Although digitization initiatives are complex, when managed successfully, their benefits outweigh the skills, costs, and time required.
Digital files are superior to past surrogate forms like microfilm because they are delivered via networks, offering enhanced access to multiple simultaneous users worldwide. Archivists can index digitized images for accurate identification and instantaneous retrieval. Physical proximity to digital collections is unnecessary, unlike analog collections.
Digitization profoundly broadens access by lowering the barrier to entry for discovering and examining collections. In the past, only a narrow demographic had the time and resources to travel to view a collection at an institution. Now, anyone with the Internet can access a digital collection. Online collections increase access, especially those in high demand and with key historical or intellectual content. Additionally, collections may increase demand for items previously ignored. Novel research experiences are possible by browsing through a collection, allowing for different methods of intellectual access to information.
Research is becoming increasingly common to begin and end with a digital-only search. When an adequately formed search can return a deluge of relevant digitized collections, it is difficult to justify a costlier search through physical archives in terms of both time and expense.
Unfortunately, as the world’s holdings are digitized, this trend will likely continue, relegating to obscurity undigitized collections. The bias towards digital material is myopic; however, many users, especially those with little experience with physical archival materials, prefer digital surrogates and may perceive archives as only existing online.
Digital collections can reinstate material into circulation that archivists may have withdrawn for conservation or security reasons. In addition, digital files could add functionality to how the collection was traditionally used, such as allowing for the analysis of damaged materials. Digital images may also supplement existing digital collections held locally or remotely.
Other benefits, including the development of technical infrastructure and staff skill capacities, opportunities for collaboration, and securing funding make digitization worthwhile for institutions embarking on projects of their own.
Digital collections provide enriched intellectual control and multiple points of access. Repositories mount thumbnails on websites, and different institutions can display records together to tell a more historically accurate story. Increasingly sophisticated linked webs combine text, images, metadata, and annotations.
No matter the procedures archivists put in place, the physical handling of a record always causes degradation of its condition. If archivists digitize the materials with preservation-grade image quality, future handling can be eliminated for many materials and significantly reduced for others.
Digital files provide extraordinary details. The resolution and ease of magnification in a digital viewer allow easy holistic examination of an object, from the full view of a large object to a minor feature. It is common for this to result in a viewing experience that exceeds the quality of an in-person examination.
The availability of digital images satisfies most users’ research needs. However, the Internet brings broader knowledge of the existence of items, which leads to more research requests to view the originals. Digitization can be self-promoting because the easier a record is to use, the more researchers will use it, and the higher the demand for similar records. If preservation is an issue, high-resolution files allow for adequate access. Additionally, as collections become more vulnerable to damage and their monetary value and susceptibility to theft increase, more restrictive access may occur.
Digital files assist preservation and access, making it possible to retire the original material with access restrictions, extending its life for future generations. Digital files may be the only way to view some records of enduring value. Making materials available through digital surrogates allows easier access by users and a more accurate historical picture.
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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