The Pros and Cons of Digital Archives Project Partnerships

Margot Note

Margot Note

September 09, 2019

For many archival organizations, pursuing partnerships outside their institutions is a practical way to make collections accessible through digitization and digital preservation initiatives. Traversing institutional walls can be an excellent way to learn from the successes and failures of others who have more experience with digital projects, especially if your organization is just getting started with these activities.

It’s worth exploring the potential benefits that partnerships can bring to archival institutions, especially in terms of digital archives.

The Advantages are Many

For archives that have small budgets and few staff members, participation in digitization or digital preservation partnerships offers many advantages. Involvement can lower costs—which can be prohibitively expensive when factoring in hardware, software, and staff. While grant funding often commences a project, this type of support is temporary. Collaboration can provide a more sustainable, cost-efficient solution for the archival repository over the long term.

Besides lowering costs, digitization or digital preservation collaborations can ease the burden for institutions that cannot manage their digital infrastructure. For example, large-scale digital archives projects at national, regional, or state levels offer convenience for participating institutions because a third party manages the servers or software. Services for members include technological and administrative support, often with guidance for partners new to digitization and digital preservation. Partnerships in these projects allow archives to make their collections accessible without having to do the work alone or from scratch.

Aside from these motivations, user-centered reasons exist for contributing to a collaborative project, even if you already host your local collections. Making your unique materials accessible via a shared interface, alongside those from other institutions, places your collections within the context of a broader community. Doing so allows users to make new connections that enhance their scholarship.

Words of Caution

However, cross-institutional collaborations have disadvantages. Some projects point to existing digital collections hosted on institutional websites, driving traffic to their site, while others require that participating institutions contribute copies of their files to the hosting organization. Archivists may balk at giving up control of their materials, fearing that transferring the digital surrogates will expose them to misuse or misattribution.

This anxiety arises most often about partnerships with commercial entities. For instance, I once led a project to digitize architectural photographs at a non-profit. Google had approached the organization to partner with them for their Google Cultural Institute, a prospect that excited the organization’s board and executives. Once we submitted the content, we found that the Google branding overshadowed our credit as a contributing organization, and we didn’t receive web traffic as a result. Was the profile of the organization raised by its partnership with Google? Perhaps, but we could not measure that awareness. In the end, the partnership felt like we provided free content to a corporate behemoth with no return on investment.

Less Control

Another drawback of participation in collaborative projects is that it imposes limits on the contributing institutions’ ability to control the presentation of materials to users. Less creativity and flexibility exist in joining a project with specifications predetermined by the larger partner organization. This situation can be helpful, especially for small archival institutions, because it frees them from the burden of making such decisions. Often, it may be their only practical choice for sharing their collections online, making the tradeoff worth it. Going it alone, however, may be worth the work and expense to have creative control over your collections.

Is the Partnership a Good Fit?

No right answer exists when it comes to the question of whether your organization would benefit from a partnership. In some cases, the advantages of such arrangements outweigh the disadvantages. Collaborative projects prove critical to revealing hidden collections and allowing institutions to digitize and preserve their assets when they would otherwise not have the means to pursue such activities. Rather than duplicating capacity and effort, strategic partnerships support connectedness, making digital surrogates discoverable and accessible alongside related materials and maximizing the impact on the creation and dissemination of new knowledge.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist and consultant, is a guest blogger for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s. Get your free copy of Margot’s brand new book for Lucidea Press, Demystifying Archival Project Management: Five Essentials for Success!

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