Access & Preservation: Tensions at the National Archives

For this week’s blog post, I interviewed my good friend Amara Pugens who is an Archives Technician as the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. Amara and I both attended Beloit College (turtles all the way down) and I was interested to talk with her about her experiences at NARA and compare and contrast the practical realities of her work with the theoretical issues we have been discussing in class.

us-nara-college-park

NARA in College Park, MD

Amara mainly works with contractors from Ancestry.com who are busy scanning documents for Ancestry’s database. She prepares documents for them by making boxes and folders and supervises them in the reading room. Amara is also part of the Archives Technicians DevelopmentĀ Program, where she spends time in different departments at the archives in order to grow her skills and eventually move up from a GS-6 level position to a GS-7.

Amara had some interesting observations from working with the Ancestry.com contractors. The contractors must work to meet certain quotas of scanned material, which sometimes causes conflicts with archivists, mainly around issues of preservation. The archivists think the Ancestry.com technicians scan the material too quickly, which puts the documents in danger of being damaged. However, the technicians are under enormous pressure from Ancestry.com to scan certain amounts of material, and can only work when the archives are open to the public. How to mediate this tension?

ancestry-logo

This scenario made me think about the tensions between accessibility and preservation. We have often talked in this class about how digitization increases access to historic material, but did not spend much time discussing the possibilities that the process of digitization itself can be harmful to material. I also wonder about the ethics of digitizing material but then making users pay to access it, like Ancestry.com does. Anyone can go see the materials they digitize for free on site at NARA, but to access them digitally, users must pay a membership free with Ancestry. In any case, it seems to be a good business strategy for Ancestry.com to digitize freely available materials and then charge users to access them.

I concluded the interview by asking Amara if she had any advice for people wanting to work with the government in a public history field. “Figure out how to use USAjobs.gov, and try to get a wide range of experiences” she answered. “The government is looking for people who can do many things versus a specialist who can really only do one. Also, good luck.”

 

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