Samantha Shepherd is a public history student who has an internship with the Indiana Department of Administration and the Indiana Archives and Records Administration.
Debunking 4 Common Misconceptions with the Indiana Archives and Records Administration
For my public history Internship this semester, I’m working with the Indiana Department of Administration (IDOA) and the Indiana Archives and Records Administration (IARA) to make IDOA records more organized and accessible, and I’ve already learned a lot about archiving for a state government. This post breaks down some of the common misconceptions about archives that I’ve heard from others and believed myself. But first, what exactly is an archive?
The word “archive(s)” can actually have a few different meanings. According to the Society of American Archivists (SAA) “archives refers to the permanently valuable records––such as letters, reports, accounts, minute books, draft final manuscripts, and photographs of people, businesses, and government.”
“Archives is an organization dedicated to preserving the documentary heritage of a particular group: a city, a province or state, a business, a university, or a community; archives is also used to refer to the building or part of a building in which archival materials are kept.” In summary, archives are concerned with preserving materials that have lasting historical significance. Keep reading to learn more about archives and the Indiana Archives and Records Administration.
1. You have to be a historian or researcher to use the archives
It’s a common misconception that you need to be a historian or researcher to be able to access an archive. While this is true in some cases, it largely depends on the institution. Some university or museum archives may not be open to the public. IARA, however, has a number of services for the public! Over 1.36 million names are searchable on the Research Indiana Indexes. Individuals can also search the Archives’ collection online by subject area. However, not all materials are available online; individuals can schedule an appointment to view physical records at the State Archives reading room.
Archivists are also eager to share their findings with other archivists and the public alike! Check out the IARA Facebook and Reddit pages to keep up to check out interesting finds in the Archives. IARA’s blog, “From the Vault,” also features stories from the Archives. On Twitter, IARA recently participated in the monthly #ArchivesHashtagParty. Every month, archives from across the country feature items from their collections based on a theme. February 2023’s theme was #ArchivesBlackDesign and highlighted thousands of Black designers throughout history. Practicing community outreach, collaborating with local institutions, and offering public services allows archives like IARA to make information more accessible to everyone.
2. Archives will accept any old records or papers
Some people may think that archives will be eager to take the box of old letters you found in your grandma’s attic. What about your great-grandpa’s war diary? I mean, they’re old right? Unfortunately, archives of all kinds have to limit what they can and cannot accept. Archives have a limited number of resources such as storage space, time, and labor. As humans continue to produce materials, archives will never stop processing. It can take hours to process physical archives and thousands of square feet to store them.
In 2001, the Indiana State Archives moved to 6440 East 30th Street in Indianapolis. However, this location was not built to be an archive, and it was meant to be a temporary location; today, the Archives is running out of space. But in 2021, a new State Archives building to be built in downtown Indianapolis was approved. This new building will be larger, and conveniently placed on the canal near the State Museum, History Center, Government Center, Statehouse, and State Library. IARA is already working hard to prepare for the move.
Because of these limited resources, however, archivists often have to make difficult decisions about what is or is not important enough to keep. This will also differ greatly depending on the audience or institution the archive serves. As for the letters in your grandma’s attic? Try reaching out to local museums or historical/genealogical societies in your county. One unique aspect of IARA is that it is a government agency. Therefore, state law dictates how IARA operates and what they collect.
3. Technology has made archival work easier
Another misconception is that technological advances and the digital age would make archiving work exponentially easier, right? Technology changes incredibly fast; think about how different smartphones in 2023 are compared to smartphones in 2013. They probably have different cameras, chargers, apps, etc. Digital and electronic archives are similar in many ways.
Digital archives are divided into two categories: born-digital records that come to life by a phone, computer, online, etc. and converted records, which are copies from physical materials, such as scans of photos or digitized audio-visual (AV) materials, for ease of access. However, both of these categories can become outdated quickly. Some materials no longer have machines that can read them; other materials cost thousands of dollars to digitize. While paper archives only need to be processed once, electronic materials constantly need to be updated to new formats to keep up with ever-changing technology. It can take hours to manually scan physical records. While electronic archiving does have many benefits, digitizing an entire archive is an enormous undertaking.
Electronic archiving isn’t totally negative, however. The digital age has also provided archivists with numerous ways to make archives more accessible. Repositories like the Research Indiana Indexes allow anyone to search the collections. Digitization also allows materials to be viewed online. Digital archiving and record keeping also has applications outside of Archives.
My current project with the Indiana Department of Administration uses digital archival techniques to develop a more streamlined process for maintaining IDOA records. This process will allow IDOA state site records to be accessible and viewable online to other state agencies. I also ensure these records are saved as up-to-date, standard formats (.pdf, .docx, .tiff, etc.) that will be accessible for years to come. Ultimately, other agencies can use this digital record-keeping process, to create a common standard for digital record-keeping across the State Government.
4. Microfilm is outdated
One of the most interesting things I’ve learned is that many archivists advocate for the use of microfilm for important records. Microfilm is photographs of records (physical or digital) that are minimized onto 16mm or 35mm film, which is then projected through an electronic reader or in front of a light. While I’m familiar with microfilm from working in a library, I assumed it was outdated by the digital age. How often do we see film used today?
However, microfilm continues to be a resilient form of record keeping. In optimal conditions, the film can last up to 500 years! Paper records, on the other hand, are susceptible to flooding, fire, and other natural disasters that could destroy an archive. Microfilm also takes up less space than physical records. Even digital records aren’t perfect; electronic repositories can be hacked, and servers can be destroyed by flooding, fire, etc. In a worst-case scenario, microfilm may survive a natural disaster, and people can view it without electricity.
Despite microfilm’s continued presence in archives, microfilm processing labs have become scarcer, with only a few operating in Indiana today. However, one department of IARA is the State Imaging and Microfilm Laboratory. And the lab doesn’t only deal with state records, they also microfilm a variety of records from libraries, universities, and other institutions across the state. Click here to learn more about the Microfilm lab and the history of microfilm from IARA!
These are just a few misconceptions people may have about archives.
To learn more about the Indiana Archives and Records Administration click here.
Check out more stories of our public history students as part of our Curation Chronicles Series!