It’s no secret that emails have largely replaced letters, and PDFs and Word documents have taken the place of paper reports – and though it makes communication faster and more effective, the shift to digital concerns archivists.
Privacy, copyright, and technical issues often mean ‘born digital’ records [items that started their life digitally, i.e., an email] and digitised collections are inaccessible.
This may not seem like a bad thing, but think of the letters and paper documents that have been kept from past centuries and how they have been used to help us better understand our predecessors and history.
Digital humanities expert Dr Lise Jaillant says without preservation of and access to these archives “we risk losing a huge part of our collective memory”.
The School of Social Sciences and Humanities academic has been awarded funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to investigate the role that artificial intelligence (AI) can play to make born-digital and digitised cultural records more accessible to users.
Titled AEOLIAN, the project brings together UK and US humanities scholars, computer scientists, archivists, and stakeholders, with Dr Jaillant leading on the UK-involvement and the US research funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Of the importance of the project, Dr Jaillant said: “In practice, many archival institutions in the UK are risk-averse: they prefer to close down entire collections rather than give access to potentially problematic materials.
“For researchers and other users, having access to email archives and other digital collections is essential to make sense of our common past.”
She continued: “Identifying confidential and sensitive documents in archives is especially important.
“Artificial intelligence can be used to identify sensitive emails and other archival documents, and improve access by avoiding the release of sensitive materials.
“Even the most ‘troublesome’ archives can be made more accessible using artificial intelligence and other innovative techniques.”
The researchers are to host a series of online workshops in a bid to create an international network of theorists and practitioners working with born-digital and digitised archives.
They will also create a range of case studies on UK and US cultural organisations that will be used as part of an open-access report that outlines the team’s findings and avenues for future research.
It is predicted that AEOLIAN will make a “ground-breaking contribution” to this field.
For more information on the project, click here.