The AURA network brings together Digital Humanists, Computer Scientists, archivists and other stakeholders to unlock cultural assets held in “dark” digital archives currently closed to users. Not so long ago, historians, literary scholars and other scholars would read letters and other papers preserved in Special Collections Libraries. Of course, this analogue world has not disappeared, but the digital revolution has profoundly changed the way we encounter archives. Born-digital archives are now better preserved and managed thanks to the development of open-access and commercial software. Yet, preserving born-digital records is not enough. We also need access to these archival materials, in order to produce new knowledge and foster public engagement.
Archives are meant to be used, not locked away. A central problem is that most born-digital archives are closed to users due to privacy, copyright or technical issues. Even when access is possible (as in the case of web archives), users often need to physically travel to repositories rather than consult materials remotely. In order to unlock cultural assets, we need to bring the best minds together and harness the latest technology.
At present, applying Artificial Intelligence to archives remains at the exploratory stage. Yet, automation is no longer a choice, it is a necessity. AI can be used to separate personal and business emails and improve accessibility to non-confidential records; identify sections of documents that refer to personal data allowing partial views or limited access to the archival content; extract named entities (people names, dates, events) from archives and link them to external sources.
While access to digital archives is essential, we also need to anticipate the moment when born-digital records will be more accessible. To make sense of this mass of data, new methodologies are urgently needed, combining traditional humanistic methods with data-rich approaches. Collaborations between Humanities scholars, Computer Scientists, archivists and other stakeholders are therefore essential to make archives more accessible, but also to design new methodologies to analyse huge amounts of data.