Written by on December 12, 2018

Archives and Archiving in the Digital Age: What do you do with your 1996 CD-ROM?

Kennedy Library houses many things. It is a second home to thousands of students and an office to its staff and faculty. The library is also home to Special Collections and Archives, the official repository for university records, campus history, and for primary resources, with an emphasis on the records of the central coast.

Special Collections and Archives collects and preserves documentation of Cal Poly’s administration, colleges, committees, and students on campus, dating from 1901, when the school was established. Examples of these holdings include: papers of past university presidents, land acquisition documents, Academic Senate records, athletic records, student newspapers, photos, student organization information, and much more.

A student working on a Mindset computer, using a stylus and writing pad to illustrate a computer graphic about the annual population of fish during the years 1981-1984. University Archives Photograph Collection, ua-pho_00003015.

Special Collections and Archives serves the public at large, which includes students who come in to do research on campus and local history, as well as community users who may want to study environmental activism, for example, a collection that has been growing in popularity. First and foremost however, Special Collections and Archives is here to support the entire campus.

The archives staff also have some cool new projects they have been working on to collect 21st century documents and make their materials accessible to more people. The library’s Digital Archivist Zach Vowell has been coordinating the long-term preservation of digital collections in an effort to promote online discovery and use of the materials. But what does this mean for Special Collections and what does it mean for archiving in the future?

“We are definitely more comfortable bringing in ‘born digital’ collections than five years ago,” Vowell said in a conversation about his role and the changing landscape of archives. “Born digital” items refer to items that originate in a digital form, versus a paper copy, for example. “Digital preservation is integral now,” Vowell continued, and the university is veering towards a born-digital-only approach to archiving in many ways.

This tiny custom-shaped CD, now housed in the University Archives, is an example of digital media that carries born-digital archives. “The Card v.2” stores a video, created by the Cal Poly Admissions Office around 2000, that helps prepare students “2 launch into cal poly’s virtual world” (aka Cal Poly’s website).

On the online archives, you can view the video that was preserved at this link. You can check out the 2000-version of the calpoly.edu website here.

“At a very basic level, archivists preserve documentation that becomes the primary source for people creating knowledge about our past,” Vowell said. If there were no archives, it would be impossible for researchers to study the past. “But archives also play a broader role as custodians of evidence,” Vowell said. “Archives provide accountability by preserving and providing access to records. A wide range of people, not just historians, might find such archives useful for all sorts of research, including engagement with governments, corporations, and other powerful entities.”

Special Collections and Archives provides that service for Cal Poly and California. With tons of student projects, collections of photos from Cal Poly’s beginning as a vocational school in 1903, every edition of the student newspaper and KCPR student radio records, Special Collections and Archives is a crucial university resource.

Front cover of the 1971-72 catalog. See it here.

The current 2017-2019 catalog, which is entirely online! See the archived versions of the catalog website here.

In the archives, course catalogs can be found from every year since the university opened, and administrative and other department records are housed here. Interested in tuition inflation since 1980, or about the attitude towards women on campus during WWII? Do you need to access a past version of a Cal Poly web page? Special Collections and Archives is here for that very reason: to provide with as much transparency as possible every available aspect of campus life and to California history.

The department was established in 1978, and though their essential purpose has not changed, much of the work they do has. From the rise of computers to the invention of the internet and cellphones, technological changes have transformed archiving, even in the last few years.

A CD from MS171 Gabriel L. Valencia Collection. The CD holds a series of songs recorded and produced by Victor Valencia in Santa Maria, 2001. Special Collections rescued the content off the CD, which was at risk, and now stores the content in MetaArchive, a distributed digital preservation network, of which Cal Poly is a member. Learn more about the Valencia collection here.

For example, a recent aspect of archiving has been preserving the software that files need to run on. “Many more born digital items enter into our archives than before,” Vowell said. But most of the born digital items depend on software to access and work with. “There is technology called ‘software emulation’ that recreates old software environments on contemporary new computers,” Vowell said.

Vowell used software emulation to render the interactive content of a CD from 1996 which was sent to prospective students. The “interactive” CD allowed viewers to tab through pages of information, listen to audio, and watch videos about Cal Poly (with all the resolution and speed that Windows 3.1 could offer!).

That is something that has been changing over the last 5 years. “We began to see that some format types–architectural drawings on CAD, for instance–are too complex to be run on a different version of the program,” Vowell said. “A lot of these files are so sophisticated and complex, you lose a lot of information when you switch between versions.”

Software emulation is no simple task, but it has become a critical aspect of archiving in the 21st century. At Kennedy Library, Special Collections and Archives is embracing new technologies to take a more digital-focused approach to archiving, to continue to be active and accurate custodians of historical records. Pay Special Collections and Archives a visit to learn more about Cal Poly history, archiving, or to see some of their rare and unique collections. They are located in Kennedy Library’s Special Collections and Archives department.

Read more on special collections and archives.

3 comments on “Archives and Archiving in the Digital Age: What do you do with your 1996 CD-ROM?
  1. Zach says:

    Great work! I totally know what to do with my old CD-ROMs now!

  2. Eileen Herrera says:

    I was sooooo pleased to see Victor Valencia’s contribution of the Farm Labor Movement cited as an example of the archiving done by Cal Poly! His was a homegrown effort, recording the history as it happened. Victor is a product of our local area, Allan Hancock College and Cal Poly University and we should be proud to share his documentation!

  3. Laura Sorvetti says:

    Thank you Professor Herrera! We are so excited to see how researchers and students will use the Valencia collection in their research! You can see the collection description here, please share with anyone you think interested! https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c8w09c2f/

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