The aleph in the archive : appraisal and preservation of a natural electronic archive



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This research explores whether digital records created and used in environments without explicit record-keeping rules provide evidence of the organization that creates them and can be preserved in the long term. I studied the formation process of a digital archive that belonged to a philanthropic organization in Argentina. This archive originated in the late 1980s and was added to until 2005, a period during which, as information technologies were being massively adopted in the work-place, new problems were compounded by the nature and conditions of its electronic records and database systems. The study revealed knowledge about the information technologies and social practices used in the archive's development, providing an understanding of the path from its past to its present form and insights about how to preserve it. The attributes characterizing this archive led to developing the concept of a natural electronic archive. To determine whether the records in the natural archive reflect the organization that created them I devised an inductive appraisal method that uses text mining, social network analysis, and visualization methods. I calculated the similarity between the text records created, gathered, and shared by them within frameworks of time and provenance as a measure of the strength of the relationships between staff members and the functions that they represented. Results of mining electronic text records belonging to 10 years of activities in the organization indicate that it is possible to observe changes in work-dynamics and roles in a way that goes beyond the typical organizational chart. The process and challenges involved in developing and validating the appraisal method are reported in this dissertation. Studying the archive's formation process allowed gaps in the technical documentation to be filled and suggested a preservation strategy. The goal of the strategy is to preserve the structure and context in which the electronic records and databases were created and used, while moving them into a new and compatible technical environment to allow continuous access. From a practical perspective the strategy allows studying the effects of hardware and software migration on file formats and databases present in the digital archive. From a broader perspective it aims to provide a theoretical understanding of the relationship that exists between digital information creation and use and preservation strategies.