Future Histories – Archiving Digital Architectural Records

Julie Collins , 1 March 2023

Julie Collins, Curator at the University of South Australia’s Architecture Museum, has been calling for the preservation of architectural records throughout her career. Here she shares some important steps you can take to ensure future generations will have the opportunity to remember today’s architecture.

Architectural collections are an invaluable resource for practitioners, researchers and students from a range of disciplines: architects, planners, engineers, heritage consultants, historians and all those interested in built history and heritage. These collections include architectural drawings, correspondence, photographs and architects’ personal papers, as well as books, research reports, journals and trade literature.

Architectural records, both drawn and text based, tell the story not only of the architect and the building but also that of the clients, interior designers, engineers and builders, as well as the wider context such as commonly used materials, the building’s social and cultural setting, and its changing uses. Additionally, it can be argued, architectural collections hold the potential to assist us to live more sustainably through their contribution to the enablement of adaptive reuse and the conservation management of heritage sites.

Today, architectural records are very often produced using 3D CAD models linked to a network of online libraries through BIM systems. From the sketch models generated as thinking tools to virtual reality environments filled with digital objects designed to create immersive user experiences, born-digital models hold the potential to form the basis of the writing of future histories of human endeavour… if they are preserved. As a consequence, the collections held by offices and by architecture museums are being transformed. Storage no longer solely refers to shelf metres but to terabytes, and disaster management planning involves mitigating against online threats as well as flooding.

Why keep architectural records?

Architectural records are produced to facilitate the design, construction and maintenance of a building. But once that building has been demolished, the question arises as to whether or not to keep the records. Historic, scientific, technical, aesthetic, social and cultural information can be read from architectural drawings, thus contributing to the value and uses of architectural archives.

Architectural records attract a wide range of users who all differ in the types of information they are looking to retrieve. Architectural historians might seek the history of the building – when it was built, for whom, if additions or alterations were made, as well as information on the changing functions of the building. An engineer working on an existing building might seek data on the depth of foundations, materials specified, location of plant, or loadings on the building. These requirements mean that a range of files may need to be retained for future users.

The myriad ways of looking at records are reflected in the “Guidelines for the Preservation of Digital Heritage”, prepared by Colin Webb of the National Library of Australia (2003), which suggests that digital records should be preserved:

  • as evidence or information;
  • for artistic or aesthetic reasons;
  • for demonstrating significant innovation;
  • for showing historical or cultural associations;
  • for their usefulness to potential users; and
  • for any culturally significant characteristics they show.

Born-digital architectural records need to be seen in this light. Therefore, it is important to look beyond the media and into the content, and to think as future users of these records when approaching decisions on the preservation of born-digital architectural files.

Risking a Digital Dark Age

The challenges of collecting born-digital architectural records sit alongside the increasing demand for the digitisation of paper records, yet both face risks for their future preservation. In the conference paper “Towards The Long-Term Preservation of Building Information Models”, Jakob Beetz et al (2013) explored how knowledge about a building diminished over time, finding the drop off once a building is constructed is significant. According to Beetz et al, the best time to capture knowledge about a building is immediately after it has been built and while it is in use and, significantly, before its decline towards demolition. It’s important to capture data from born-digital architectural records before hardware failure or obsolescence, and before software tools and formats become inaccessible. Other potential losses of information about authorship, provenance, ownership and rights are also easiest to capture while staff who worked on the job are still employed.

While paper-based records risk physical deterioration, complex computer models are at risk, not only from technical obsolescence (both hardware and software) but also from human fallibility and our own memory loss. Unless the creators or current custodians of these files ensure their colleagues or archivists are made aware of the existence of their digital work and put in place strategies to care for it, invaluable data will become virtually irretrievable or forgotten. In a potential future without securely preserved data, how will we remember the world of today?

What can you do right now?

In a collaborative project on archiving born-digital architectural records funded by NATSPEC and the University of South Australia’s Architecture Museum, researcher Chris Burns developed some simple steps you can put in place to ensure the future preservation of your work. These guidelines recommend that:

  • Digital archival records should be centralised in one repository, and at least two copies of the repository maintained in separate physical locations.
  • Digital files must be checked regularly for corruption. Corrupted files must be replaced with uncorrupted copies. Generating checksums for files, and regularly validating files against checksums, is a way of monitoring the health of digital files.
  • At least one, but preferably two individuals within a practice should have a basic understanding of digital preservation principles.
  • Practices should develop a policy for documenting which types of records will be archived at the end of a project and how long those records will be retained.

While these guidelines should help in the maintenance of architectural practice records, it is worth taking the time to think ahead a little further. Consider talking to a collecting institution about the future donation of your records, both paper-based and digital. Various university special collections and libraries collect architectural records and value well organised, listed and cared for transfers of historical documents and born-digital files.

Further resources

You can find more information at:

NATSPEC, “Archiving Digital Records”

Architecture Museum, University of South Australia

Jakob Beetz, Stefan Dietze, Rene Berndt and Martin Tamke, “Towards the long-term preservation of Building Information Models”. Proceedings of the 30th CIB W78 International Conference – 9–12 October 2013, Beijing, China.

Aliza Leventhal, Julie Collins and Tessa Walsh, “Of Grasshoppers and Rhinos: A Visual Literacy Approach to Born-Digital Design Records”, The American Archivist, 1 September 2021, 84 (2): 281–319. [paywall]

Colin Webb, National Library of Australia, “Guidelines for the Preservation of Digital Heritage”, UNESCO, Information Society Division, 2003.

Dr Julie Collins is Curator and Research Fellow at the University of South Australia’s Architecture Museum which is a member of the International Confederation of Architecture Museums (ICAM). Recently she has co-authored an article on visual literacy and born-digital design records in the American Archivist (2021). Her main area of research is the architectural history of health facilities and landscapes, having published a book titled The Architecture and Landscape of Health: A historical perspective on therapeutic places 1790-1940 (Routledge 2020).

Photos: Julie Collins