The appetite for digital materials seems infinite, as institutions scan or photograph bound materials, manuscripts, artwork, maps, translucent materials such as film or glass plate negatives, textiles, artifacts, and specimens.
Digital collections evolve through investments of time, effort, and resources. However strong the coverage might be in any subject, there is always room for improvement: more images, higher quality digital capture and scanning, and richer data. With academic discourse fanning into increasingly specialized areas of inquiry, archival collections will grow exponentially, as well as their digitized counterparts.
Digitization represents a fundamental shift in how collections are accessed and protected, and brings together various sectors of research communities. For example, scholars are creating or using electronic resources to further their research, remote education models prompt teachers to gather resources online, and publishers are integrating print with digital editions to reach wider audiences. In addition, the interactive capabilities of the Internet provide new opportunities for archives to develop global user communities to utilize their collections.
Covid-19 and Digitization
Many institutions created fundamental digital practices and burgeoning digitization programs in the late 1990s or early 2000s. However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused some organizations that had not digitized their holdings to implement digitization programs finally.
In writing about digitizing a local history collection at Oklahoma’s Chickasha Public Library, Michelle Skinner observes that the coronavirus pandemic has pushed institutions to remove further barriers to access:
COVID-19 safety procedures have increased the necessity for libraries to create digital programs, as well as for expanded informational access in a greater variety of formats. Hosting documents online— without paywalls or requiring individual subscriptions to websites—vastly increases the number of people who can access the information and also encourages self-directed research and discovery.
Digitizing primary sources can also be an opportunity…to contribute to the historic narrative by highlighting voices and experiences of marginalized communities—which have often been overlooked or misrepresented—and therefore provide a more accurate and inclusive history. Ephemeral documents—such as letters, personal recollections, or photographs—can offer glimpses of everyday life as experienced by ordinary people. These details can make history come to life, illustrating the unique struggles and triumphs of a particular community, as well as how that history relates to more universal themes.
New Projects and the New Normal
During the pandemic, archival users have dramatically increased their use of online collections, and repositories have responded in turn and shifted towards interacting with users through digital channels. In addition, the rates of creating digital materials have increased, likely resulting from the pandemic forcing repositories to refocus their efforts on the collections and projects they already had underway rather than acquiring new collections. In addition, funds previously earmarked for events and other public gatherings could now be directed toward projects like digitization.
The speed with which archival organizations have responded to various COVID-19-related changes may be even greater than their digitization efforts. For example, the pandemic forced many archival institutions to consider remote work the only viable way to work. In other circumstances, remote work would not have been possible, but the pandemic required institutions to implement a workable solution quickly.
Creating more robust online collections and infrastructure was not a top business concern for many organizations before the pandemic. Lack of leadership alignment, fear of user resistance to changes, insufficient IT infrastructure, and organizational silos also impeded commitment to and execution of the required changes. These issues are likely to remain in place in the long term. However, increases in remote working, changing needs, and user preferences for remote research have made the digitization of archival holdings a priority for many organizations.
If you’re interested in this topic and eager to learn more, please join us for “Making the Case for Digitization”, the first in a new series being presented by Margot Note. It’s on Wednesday, January 25, 2023 at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern. (Can’t make it? Register anyway and we’ll send you a link to the recording and slides afterwards). Register now or call 604-278-6717. And check out ArchivEra, our archival collections management software built for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities.
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