By Catherine Gavin for AIArchitect

Architectural libraries and archives are confronting myriad technological challenges as digital-born files increasingly comprise the essential stories of buildings. Gone are the days of organizing paper—flat files of sketches, drawings, and correspondence—while also trying to preserve deteriorating wood models. These concerns are now coupled with the acquisition of hard drives stocked full of three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD) models, two-dimensional drawing files, building information modeling (BIM) files, digital photographs, videos, emails, reports, and marketing materials. Accepting, processing, maintaining, and storing all of this information, and making it accessible on a long-term basis, is a mind-boggling task.

The proprietary nature of the software programs that architects use on a daily basis often arises as a serious obstacle. “We set up a suite of old computers to begin to read and appraise the files from Minoru Yamasaki’s records,” says Tawny Ryan Nelb, co-author of Architectural Records: Managing Design and Construction Records. The rescue effort by the Archives of Michigan of the digital portion of Yamasaki’s papers (which totaled 4 TBs) will require re-creating the original software and hardware environments. Nelb notes that even when archives are capable of this feat, many of the files from the 1980s and ’90s will simply be lost due to storage media degradation, obsolescence of hardware and software, the sheer quantity of files, the lack of financial resources, and the lack of file organization.

The Alexander Architectural Archive at the University of Texas at Austin recently acquired the collection of prominent Texas architect Frank Welch, FAIA, and decided to include his digital files at a later date. “Digital records are far more demanding than analog in that they require new technical expertise outside of our walls,” says Donna Coates, a curatorial assistant for technical services at the University of Texas. “File maintenance, cataloging, and preservation for future migration and access all factor into this decision.” Coates adds that digital archiving is a fairly new profession, and the various and highly complex files of architectural records present a challenge for all archives.

For any type of archiving, the goal is to capture the story of the building, everything from the design process to the exchanges between the client and contractors. If an archive receives only finished drawings, it is difficult to uncover a project’s true breadth and depth.

“Documentation of the creative process is fundamental to an architectural archive,” says Coates. “We have sketches on paper napkins that are very important.”

The Historic American Building Survey (HABS) relies on CAD, laser scanning technologies, and photogrammetry to record and document the country’s architectural heritage. However, Catherine Lavoie, chief of HABS, emphasizes that the repository contains only archival-quality printed drawings, reports, field notes, and photographs; it does not store digital-born archives.

“HABS documentation must comply with the secretary of the interior’s standards for long-term permanence. So far, a solution to the difficulties surrounding the maintenance of digital materials has not presented itself,” says Lavoie. “We are waiting to see how the discussion evolves in the world of architectural archives.”

The conversation is shifting, however. Archivists no longer expect firms to print everything for posterity. Projects such as the Art Institute of Chicago Digital Archive for Architecture (DAArch) and MIT’s Future-Proofing Architectural Computer-Aided Design (FACADE) project have helped identify strategies and solutions for curators and archivists. Using projects by a variety of firms, both DAArch and FACADE set out to create stable, curated digital environments for recent projects with a multitude of file types. They promote maintaining the native files, using emulation software to re-create the original environments and creating derivative versions that are migrated onto current readable formats (which are largely PDFs, JPGs, and TIFFs).

Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library is engaging in an experiment, similar to DAArch and FACADE, based on the projects planned for the Manhattanville mixed-academic center on a 17-acre site to the north of the university’s historic Morningside Heights campus.

As archivists continue to refine best practices for an array of assets—whether these assets were born digital or not—that process of refinement has emerged as a clear bridge between architecture’s practice and its academy. “An ideal situation would be a collaborative one amongst archivists and architectural firms,” notes Inés Zalduendo, special collections archivist for the Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s Frances Loeb Library.

Many firms are optimizing project file storage, both as efforts to plan for their legacies as well as part of new business strategies. These firms often rely on in-house knowledge managers, archivists, and information technology experts to organize and catalog the files.

Robert A.M. Stern Architects employs two full-time archivists who have already donated hundreds of work files to the Yale Architectural Archive. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, notes that he has kept almost every­thing, including early drafts of articles, and that, at this point, the firm has processed and transferred drawings, sketches, correspondence, and other work through 1990. “I also have stuff from my childhood,” says Stern. “I un-embarrassedly stuck that in there.”

Gensler’s archival team has developed a two-tiered system that includes an archive and a digital library. The archive comprises older project files stored on hard drives or on magnetic tape, paper files, and models. Newer projects live in cloud storage. This repository is complemented by a digital library accessible by the entire firm. Any employee can search the digital library to learn about projects by location, client, building typology, materials, and other search filters.

“We are optimizing the digital library for our use,” says Eric McKinney, AIA, director of firm-wide applications. “It is about getting new work, serving our clients, and sharing information across offices.” Jennifer Faist, Gensler’s firm-wide knowledge manager, emphasizes that their next goal is to create a culture of curation so that the project team is thinking creatively about how its files will be used and cross-referenced.

What survives of these first decades of the so-called “Digital Age” will offer future historians and curators a lesson in how rapidly corporate and institutional cultures can evolve in the face of technological change. And that process of reflection has already begun. The Canadian Centre for Architecture’s (CCA) exhibit “Archaeology of the Digital” in Montreal examined the influence of computers on design during the late 1980s and early ’90s—a time when digital design applications became more accessible (and more affordable) to architecture firms. The CCA’s exhibit wrapped in October after a six-month run.

Like digital design itself, having a strategy to archive personal or firm-wide assets concerns everyone. Now is the time for architects and firms to think about the longevity of their files—as they create them. Present-day strategies will have a dramatic effect on future legacies.

Catherine Gavin is the editor-in-chief of Texas Architect, published by Texas Society AIA. Learn more