Digitizing collections

31 Oct

I know you’ve seen all the news articles and blogs about Google Books, digitization initiatives by colleges and digital collections in general.  Hopefully, you’re familiar with more than the fact they’re out there.  Librarians get riled by this issue a lot.  That being said, librarians generally have good reasons for being riled.

Well, this isn’t another librarian-angry-at-publishers/authors post.  This is a devil’s advocate post.

Digitizing collections is a major undertaking and unless you know for sure that you have the resources to do it, you shouldn’t.  It’s a full-time job, so be prepared to hire someone to do it.  If you happen to be at an institution that’s not too involved in technology, you’d better be prepared for the new hire to not quite fit in (historical societies come to my mind, because I’m not considering just the humongous Google Books project or others like it, but small-scale efforts as well).

If you’re going for large-scale, or really high quality, equipment costs.  Same thing if you’re dealing with really fragile stuff.  And that fragile stuff?  Shouldn’t always be digitized, even if there’s a large interest in preserving it.  You need to make sure you won’t cause damage to the item you’re digitizing, either by handling or by the process itself.   Again, that means you need someone who knows what they’re doing, so don’t think you can get by with an intern.

Over all these factors lies a sort of miasma, that digitizing is the wave of the future without any librarians or archivists stopping to ask “Why?”  What makes it worth preserving?  Should it be?  How high does the inherent value have to be to merit it?

We get lost in the litigation side of the debate, over the fair use and copyright arguments, over freedom of access and the digital divide, that we forget to ask if this is even something we should be doing.  Is some information more precious because it has a shelf-life?  Will people appreciate it more if they know it’s not always going to be available?*

I don’t have answers, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Are you pro-, con-, or neutral on digitization?

*Note that I’m not advocating for destruction of materials, but that some are valuable because of their birth.  Incunabula that are digitized aren’t often because of the content, but because they’re works of art.  Are they more valuable in person than online?

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