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Archivists Doug Erickson and Paul Merchant explain the importance of written archives

April 15, 2009

Doug Erickson, head of special collections/archivist at Watzek Library, and Paul Merchant, William Stafford archivist special collections archivist at the Watzek Library:

Erickson and Merchant were quoted in an article by the Oregon Council for the Humanities about the hidden treasures found in library archives. Unfortunately, digital technology is quickly contributing to the extinction of paper archives, said Erickson. “We communicate in very short and spontaneous ways now, rather than being methodical and contemplative about what we are writing,” he said. Merchant added, “Word-processing programs that overwrite previous drafts will result in fewer early versions being preserved. There may be poets and novelists who end up keeping only their final version. This will be very impoverishing for literary scholars.”

One of the major concerns archivists face involves the longevity of digital technology. Erickson pointed out that archivists know how to preserve written documents, but the same is not true for archival CDs. Merchant also believes that works deemed to be “inferior” may not be saved in the digital world, which could lead to the elimination of great authors’ novels. “We can’t anticipate the judgments of posterity, and masterpieces sometimes lie hidden,” Erickson said. “Emily Dickinson is the perfect example. She was not very well known when she died, and it is a miracle that we have her work. It is in little bound volumes that she left behind. It’s wonderful, just wonderful. But someone might easily have thrown those away.”

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