Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Reflecting on "Developing a Regional Approach to Digitization in Western NY"

After working on several digitization projects, I began working with consortia on helping them plan for digitization within their membership. I'm now working with the Western New York Library Resources Council (WNYLRC), located in Buffalo, and we're into month #5 of a two-year project. (A brief overview article about the project is available here.) Today I attended a meeting for one of the Council's committees, and talked to them about the project and its goals. One of the questions I addressed is whether this project is different from other digitization planning projects. This question came up weeks ago in a meeting of the committee that is overseeing the planning project. Of course, the real questions were:

  • Are we different?
  • Will our plan be different?
  • Will we succeed in ways that others have not?

Background: Although the NYS Library is not funding digitization efforts, it does want the regional library councils to plan for digitization and to lay the groundwork for future activity. At this point, all of the councils have done work on a plan or on some local digitization efforts (see CDLC's plan, pp. 6 - 7 for details). Each has taken a different tact, with Southeastern New York Library Resources Council (SENYLRC) launching a successful regional digitization project called Hudson Valley Heritage.

The Wall: In some regions, the activities around creating the plan -- which included training activities -- were well received, but led to people hitting "the wall." What's the wall? The wall is that point when people have had enough training to understand all of the aspects of digitization and are ready to embark on a project; however, rather than beginning a project, these people (organizations) realize that they now know enough to know that they cannot carry out a digitization project. They have neither the time, people, or money for such an endeavor. They are thankfully for the training and appreciative of the knowledge. They can see the benefit that digitization would provide, but "the wall" prevents them from proceeding.

I remember doing a series of facilitated discussions for the Central NY Library Resources Council on digitization and the impact of the wall. Well...First...there were walls disappearing. One group didn't see the potential in their collection, but everyone else did. We brainstormed ideas and got them excited about what their collection meant and what they could do. This college library launched a short demonstration project to show its alumnae what it wanted to do, in hopes that the alumnae would fund the effort, but the funding did not come. (I don't know where this potential project stands at this point. Wells College is transitioning from a women's college to being co-ed. However, the fact that they have the archives of Frances Folsom Cleveland, who married President Grover Cleveland while he was in the White House, has not changed.)

Then there were the walls that appeared. Getting the full picture (understanding) of what a digitization project entails takes a long while. At first, everyone thinks its wonderful and do-able, then reality strikes. There are lots of things to do. Can the institutions budget the time, people and money to make it happen? Often the answer is "no." It is an answer born out of the knowledge of the "way things are" in their institutions.

In institutions that have pushed forward and done digitization projects (or created ongoing digitization programs), the is a person who has pushed aside the obstacles and found ways of getting the resources needed. Creativity perhaps enters the picture in how they seek funding (or from whom) or in the partnerships they form. They push ahead, hoping that others will follow.

Thinking about WNYLRC: So is WNYLRC different? Will their members avoid the wall? Yes, I believe they will. Why?

  • First, because the council had a foray into digitization several years ago, so this is not its first efforts. It gained wisdom from that work.
  • Second, the planning project is looking at hardware (possible consortial purchasing agreements?) and software (image management/federated search) that should provide momentum.
  • Third, they are thinking about the resources in the region and whether additional resources will be needed to help organizations start (and complete) digital imaging projects.

In other words, they are creating momentum that should stop the wall from forming.

However, the region is having financial problems and public libraries are on the verge of closing. (see this previous blog posting) I do worry that this will adversely impact the work we're doing, although my hope is that it will force innovation (and isn't creating digital resources innovative?). Yes, it is tough to sell creating digital images as the thing to do when money is disappearing before your eyes, but we will try.

Reflecting will continue: I am beginning to note ideas for the plan itself. There is much more information to receive from WNYLRC's members and we'll be doing a survey in September as a way of getting broader input. And so as this project continues, so will my reflecting. I hope the reflecting will allow me to see potential walls before they form and find ways of navigating people around them.

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