In the context of the dramatically altered social and technological environment, isolated traditional archives still lock documents that are the property of the public in the depth of their repositories, and offer access only to the selected researchers who have the means and the opportunity to do research on-site, dependent on the goodwill of the professional archivists.
The traditional archive, as it has been known and used in the past several hundred years, is in crisis. The archive as an institution and as an idea is traditionally based on trust; the archive has been looked at as a trusted institution, the guarantor of the authenticity of the documents in its care. As a result of the dramatically increasing information overload, (the sheer volume of and the connections among available information) and new types of access to records, historical but even legal and forensic research are faced with new, difficult and barely solvable problems. The skyrocketing digitization of documents, the proliferation of records that are ab initio (born) digital, new ways of conducting research, the available technical opportunities of networking and cooperation pose new challenges and offer innovative new solutions for archives. Digitization shifts emphasis from the materiality of documents to content, putting preservation in a radically new perspective.
The withering away of analog documents, the spread of digital records change the status of the document and the information record in the archive. In the era of ab initio digital records, the status of the archive, where traditionally the original "real" records could be found, has been destabilized. Authenticity, credibility, the integrity of the documents. "Forgery from a distance", "manipulation not made by human hand" can tamper the original documents in ways that had been unimaginable just a decade ago. Computer viruses, as well as obsolete formats can change or destroy whole collections, or undermine the authenticity of the documents, while keeping the appearance of credibility. Analog technology made alterations expensive, complicated and in most cases – in the long run – detectable. The situation in the digital age is fundamentally different. As textual documents are being migrated to digital environment, the difference between texts and images is becoming blurred; texts and images (photographs) are indistinguishable, inasmuch as both are easily mutable digital information.
The fragility of authenticity is a dramatic threat for the archives, especially but not exclusively, in the case of legal and forensic documents. As OSA is the repository of important archives on human rights violations (among them the records of the UN Expert Commission on War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia, the Bosnia Projects of the Physicians for Human Rights – including the whole forensic documentation of the mass-grave exhumations in Srebrenica), we are aware of the importance of preserving the integrity of images and digital or digitized documents that are important guarantees of fair court proceedings of the international courts, and also that of substantiating historical claims in scholarly works. OSA has a working relationship with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague and has assisted in the work of the Dutch Parliamentary investigation commission in its work on the responsibility of the Dutch peacekeeping forces during the ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica. We are aware of the technological challenges that have changed the way records are (or should be) handled by different institutions dealing with evidence.
As a consequence of the technological changes, examination of records does not necessarily reveal prior manipulation. Digital tampering of documents leaves just a few detectable traces behind, so it becomes complicated and very difficult to trace intrinsic artifacts of manipulation. The launching of a new type of distributed, networked, cryptographically-signed file-sharing archive would naturally address the issues of integrity and authenticity. (An authentic record is – complex ontological and epistemological issues aside – what it purports to be; issued by a person or agency endowed with relevant authority. Integrity refers to the fact that the document has been preserved without any alteration that would impair its status and use as an authentic record.) By launching PA, by the active contribution of its users, OSA aims at demonstrating that in spite of the technological changes and problems of authentication, archives can regain their trusted institutional status by making collaborative use of new networking technology.
PA is actively seeking cooperation with scholars and graduate students, learned societies, and international research associations. PA will make serious efforts to persuade peer-reviewed journals of those academic fields where published scholarly articles rely on archival documents, to request authors to upload their sources into PA.