Student Perspective: Digital Interactivity in Archives

One of the first things I remember about working in the Columbia College Archives & Special Collections as an assistant since the start of my college career was being told that I was the first Interactive Arts and Media (IAM) student to work here. Whenever I told people who I was meeting in the Archives for the first time what my major was, I was met with a bit of subtle surprise that left me wondering if it really was such an out of place thing for there to be an IAM student working here. I had to stop and think… What made it so odd to be an IAM student working in an archival setting? After all, archival work and IAM studies aren’t mutually exclusive.

Throughout my relatively brief time at the Archives so far, I’ve done jobs from editing digitizations, photocopying materials for researchers, sorting through boxes upon boxes of material, to digitizing a large amount of mail order violin lessons from 1937 – 1946. Most of my time was spent in Adobe Bridge and Photoshop for hours upon hours, the simplest functions becoming second nature as keyboard shortcuts became ingrained into my being and satisfaction rising with every document marked complete on a spreadsheet. Every action at the College Archives is accurately organized, physical copies and digital backups essential.


View the complete set of digitized Sherwood Music School’s violin lessons from 1937-1946.

Isn’t this what also makes an IAM student? We spend hours in Maya, Unity, Illustrator, Photoshop and/or Visual Studio, store backups on servers, hard drives, clouds, and flash drives so we don’t lose that work, and make sure we name things well and organize them carefully so we can find them again when needed. These are all things an IAM student can relate to, and they are reminiscent of the same care and practice of the Archives. IAM students still start with pencil and paper, and still require a good deal of research. (Could you imagine how out of touch games would be without time spent researching their subject?) It’s certainly not a department as out of touch with the physical (and archival) world as people might first assume.

I don’t think that archives and people working in the interactive arts and media field realize how similar they are to each other. They both have a penchant for organization and making their work available for others for their respective reasons. Columbia’s own archival collection and many like it across the world spend a lot of time digitizing material for researchers and public viewing, and while extremely helpful, a simple PDF can become lackluster. Isn’t there something IAM could do to help make it even more appealing while keeping its integrity?

Could you imagine a fully interactive way to read an old document you can’t go visit yourself? Digitizing a book in a fully rendered 3D way that a user could interact with in a way closest as physically possible to the real thing? Having the archive using it making it happen with the simple upload of a PDF and a bit of light data entry?

It would be amazing for archives to be able to have their digital and physical copies be even closer in comparison in a way like this, and some archives are already making steps to make their digital collections interactive, though not quite to this degree yet. With a bit of increased intermingling and cooperation between the Interactive Arts and Media and archival fields, I’m sure it could happen. I would love to see something like this bloom into the next big thing in digitizing archives across the globe!


Evangeline Piña is an Interactive Arts and Media freshman at Columbia College Chicago. She has worked in the College Archives and Special Collections as an Archives Student Assistant since September 2015.
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