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On The Cutting Edge Of History

On The Cutting Edge Of HistoryThe Tufts Digital Collections and Archives is the steward of the University's legacy, and is putting a high-tech spin on a bunch of dusty old books.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.05.06] A bust of Alonzo Miner, the second president of Tufts, stands in the corner, clad in a Tufts t-shirt. Some 30 boxes of graduate dissertations sit on the floor, waiting to be shipped to off-site storage. Leo Rich Lewis' piano, the 1898 birthplace of Tufts' alma mater, reflects across the room into the computer stations, which are searchable public entry points to much of the University's history.

The Reading Room of the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives (DCA), nestled in the basement of the Tisch Library building (though the DCA is not affiliated with the library), is teeming with artifacts and records that span the University's history, some decades-old and some brand new.

ElephantsUnder the auspices of university archivist Anne Sauer, a double Tufts graduate (A'91, G'98), the DCA is first and foremost the steward of all official University records-financial and administrative papers, student transcripts, athletic records, student publications, and the tremendous volume of research pouring out of the University's nine undergraduate and graduate schools.

But the DCA also keeps all those things that make Tufts what it is. The upstairs stacks house student publications, assorted class pins and campus flyers and tens of thousands of photographs dating back to the University's earliest years.

"One of the most difficult decisions that archivists have to make is what warrants permanent preservation, because we're really talking forever," Sauer says. "When you take responsibility for keeping something forever, you're responsible for making sure not only that it's there, but that it's useful in some way."

The archives as it exists now is far newer than most of the artifacts it houses. When history professor Russell Miller began research in 1952 for his book "Light on the Hill," a Centennial commemorative which has since become the unofficial history of Tufts, he found no centralized collection of University records to turn to. Miller began gathering materials from all over the University and eventually took the initiative in establishing the Archives in the early 1960s.

After budget cuts closed its doors for nearly a decade, the archives reopened in 1997 with a new name, a new staff and a brand new approach to preservation fit for the digital age.

Books"We started doing work with digital collections and getting our feet wet, learning about new technologies and new modes of access," Sauer says. "Our collections are old, but the way we manage them is not."

This juxtaposition is striking and visible across the DCA, from the bust of Newton Talbot, Tufts' first treasurer, sporting a 2004 Boston Red Sox World Series championship hat to the DCA student staff busily scanning yearbooks from the School of Medicine, cataloging the Tufts Daily's image archives and answering reference requests sent in by e-mail. And this fusion is only getting more pronounced, as technology permeates deeper into records management, publications and communications.

"It's the digital stuff-the emails in people's inboxes, the websites from different departments, the committee minutes written in electronic files-that document real decisions that are made and how the University is run today," Sauer explains. "Our challenge is to preserve that record for the future."

This changing technology has posed new challenges to a trade that is often seen as specializing in old stuff. The sheer amount of data available to the Archives has exploded, and-as ironic as it seems when surrounded by tissue-thin paper and a 150-year-old piano-these new assets are infinitely more fragile, as operating systems and software quickly become obsolete.

"It's alarmingly easy to delete something," Sauer says. "It's a big challenge with digital material-you can't leave it or it's gone."

The Tufts Digital Library and Tufts Digital Repository, launched in 2003 in cooperation with University Information Technology's Academic Technology group, aims to meet the challenge of managing the increasing load of digital and electronic records and providing a public access point to many of the University's digital assets.

In addition, the DCA also supports the development of digital collections for teaching and research purposes. Initiatives include housing the papers of broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, a project with the Department of Art and Art History and the UIT Academic Technology to house slides in the Tufts Digital Repository, and support for the Perseus Digital Library, as well as projects with various faculty members to integrate their research into the classroom.

"It's really part of Tufts' infrastructure for the future," Sauer says. "What we're trying to do is provide a secure, managed place for people at Tufts to put resources so it will be taken care of and be available when you come back to get it."

That, after all, is the Archives' mission. Among its valuable collections are several objects that border on icon status. None more so than the bit of leathery hide that is the only surviving relic of Jumbo, which now spends its days safely tucked away in the Archives' stacks.

"People love to see Jumbo's tail," Sauer says. "At the beginning of each academic year, we pull it out and keep it in the Reading Room because people just drop by to see it."

Profile written by Elizabeth Hoffman, Class of 2009
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