21st century poses challenge for archivists

Someday, a Yale senior might write her senior essay about your Facebook profile.

Facebook messages and e-mails are replacing letters and handwritten notes as students’ main methods for communication, and the archivists at Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives collection are looking for new ways to keep records on the lives of Elis. Currently, the archives hold a collection of primary sources ranging from the personal papers of prominent figures to student academic records, but archivists said they may one day contain everything from Facebook pictures to administrative e-mails.

Each year, archivists at Manuscripts and Archives answer 4,000 to 5,000 reference requests, half of which are from within Yale. Deputy Director of Manuscripts and Archives Christine Weideman said that of the outside requests, some are from family members looking to learn more about their great-grandfather who went to Yale, and others are from journalists looking to gather information about a politician’s time at the University.

“The sum of local history is national history,” Weideman said. “Yale is one entity in higher education; it is a window of what is going on in the rest of the world.”

But archivists said they can no longer rely on traditional methods for gathering records. While students of the past wrote letters documenting their experiences at Yale, today’s students send e-mails. Electronic Records Archivist Kevin Glick said this shift poses new challenges for archivists, as students may be less likely to donate e-mails.

“The difficult thing is, what is going to happen to your e-mail?” Glick said. “Will it last until you think about it nostalgically? Digital preservation of these electronic records requires you to be constantly vigilant. With paper records, it was maybe saving the letters in a shoebox.”

Although the Yale Archives already collects the paper files of each dean, Glick said the archives have yet to figure out a way to properly archive administrative e-mail. Weideman pointed out that the sheer of mass of e-mail — much of which deals simply with moving meetings from one location to another — makes finding missives of historical importance a special challenge.

In addition, Glick said, the constant metamorphosis of Web sites such as the Facebook and blogs also present a new challenge to archivists, who must vigilantly monitor the trends of student life. After the Afro-American Cultural Center pointed out that the majority of their photos are now stored online and on Facebook, Glick said he has begun investigating ways to archive the images.

The library is even fighting a “losing battle” when it comes to amassing the paper records that do exist for student organizations and publications, archivist Bill Massa said. The library asks groups to send copies of publications and other printed materials to Manuscripts and Archives, but few actually do so, Massa said.

“If you gave the students a letter grade of getting efforts on getting publications to Manuscripts and Archives, you better hope it’s Credit/D/Fail, because it’d be a ‘D’ at best,” Massa said. “I think students don’t think of historical stuff while they are here. They are here for the present, not thinking about the future, which is understandable, but it makes the job frustrating.”

But Massa said memorabilia from student organizations such as posters, photographs, records and copies of student publications are important because they offer insight to contemporary student life. To that end, he tries to pick up whatever publications he finds on the newsstand in the Trumbull Dining Hall.

In the past, Massa said, when student organizations registered and received funding from the Yale College Dean’s Office, they were asked to send memorabilia and publications to Manuscripts and Archives. Despite that obligation, Massa said, students still did not generate an overwhelming amount of memorabilia. There is currently no policy requiring student organizations to send memorabilia to the archives, Assistant Dean of Yale College Edgar Letriz said.

Student leaders said they would be more likely to contribute to the archives if the collection program was more centralized.

“I don’t think I have ever been contacted by Yale archivists,” Yale College Democrats President Eric Kafka ’08 said. “I knew it existed, but didn’t know it solicited to student organization.”

Researchers looking through archival material on the undergraduate student population currently have access to memorabilia donated by student organizations, newspapers and yearbooks. Student academic records are only opened 75 years after a student’s graduation or five years after his or her death. Other types of records may have different access restrictions.

During the 2004 presidential election, brouhaha over President George W. Bush’s ’68 and presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry’s ’66 grades at Yale was not based on official documentation from the archives, since they are currently still sealed. The 2005 Boston Globe article which first brought attention to Kerry’s grades at Yale are based on the grade transcript that was included in his Navy Record. The 1999 New Yorker article that published a transcript showing Bush’s grades indicated that the transcript had been stolen by students.

Healan Gastan, a researcher studying the papers of William F. Buckley Jr. at the archives said primary sources like those stored in Manuscripts and Archives offer an exclusive insight into the thoughts of public figures.

“One way to think of the archives is that it gives sort of a private journal perspective, insider’s perspectives,” Gastan said. “It gives researchers access or texture to the person’s daily life.”

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