjoy listening to the music from the CD on my iPhone. However, I can’t experience it the way I used to on the Walkman. Is this meaningful? Well, perhaps not in this situation, but in others, it may be.[5]

Check out this video from the National Archives (skip to 3:23) to see a cool collection of obsolete hardware that NARA is collecting!

What are some of your thoughts on obsolescence and ways archivists can manage it?

[1] Dictionary.com, s.v. “Obsolete,” accessed March 27, 2016, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/obsolete?s=t.

[2] Seth Shaw, “Representations and Performances” (presentation to distance learning ARST 5300 Digital Preservation course, August 31, 2015).

[3] “Selecting the Right Preservation Strategy: Migration,” JISC, accessed March 27, 2016, http://www.paradigm.ac.uk/workbook/preservation-strategies/selecting-migration.html.

[4] “Selecting the Right Preservation Strategy: Emulation,” JISC, accessed March 27, 2016, http://www.paradigm.ac.uk/workbook/preservation-strategies/selecting-emulation.html.

[5] For a more in-depth discussion of this topic, see Margaret Hedstrom et al. “The Old Version Flickers More”: Digital Preservation from the User’s Perspective, The American Archivist 69, no.1 (2006): 159-187.

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Certified.

About a week and a half ago, I found out that my application to take the archival certification exam was approved.

Immediate reaction = Yippee!!!

Five second later = Ah! Somebody help me!

Let me explain this dramatic reinterpretation of mixed emotions. First, we’ll start with some history. The Academy of Certified Archivists (ACA) was founded in 1989 at the Society of American Archivists annual meeting. The Academy describes itself as an “independent, nonprofit certifying organization of professional archivists.”[1] Individual archivists become members of the Academy by meeting specific educational and practical requirements in addition to passing a certification examination. (A few legendary archivists were “grandfathered” into the Academy and never had to take the exam, but this special circumstance began and ended in 1989. Considering I wasn’t even born yet, I think it’s safe to say I’m out of luck on this one!). In general, archivists become certified by meeting master’s level educational requirements, obtaining a sufficient amount of professional experience, and passing the exam. And yes, you must have all three!

The precarious part about ACA eligibility requirements is that archivists can’t fulfill them in any order. Before archivists can even sit for the exam, they must meet the educational and professional requirements first. There are a few ways archivists can meet these requirements. Here’s a rundown:

Option 1: Master’s degree with concentration in archival administration plus one year of qualifying experience

Option 2: Master’s degree without a concentration in archival administration plus two years of qualifying experience.

Option 3: Previously certified and up for renewal (certification has expired)

Option 4: Previously certified and up for renewal (certification has not yet expired)

Option 5: Provisional certification – individuals who are recent graduates of archival studies programs yet do not have the qualifying experience. They have a maximum of three years to obtain the qualifying experience necessary for full certification. ** I applied and was approved for option 5, though some of my archivist friends said I probably can make a case for obtaining full certification because of my internship experience and because I will have my master’s degree by the time I take the test. We’ll see what happens. I’m just glad I get to take the exam at all!

Archivists must renew their certification every five years by either retaking the exam or compiling proof of qualifying “archival activities” to show that they are remaining active in the field as well as continuing their archival education.

Honestly, I’ve heard the test is quite rough. This is not surprising, considering the purpose of this exam is to standardize the archival profession and create a way for archivists to demonstrate and prove their knowledge, understanding, and practical experience within the profession. The test covers seven domains of archival practice: 1) selection, appraisal and acquisition 2) arrangement and description 3) reference services and access 4) preservation and protection 5) outreach, advocacy, and promotion 6) managing archival programs 7) professional, ethical, and legal responsibilities. The test is all multiple-choice, and if I’m not mistaken, there are one hundred questions. However, what’s more intimidating than the test is the TRUCK LOAD of suggested archival literature I need to read and study before taking the exam (see the handbook for this list … if you dare). Granted, I’ve read a lot of this literature throughout the course of my graduate program, but still … it’s a bear!

What’s even more interesting (and amusing) is the divisive manner in which the archival community treats ACA certification. When I talk to archivists who have the certification, they emphasize its usefulness and consider it a good thing to have. When I talk to archivists who don’t have the certification, most of them insist that it is not necessary for a successful career in archives. I see both points of view, but I feel like I can only benefit by taking the exam. Passing the test will not only give me that extra “edge” as an archivist, but most importantly, it will require me to truly master the practical elements of my profession and will help me to stay on my toes as I continue to educate myself throughout my archival career. But, I also realize that if I don’t ever take it, I can still have a successful and thriving career J

What’s your opinion on archival certification? Have you taken the test or thought about taking it? If you have taken it, do you have any advice for studying?

For more information about the ACA, visit http://www.certifiedarchivists.org/

To access the exam handbook, visit http://www.certifiedarchivists.org/get-certified/exam-handbook/

[1] “About Us,” Academy of Certified Archivists, accessed March 11, 2016, http://www.certifiedarchivists.org/about-us/.