Tuesday, November 01, 2005

But what should be digitized?

I write an article now in each issue of WNYLRC Watch, published bimontly by the Western NY Library Resources Council. Below is the article I wrote for the November/December issue, which may be of interest to some people outside of the WNY region. If it strikes a cord with you, please leave a comment and tell me your thoughts.

But what should be digitized? This question exists in the back of the head of every person who is considering digitizing materials. Deciding what is not an easy task, but it can be discerned when thinking about the collection from several points of view.

What story does the material - the collection - tell? The materials must relate to something and either tell a story or enhance a story that has already been told. For example, abolitionist journals or diaries from the 1800s would help to document the Abolitionist Movement and give insight into the abolitionists' actions, how they felt about slavery, and how they interacted with slaves. Those diaries, if digitized, would be useful to history students and researchers who would not travel to view the materials. (Researchers often will peruse materials online in order to evaluate the relevance of the material to their research and make a decision about whether or not to travel to view the items in person.)

Who is interested in that story? If you want external funding to help digitize the materials, then having materials that relate to a story of regional, national or international significance is important. You may want to consider collaborating with other organizations in order to build a stronger and more comprehensive collection. Some agencies prefer to fund collaborative projects because the resultant collection is stronger in scope. There is added value to the project by incorporating the staff input from more than one institution. Many organizations - including for-profit companies and government agencies - digitize heavily used internal documents that are primarily of interest to the institution itself. This can help them be more efficient in their day-to-day operations as well as help them serve their constituents more effectively. If you are going to digitize materials that are generally only of interest to your own institution, you may need to digitize the materials with your own internal funding, since an external funding agency likely will not be interested in funding the digitization of materials for such a limited audience.

Will people find the materials useful if accessed online? Although it is possible to digitize nearly anything, not everything should be digitized. You want to digitize materials that people will use and understand. One way to assess if the materials will be used online is to look at how frequently they are requested or accessed currently. Materials that are frequently used have an audience that understands them and appreciates them. Those materials will be well-used online. Yes, you can digitize materials that are rarely used, but is doing so the best use of your resources? Likely your institution and funding agency will want to concentrate on materials that it knows will be used and appreciated.

If it's not going to be useful online, what do you do? There are two things to consider in determining the answer to this question:

  • Document the story that the materials tell (or help to tell) and place that information online. You might include a few digitized items, to illustrate what is in the collection, but the focus is on communicating the story, the history, or the event. There are benefits to doing this: By placing the story online, the institution hopes to develop greater awareness of the collection. Information available on the Internet may attract more researchers interested in utilizing the collection. This documentation will provide the framework upon which the digitization project will be constructed. An interesting example of this is the information online about the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY (http://www.eastmanhouse.org/inc/visit/house.php). The text gives the history of the House and explains what the House and gardens contain. Once this information was online, the curator of the House found herself being contacted by people who had read the descriptions, viewed the few digital photos, and wanted to know more about the contents of the House (not about its photographic exhibits or motion picture archive). These contacts were unexpected, but also very welcome since they demonstrated that people were interested in the Eastman House itself.
  • Digitizing the finding aid for the collection, before digitizing the actual material for the collection, would allow researchers and those interested in the topic to fully understand the scope of the collection. For example, the University of Buffalo has a Finding Aid for the North American New Music Festival Archive (http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/units/music/spcoll/NANMF/). The online finding aid includes a descriptive summary,administrative information, historical note, scope and content note, series description, container list, and related resources.

Is digitizing for you? This is the million dollar question! It is likely that your institution does have materials that researchers would use if they could find the digitized materials or a finding aid about them online. What you need to decide is whether you want to do a project on your own or collaborate with another institution, and when. For now, learn as much as you can about digitization by attending the workshops being offered by WNYLRC. Knowing more about the various areas that are impacted by a project - including copyright - will help you make better decisions about what to do and how to do it, whether the project is collaborative or not.

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