Posted by: bluesyemre | February 8, 2018

Why don’t #archivists digitize everything?


Today on the blog we’re tackling one of our most frequently asked questions: “Why don’t you digitize everything?” and its related runner-up, “When will you be putting all your records on the web?”

As archivists we like these questions because they tell us that people are eager for access to archival records. They also show that people realize that not everything is digitized. Indeed only a tiny fraction of the world’s primary resources are available digitally. This doesn’t mean that undigitized records are inaccessible or not worth consulting, but you will need to visit us archivists to use them.

In fact, archivists and librarians themselves are behind the abundance of primary sources already available on the internet. From rare books to official records and from diaries to sound recordings, digitized resources have spread the word (literally) that the past informs our present and our future. In the meantime, both non-profit and commercial organizations whose main mission includes digitizing material (like the Internet Archive, or have raised public expectations about access to historical resources.

In this post we’ll share some of the behind-the-scenes realities of digitizing and uploading rare materials. We hope this boosts awareness about some important facets of document digitization and sharing. One is the vast army of largely anonymous labourers out there whose work makes these valuable resources available. Another is the existence of the original records behind the images, which archivists continue to steward.

We also hope that people who are informed about digitization will advocate for archives in the opportunities and challenges they face.

But first, a basic question.

Why do archivists digitize records?

It’s important to understand what digitization can and can’t do. A common assumption is that digitization preserves analogue (non-digital) archival records. In some cases – say, when the record is in imminent danger of becoming unusable – this is true, in a way. Think about a paper map disintegrating into fragments, a letter faded almost to illegibility, or a cassette tape turning brittle and unplayable.  In such cases digitization – the production of an electronic image of these records – saves information gleaned from the record.  But it doesn’t produce a clone of the record (more on this later). At best it results in a digital “surrogate,” an approximation (even if a very good one) of a dimension of the record.

Archivists commonly digitize records to facilitate access. Easily copied electronic files help people consult records at a distance in multiple locations. Of course, consulting digital files instead of originals also aids preservation by sparing originals from repeated physical handling – a vital function that was once (and still is) served by microfilming records.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: