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Technology: Archivists make it work for them

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When an author starts writing drafts with a laptop instead of pen and paper, Howard Gotlieb says it breaks his heart. "Can you imagine our exhibit halls filled with floppy disks?" laments the director of Boston University's Twentieth Century Archives.

He knows, though, that adapting to technology is inevitable. After all, many of the people in the BU archives straddle the old century and the new.

In the National Archives and small college repositories alike, experiments are under way to manage records that exist only electronically. But for every problem technology poses, it also opens up a new way to access the materials archivists work so diligently to preserve.

Recently, for example, documents from the original Dred Scott case were posted on the Web ( dredscott). This pre-Civil War challenge to Missouri slavery law was eventually heard by the US Supreme Court, which in 1857 denied Scott and his wife, Harriett, their freedom.

"It's really democratizing scholarship in a way that can't be equaled," says Roxanna Herrick, the project's director at Washington University in St. Louis, which collaborated with the St. Louis Circuit Court and the Missouri State Archives to preserve the fragile papers and make digital images available online. "In the past, documents like this, if you got to look at them at all, you'd have to travel from far away.... [Now they're] available all over the world."

She's received feedback from students of all ages, she says, and even from some descendants of a slaveholding family involved in the case. The site has expanded partly in response to requests for more information. That "dynamic" quality makes it different from a traditional archive, Herrick says.


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