ITHACA, N.Y. -- In studying the history of an institution, historians oftenlook back at its administrative records. Today, more and more, thoserecords are being created in electronic form and never even exist on paper.
Funded by a $123,928 grant from the National Historic Publications andRecords Commission (NHPRC), archivists and computer systems specialists atCornell University have embarked on an 18-month project to study newrecord-keeping technologies and recommend ways to ensure that electronicrecords are preserved for the future.
"There are things we have been collecting for over 50 years that suddenlyaren't being generated on paper," said Elaine Engst, director of Cornell'sDivision of Rare and Manuscript Collections, university archivist andproject director. "How do we preserve the history of the university in the21st century?"
It's partly a hardware problem, she said. Because of the rapid changes incomputer technology, reading today's computer record tomorrow may be akinto finding a machine to play a 78-rpm record. But that's only one of theworries: Even if the physical data can be retained, archivists will haveto work with it in new ways.
For example, Engst pointed out, the university has kept student records inelectronic form since 1982. This means, among other things, that there areno such things as transcripts of grades. "You don't have a single recordlisting all of a student's courses and grades; you have student records,courses, course information, grade information. You assemble data fromthose into a transcript when you need it," she said.
Another example is university policy manuals, which are no longer printedand distributed but maintained on a web site. "Web sites arefour-dimensional since they vary in time," she said. When policies arechanged, the computer files that make up the web site are changed. "Howwill you be able to know what the policy was years ago?" Engst asked.
The research project coincides with a major revamping of Cornell'sadministrative computer system, known as Project 2000, which will use newsoftware supplied by the PeopleSoft Corp. The research team will work withadministrators setting up the new system and recommend procedures that canbe built in to preserve critical records. One of the goals is to create"metadata," or data about data. This data describes records, indicatingwhat sort of hardware and software were used to create and store them aswell as who created them, when and why.
The project focuses on two of Cornell's 12 colleges, the College of Artsand Sciences and the College of Human Ecology, chosen because they havevery different administrative structures, Engst said. Project staffalready have conducted extensive interviews with managers in both collegesand at the university administration level. Among other things, they willbe determing the level off duplication of records.
"It is the intent of the project in focusing on Human Ecology and Arts andSciences to produce results that can be implemented in a wide variety ofacademic institutions," Engst said. The work builds on the experience ofother recent NHPRC-funded projects, especially those at the University ofPittsburgh and Indiana University, she said.
The project team brings together expertise in both library archiving andcomputer technology. Cheryl Stadel-Bevans, who holds graduate degrees inlibrary and information science and in mathematics, is the full-timeproject archivist. Others on the team are Oliver Habicht, computer systemsspecialist with the Cornell Institute for Digital Collections, PhilipMcCray, technical services archivist with the Division of Rare andManuscript Collections, and Eileen Keating, university records manager.Peter Hirtle, assistant director of the Cornell Institute for DigitalCollections, formerly with the National Archives, is project adviser, andLee Stout of Pennsylvania State University serves as consultant.
Related World Wide Web sites: The following sites provideadditional information on this news release.
Cornell Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections: http://rmc-www.library.cornell.edu/
Project 2000: http://www.cornell.edu/p2k/p2k.html
Materials provided by Cornell University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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