How Do Archives Measure Up?

May 17, 2013

Ask any archivist — or most anyone for that matter — what the importance of historical materials held by archives is and they will likely tell you that it is so large it is immeasurable, assuming that that is true and flattering. True, yes, to a degree, but definitely not flattering. In fact, that is one of the big problems with archives — that their value or impact is not directly measurable. We try to measure, and, despite the strength of the adverbs we use (very, extremely, critically, etc.), the measurement is soft because it lacks numbers.

Numbers. As a strict humanist I find numbers to be as much a faith-based system as any other, but they are what most people most easily grasp onto. Especially where money is involved. And that’s a big problem, because archives are cost centers — they take money and produce little direct revenue in return, even when they attempt to through licensing and other grasps at monetization. So instead we have to look to places where we can create numbers and generate reports to impress or prove that we are spending money wisely. This then boils down to number of patrons/requests, number of items/boxes, linear feet (ugh), and hours or Terabytes of content.

These numbers impress in one way (size matters), but we also have to prove productivity, which, unfortunately, has come to be measured by the number of finding aids produced and the number of linear feet processed within a given time. That helps give a sense that processing grants have been well spent, but, as I have argued before, does little to support preservation planning and creating access for audiovisual collections…Not to mention the fact that measurements such as linear feet give little sense to the number and length of a/v assets.

Not that these numbers don’t matter at all, because they do tell a particular story and different parties look to different measurements as meaningful. However, what they are focused on measuring is Return on Investment (ROI) — money in and money (or product) out. Really, though, what we should be looking at right now with audiovisual collections is COI — the Cost of Inaction.

How much are we losing content-wise and money-wise by not spending money on reformatting and other preservation activities? And is this measurable? Yes, it is. How many U-matics do you have in your collection? In 10-15 years those items and their content will be lost if they are not reformatted, and the money spent to store them and do any processing or management work on them all the years they’ve been sitting there will be a sunk cost. How many DATs do you have? How many VHS tapes? How many lacquer discs? How many 1/4″ audio reels? How many 1/2″ video reels? Those are numbers.

And really, this is the point we’re coming to with magnetic media, of measuring collections in terms of loss rather than in the number of assets and their use if we do not act soon. Those linear or cubic feet may remain (plastic takes a long time to go away), but the content will be irrecoverable, whether due to decay or the overwhelming cost to reformat it. I have to ask then, what is the ROI we’re giving to our culture if we let that happen?

—¬†Joshua Ranger