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Digitizing from an Archival Student’s Perspective

October 27th, 2009 · No Comments

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Digital preservation is a wonderful thing…as long as I do not have to do it. As I work in an archive/library at my university, digitizing a collection for online use, I have lots of time to think about digital preservation, its benefits and disadvantages, how the nature of libraries and archives is changing and what it means for us all.

As a newly graduated student, I dream of processing unique materials, rummaging through boxes and loosely organized files to find the rhythm of a collection. Documents and artifacts that tell someone’s story, that make me chuckle or make me sad, that surprise me and some that bore me. These materials get my hands dirty, make me feel gritty, make my skin break out, but make me feel real. But the scanner? It makes me feel definitely like something other than an archivist or a librarian. I must work quickly and without thinking – I am there to scan only, not to make judgment calls, or to find order in chaos, nor to find that collection rhythm.

At the scanner, my job is to scan everything. Everything? Aren’t all these clippings accessible somewhere else? And in the process of scanning I feel like I am doing some damage, folding and refolding to make the materials fit and to scan so the image appears appropriately on the screen. Saving everything seems redundant. Many of the materials are certainly not unique but the goal is to get it all digitized as quickly as possible. Someone will go back later to pick and choose what is relevant for online access – but will they do that or will they decide it is just as easy to put everything online since it has already been digitized? Will a glut of repetitive and non-unique information soon be preserved digitally and available to scroll through? And is taking all this time to provide access without the clear intent of preservation a wasteful endeavor? A few more, pricey moments now at a higher resolution for a better quality image capture could save time and money down the road.

There is no escaping digital preservation. It is here to stay; and how cool is it to go to a site like the Online Archive of California and browse the holdings at over 150 institutions while sitting on my couch in Michigan? That is a big savings in airfare and a whole lot of eye candy and information that I would not normally be exposed to. And these extraordinary documents and photographs will become more numerous and available to me in Michigan as time goes on if institutions continue to be able to afford to digitize them. While I cannot feel the materials online, they appear very lifelike – the crinkled edges, the soft yellowing, the texture is visible, almost real. And I can zoom in for closer inspection. There is always a little nagging question in my mind though – I assume they have not been enhanced in any way, that they all presented in their real form. Can I trust this authenticity? I will have to unless I really know my p’s and q’s about every subject and holding out there. The reputation of the institution that owns and has digitized these materials and then the reputation of the company that is maintaining the web site, will all have to come into play. Will everyone viewing the site intuitively question authenticity and thus automatically build in a system of checks and balances? Hope so.

There are other aspects about digital preservation that must be considered and many must be admired. If the materials live through the physical scanning process, handling of them in the future by patrons and researchers in archives will certainly be cut down. This will reduce damage to the materials as well as theft; they will live longer. If the materials are stolen or if they are destroyed by disaster, the content will have been preserved and at least some idea of the artifactual structure and texture.

At the Conservation Lab in the Buhr Facility at the University of Michigan, one can tour the facility and admire the work of conservators who are restoring ancient papyri and hand engraved and colored maps with passionate patience and artistic skill but it is really in the digital lab where things are happening. Here technicians sit in front of computer screens and very large, expensive scanners all day and endure the tediousness of digitizing the artifacts that Google cannot digitize safely for University of Michigan through the Google Books Program. Here content and visuals are being digitized for access and preservation, where even the complete papyrii library will be digitally preserved and made accessible for the whole world to see.

The act of preservation digitization is certainly not as stimulating as holding or viewing the real thing but it will certainly affect the most people and all over the world at that. It has changed the nature of libraries and archives and it is here to stay. I just don’t want to be the one doing it!

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Category: Archiving Challenges