Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Guest Blogger, Ben Goldman, on selection criteria

I'm delighted to have Ben Goldman contribute this guest blog post. Ben is a graduate of the iSchool at Syracuse University (MSLIS 2009). He is now the Digital Programs Archivist at American Heritage Center (University of Wyoming). Last month, Ben attended the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Annual Conference which moved him to think deeply and write. Ben sent back a short thought from the conference and was persuaded to write something more on selection criteria.

Ben and I would enjoy hearing your thinking on "selection criteria". Please leave a comment or consider writing a blog post in response.

The phrase ‘selection criteria’ is an interesting one. Paul Conway from the iSchool at the University of Michigan gave a short presentation at SAA on how experienced researchers feel about our digitization efforts. In general, those he interviewed somewhat mistrust our selection activities. They wonder what was not chosen and why, and who decided it was not worthy. He’s working on some articles that will express these assertions through more scientific means.

I find the argument convincing since it’s existed in archives for quite awhile. Subjectivity is present in many of our professional choices, from what we collect or don’t collect, to what we keep or discard within a collection, to how we choose to arrange and describe materials. These choices have definite consequences on the future understanding of the materials. Researchers have long wondered why and how archivists make these decisions, so it’s only natural they would wonder the same concerning our ‘selection criteria.’ 

I am not sure how most institutions decide what to digitize. I suspect that, like the American Heritage Center, most digitization is done in response to patron requests or as part of stand-alone - and possibly grant-funded - projects. The former leaves us with a mass of scattered material from random collections. And the latter is not likely to be a complete digitization of collection items; in reality it typically leaves out certain items for a variety of reasons (duplication, quality, importance, etc.). Either way, we are likely to have users that a) don’t understand why we’ve digitized what we have, and b) wonder what else we have that is related to the digitized items.

I am starting to think we need to be much more transparent about how we go about selecting for digitization, in the same way the profession has started to move towards more transparency in how we arrange and describe collections. As such, I think we need to make an effort to express why selected material was digitized. But I hardly think that is enough. I think we can also move toward models of digitization that leave users with fewer gaps and fewer concerns of the type expressed by researchers to Dr. Conway.

At the AHC, we’re been tossing around the idea of a ‘no-item scanning’ rule, where we only scan, at minimum, whole folders at a time. If a patron requests just one scan, we’d give them their scan, but take the additional time to scan the rest of the material in the folder. So when the next researcher comes to our digital collections, they won’t find a single scan from an entire folder and wonder what else is there, or why this one scan was chosen. They’d find the item plus all related material from the folder – a complete folder scan. The same would go for project-based digitization (though we’re trying to move beyond ‘projects’): we would scan whole parts – the folder, box, or series.

Would users like this? They may, after all, still wonder, ‘why this folder?’ But they wouldn’t be wondering, ‘what else is in this folder?’ and I think that would be a major step forward.


Christine said...

I think it is a wonderful idea to scan an entire folder when there is a request. This gives some context to the requested document. The only issue is staff time and maybe storage issues (money for hard drives, cds or whatever you choose). If you have a small staff it may be impossible to do larger things such as a series or whole box. If you can get one, it would be a good intern or volunteer project if you are careful about setting up the proper scan specifications - dpi, jpeg/tff and any metadata for them.

kginfopro said...

Jill and Ben, thank you for this post. It is timely for me because my new position, Digital Library Manager, is also new to the institution. Selection criteria is of the major factors that I am trying to determine so that my stakeholders have a clear picture of the Digital Library's mission and so that I can effectively manage my efforts. I am only one person who is serving the whole University including Academic departments, the University Archives, and offices of Communication and Marketing, Alumni Relations, and Development. Drafting a well-thought out selection criteria based on feedback from all my stakeholders has been one of my first steps in establishing a functional and properly-scoped department.

Ben said...

Thanks to Jill for the opportunity to share my thoughts, and thanks for the comments so far. I was thinking more about perceptions as I wrote this, but I'd also like to suggest that, strictly from an administrative standpoint, ideas about selection are changing. I think we can expend far too many resources on selecting material (in fact, I spent almost my whole grad school internship on selection alone). The Shifting Gears report deemphasized selection activities, stating, in essence, that everything we've accessioned into the archive is worthy of selection, otherwise we wouldn't have archived the material in the first place. I would think a new Digital Library Material might easily be tempted into spending too much time thinking about selection (though, certainly, some time must be spent to account for an issue like copyright).

Regarding the resources needed to digitize whole folders, boxes, or series, this remains the largest concern of mine as well. Like many archivists, I wear many hats and can't begin to take on the additional work myself. I believe we'd need a dedicated, full-time digitization specialist in order to accomplish this increased scanning, and will be looking at grant opportunities in the coming year to support this initiative.

University of Wyoming said...
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