Claire McDonald on digitization and Obama’s presidential “library”

Claire stands on Red Square in front of Suzzallo Library

If the future is digital, what changes will we see in traditional libraries and archives? In February, Barack Obama announced his presidential library will be entirely digital—spurring concerns from historians for future scholars studying the Obama presidency.

We spoke with Claire McDonald, master’s student in Library & Information Sciences, about Obama’s digital presidency and about their interests in the field. Claire studies “how we classify digital objects (any digital or digitized content), and how we preserve them and facilitate access to them in the future.”

How did you become interested in researching digital preservation and access?

I became interested in these questions while studying John Steinbeck’s manuscripts and personal papers as an undergraduate student. I found it incredible to see how Steinbeck — this writer who is always on a pedestal — came up with his ideas and wrote to his friends about them. He became a person instead of just a figurehead. I started thinking about my friends, many of whom are digital artists and writers who use computers to make all their work, and I started to get concerned. What if 100 years down the line a student like me really wants to see this artistic, creative process and there’s nothing there, because we don’t know how to preserve these things now? So that’s what brought me to the iSchool, to understand this process. As I started to take more classes, I learned that digital preservation and knowledge organization are more complicated than I thought, but my work is still motivated by that concern for students in the future.

What do you think about Barack Obama’s decision to make his presidential library a digital archive?

I think Obama is very smart to want a digital archive because his campaign and his presidency were so digital. Barack and Michelle Obama used digital platforms so well. For instance, Michelle Obama’s “Turnip for what” vine was just such a phenom. It seemed like the Obamas recognized right away the potential for the digital sphere as a way to connect with people; not just to explain policies or their plans, but also to become regular people. So I think it’s really smart to want to maintain that aspect of the presidential records in the way they were made. Because you can’t just print out a vine — it doesn’t work.

Also, having these documents widely available to people is really important. With a digital archive, we can make them available to every historian who could possibly want to access them and to teachers for use in their classrooms. But it also means they’re accessible to people who may not have good intentions.

What concerns does Obama’s digital archive raise for you?

My first concern is for security. Barack Obama was president not that long ago, which makes me question how we facilitate access to his materials in a way that doesn’t undermine a political decision or potentially put people in danger.

Another concern is for our ability to preserve documents on the internet. When it comes to paper documents, we have methods to analyze properties of the document — like the handwriting and the paper — to know if it has been altered. But when it comes to digital objects, that’s much harder to do. So the concern is for a situation where a record goes up on a digital repository and someone downloads it, makes some changes to it and puts it up elsewhere on the internet. If people are viewing that (altered) document in a public forum, before they view the unaltered document as it’s made accessible by the Obama library, how does that compromise the viewer’s understanding of Obama’s presidential records?

In the NYTimes coverage, they don’t say what will happen with the paper documents. It will be important to have a place where these are collected because if all of the papers are digitized and a file format goes obsolete, and there isn’t a paper copy, then you’re up a creek without paddle. Digitization is an aspect of preservation, but it’s not preservation full-stop.

I’m also concerned about the effects of not having a physical space for research. Reference librarians are really important to the users of research libraries; not only can they clarify researchers’ questions about the materials, but their knowledge of the materials in a given collection can help bring a researcher’s attention to materials that they may have overlooked or been unaware of. The loss of that expertise, due to the lack of a physical location, could be really detrimental for researchers.

What advice would you give the team putting this together?

I would caution against putting stuff up for open access too fast, because that’s when you can run into problems. You run the risk of not doing preservation measures to the fullest extent.

I would also recommend that the Obama presidential library get some younger archivists who think a little outside the box – who are more native to tech and are more quick to notice details about the digital nature of the materials and develop innovative approaches to managing these materials. This a trailblazing act, so get the trailblazers in their field as part of this.

Do you think we’ll be seeing more digital archives in the future?  

Yeah, it’s inevitable that we’ll be seeing more archives like this, since we live so much on digital devices. I think it’s wonderful that someone like Barack Obama is the first to do something like this. This act will legitimize the presence of digital objects in archives and will open up opportunities for more digital archives to be developed.