“National Archivist wants to store emails and WhatsApp messages,” was the headline of the Volkskrant newspaper on 2 January after an interview with National Archivist Marens Engelhard. The records that became public that day were all made of paper, but going forward, digital correspondence also needs to be preserved. Emails of civil servants working on important files—even the WhatsApp messages about the acquisition of Rembrandt paintings.
Article 1 of the Archive Law defines archival records as “records, regardless of form, received or created by government bodies and by their nature belonging to that body” [translated quote]. Archival records of organizations that merged with government bodies or of organizations that turned over their records to a public archive also fall under the definition. “Regardless of form” means it does not matter whether an exchange took place via letter, email, or WhatsApp: if it is an important message, it must be preserved.
Our personal correspondence too requires making decisions about what to preserve. When a fellow genealogist sends us genealogical information, we will want to be able to find it again in the future to use as the basis for further research or to reference it.
A growing part of our digital conversations takes place on platforms over which we have no control. We may see a birth announcement of a first cousin three times removed on Facebook, get a tip for relevant literature on Twitter, or get a private message from a DNA-match via MyHeritage. As long as our account is active, we can access the information. But such platforms have no obligation to continue the service indefinitely. If they pull the plug, the information will be lost. Hyves and De Digitale Stad are two examples of Dutch websites where personal information was exchanged that is now lost. Google Plus will soon follow.
Like the National Archivist, we will have to think about ensuring future access to the information we want to keep. Our digital correspondence requires conscious decisions: if we don’t take steps to preserve it, it will be lost. We can preserve messages by saving them to our computer, for example by printing to PDF. A full-functioning digital repository, like at the National Archives, is overkill for our personal repository. But we do need back-ups, at three places copies including one in a different geographical location. By storing important information securely, we ensure that we can still access the information in the future.