Sunday, March 11, 2007

Article: History, Digitized (and Abridged)

The New York Times published a long article on digitization, with an emphasis on those things that are not being digitized potentially being ignored because they are not available online. The problem? A lack of funding (which should be no surprise to any of us).
At the Library of Congress, for example, despite continuing and ambitious digitization efforts, perhaps only 10 percent of the 132 million objects held will be digitized in the foreseeable future. For one thing, costs are prohibitive. Scanning alone on smaller items ranges from $6 to $9 for a 35-millimeter slide, to $7 to $11 a page for presidential papers, to $12 to $25 for poster-size pieces. (The cost of scanning an object can be a relatively minor part of the entire expense of digitizing and making an item accessible online.)
Later the author writes:
Even with outside help, experts say, entire swaths of political and cultural history are in danger of being forgotten by new generations of amateur researchers and serious scholars.
Is there a solution? As I read the article, I thought of crowdsourcing and indeed -- although not called that -- there is an example later in the text:

...genealogy experts affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are fanning out, digital cameras in hand, making copies of genealogically relevant records in 200 cities around the world, including New Orleans. Over the next five years, the church expects to have hundreds of millions of digital images available.

Mr. Metcalfe said economies of scale helped his organization bring down the cost of capturing each image to roughly 20 cents — far less than what a commercial company might charge.

Now there may be image quality issues with how this work is being done, but it is increasing access to the information!

Of course, there are other issues besides the the cost of digitization. The article acknowledges that there can be copyright concerns that need to be addressed. However, even if the copyright concerns could be swept away, would we have the resources to digitize and make available all of the analog/hardcopy content that should be digitized? Notice I said digitize AND make available. The cost of digitization is only part of the problem. Would we have the resources to create the metadata, do the transcriptions, create the access systems, and all the other work to ensure that the items could be found AND understood?

Should we begin to emphasis more the creation and use of digital finding aids as a way of making people aware of what is available at an institution? I know...for those who want to use the primary source material online, this is not a solution. However, it would build awareness of materials. Those who could then could travel to see the items, or they work with the institution to view them online. Digitizing finding aids could be an important tool that many are overlooking. Everyone wants to digitize the item and forgets that digitizing the pointers to that item can be just as valuable.

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Laura said...

Hi, Jill. Thank you for your insightful comments on the hidden costs of digitizing. I agree with you about the importance of putting finding aids online, too, to get the word out about what we have. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify, when you refer to finding aids, do you mean the sort which are now often made available via EAD, or a more generic description of ways of finding digital resources for example exporting metadata via OAI?
By the way, I am the person who made the comment about metadata being broader than descriptive. I did not really intent to be anonymous, just checked the wrong radio button.

Jill Hurst-Wahl said...

Anne, I was specifically thinking of the finding aids that are now being made available through EAD. I know it is time-consuming, but not as time-consuming (or costly) as digitizing individual items.