ICHORA 2020, DAY 2: Jane Zhang, “Analog to Digital: The Special Olympics’ World Games”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Deciding What to Keep: Archivists as Co-creators of Historical Meanings.”

In a presentation entitled “Transition from Analog to Digital – A Case Study of Special Olympics’ World Games Documentation,” Jane Zhang (Catholic University of America) turns the archiving project of the Special Olympics Headquarters, located in Washington, D.C., into a detailed study of the transition from paper-based to digital record keeping practices. From 2017-2019, two of Zhang’s students organized the past 50 years of the non-profit organization’s records. While it came as no surprise that by 2019 the organization had completely abandoned the use of physical media formats in favor of digital and cloud based storage, it was still astonishing to hear how slowly and late this transition came about. Although computers had entered work places in the 1980s, three decades had to pass before the digital format started to dominate the record keeping system.

Paper-based records not only survived all the way into the last decade of the 20th century but essentially peaked in the 1990s before starting to decrease at the start of the 21st century. Zhang found the same to be true for the organization’s printed photos, while the use of reels and videotapes peaked in the 2010s.

While the first half of the 20th century is certainly known as the ‘prime time’ of paper-based record keeping, this tradition, as Zhang’s case study could show more broadly, continued all the way to the end of the century. In the second half, however, other physical media types came into the mix, while digital superseded physical only in the 21st century. In a succinct conclusion, Zhang emphasizes how these findings need to be integrated into today’s archival education. Current students need to be prepared for this transition and need to develop a skill-set as broad as the range of media and record types they will encounter in their professional lives.


Dr. Sebastian Modrow

Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries

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