Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Playing devil's advocate: Are large projects worth it?

Kevin Driedger left a comment on this post and asks:
...I've had one question in the back of my head the entire time, and maybe it is just the devil's advocate in me, or maybe I'm a miserly administrator in the making, but my question is, why do this? Such a project would be a large expense of time, money and energy and would the final produce be "worth" it. What I don't know is who uses these digitized local history type collections? - apart from the K-12 community. There may well be strong evidence for the usefulness and need for these kind of projects and I would love to see it. I don't mean to dismiss the idea, it sounds wonderful and I would love to see it succeed. I'm just curious to know what kind of ongoing use these projects see to justify all the expense.
Kevin, playing devil's advocate is quite necessary. We do often think of projects and realize how cool they would be to do, but don't do enough investigation -- sometimes -- to know if they really would be heavily used.

A project focused on local/regional history (like the mythical project for Harrisburg) could be used by:
  • K-12 students, especially those in 4th, 7th and 11th grades were local/national history is emphasized.
    • A local history project should market itself to local teachers and school/public librarians, so they will use the project and refer students to it.
  • Genealogists
    • Genealogists are often huge users of local history online, including newspaper archives. They really will go through a site looking for pertinent information and they don't mind paying a reasonable price for access.
  • History buffs
  • Researchers of topics where the impact can be found a local history. For example:
    • The fall of Saigon
    • The Agnes hurricane in 1972
    • Racial tensions of the 1960s
    • Religious freedom
    • Utopias
  • Corporations who are interested in relocating to the region. The decision-making process is not straightforward and often entails things that we might not consider (the number of universities, transportation infrastructure, cultural mix, cultural outlets). In addition, could a look at the past help the corporation understand the area's current state and its future?
  • Vacationers, who are looking to spend time in an area with a rich history. It has been proven that having materials online can attract people to view actually collections.
Keep in mind that the users of this type of material could be anywhere in the world. With Harrisburg's history, for example, I could see people in England and Germany have some interest because of those who immigrated to that region. Because Native Americans where often moved off of their lands, Native people in other regions -- with roots in Central PA -- might use this materials to trace their family history as well as understand the politics that caused their ancestors to migrate.

It is also important to realize that we are becoming more dependent on the information that is available online. If we can't find something online, then we might think it doesn't exist. Therefore, I think it behooves every region and every institution to have an online presence and to have some of its history online. Does the information need to be as extensive as what I'm outlining? No, but it doesn't hurt to dream big, since we do sometimes dream too small.

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Anonymous said...

Hello, Jill,

Kevin Driedger's comment is interesting and, being a Libra, I can probably argue both sides of the question.

Before I went into audio tape restoration full-time, I worked on some large-scale digital archive projects in the commercial media sector and they had their share of growing pains. Many of your comments in this series have caused me to nod my head in the affirmative seeing that you've "been there, done that" and know many of the pitfalls of this type of project. The administrative issues are oftentimes larger than the technical issues, and administration issues often impact the technical implementation.

Jill, you have hit on one of the two major points--the one that if it doesn't exist on-line, it doesn't exist in some/many people's minds -- and the latest generation (my 6th and 7th graders included) are especially guilty of this.

I think the successful projects start out small and then grow. Here is what I think is a good example of a focused small project that is, apparently, getting good usage:

The other crucial point is that in this century, I suspect we'll see the mantra, if it's not digitized, it is not preserved.

As you know, preservation can take many forms, but geographic diversity of duplicate originals is a key to long-term survivability of records and documents. That is only effectively possible in the digital domain.

I commented on the first post and you've taken some of that and expanded on it with your discussions of contributions from other local archives.

Beyond the Web site presence, I see one of the key goals of this type of project is to serve as a model for other regional archives that help preserve in digital form all of the records/documents that are stored in one copy in small libraries and archives within their umbrella region.

While many of these organizations do an excellent job in preservation, with only one copy, the risks are high. The museum could be struck by lightning or we could see record-breaking rains like those that the DC area just experienced (too close to Harrisburg and Lancaster -- my Dad's home -- for comfort).

I do think dividing the work is feasible. Sharon Owen of the Center for Oral and Public History at Cal State Fullerton mounted a gigantic effort to digitize (to two CD copies as the data storage infrastructure couldn't be created in an appropriate time frame) something over 5,000 reel and cassette tapes of oral history. It was done with all volunteer labour.

I am convinced that the long-term preservation capabilities of a project like you are describing are just as important as the access capabilities.



Anonymous said...

Our public library thought it was worth the time. We wrote it up for RUSQ and have it online at: