University of Minnesota archives advance with new technology


In the last five years, the University of Minnesota Archives has digitized about one million pages of records.

But that’s only one percent of its total content.

Despite increases in technology use, the University’s archives and special collections have continued to grow — with and without being scanned and put online.

The University Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections Department houses 16 collections of rare and unique research material. Thirteen of these are stored in an underground cavern the size of two football fields stacked on top of each other, located beneath the Elmer L. Andersen Library and the University Law School.

There’s a common misconception that when content comes to the archives, it’s immediately digitized and put online, said Erik Moore, head of the University Archives — a collection that preserves items related to the University’s history.

“The majority of the material we have is in paper and always will be,” Moore said.

Although the Internet has opened doors for people to do research on their own, he said, material from the archives is still what they turn to after an initial Google search.

Developing research ideas online before coming to the archives can make for a more informed and specific search process, Moore said. Because of the Internet, researchers often come to the archives more prepared than before.

“It certainly changes the way we interact with people,” he said.

But even with the help the Internet provides, the material in the archives maintains its value.

The research process is richer when researchers can look at original items, said Linnea Anderson, archivist for the University’s Social Welfare History Archives.

“You’re actually looking at the raw material,” she said. “It’s your responsibility to … form your own critical interpretation of it.”

Rather than replacing traditional archives, technology is supplementing them by giving archivists new ways to do their work, Anderson said. And as time passes, the need for archives is growing rather than shrinking — as more content is created, she said, there are more opportunities to preserve history.

‘You have to love it’

Many of the University’s archivists stumbled into the profession and realized they had a passion for it.

As a research assistant at the University with a master’s degree in history, Moore said he never planned to go into archiving.

He “just kind of came across it,” he said, while working on a grant project for the Immigration History Research Center more than a decade ago. He’s been in the business ever since.

“You have to love it,” said Anderson, who discovered her passion for “digging in boxes” as a student at St. Olaf College.

“You will not get rich doing this,” she said.

Anderson said she especially likes teaching classes to help others hone their information-gathering skills.

Kate Dietrick, who heads the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, said she loves archives because of the intimate way people engage with them.

“With a book, there’s a story that’s there,” she said, “but with archives, you get to figure out the story.”