On any given week, I talk with 20-25 organizations or institutions about their efforts to build digital archives. Projects to preserve our history and make it accessible in a meaningful way are almost always placed on the back burner for “future consideration.” Some of these projects will never be considered again. Many more will get diluted year after year until an organization settles for a digitization plan that involves selecting a limited number of items for an exhibit, or focusing on a single collection out of the many in their care.
There is a pervasive and chronic misconception that documents, images and artifacts that have been around for decades or even centuries won’t be affected if we wait a few more years to digitize them. They’ve survived this long, right? Why the urgency? This is dangerous thinking. And, from an institutional perspective, this approach is irresponsible and shortsighted. What’s the rush to make them digitally available? My response in three words: Preservation. Information. Value.
It hardly seems necessary to speak to the issue of digital preservation. We all generally accept that should some catastrophic event occur that damages or destroys our historical materials, it would be really, really smart to have at least some sort of digital representation of the original. Sure, there are a bunch of folks in the archival world who want to debate whether or not we can truly rely on digital formats and so on. But while we are busy debating the best formats and whether or not to fit digitization into the budget this year, we should never ignore the fact that if we lose the items, they are lost forever. We never believe it will be our house that burns to the ground until it does. It is a matter of urgency. We are the stewards of our collective history and to keep them safe, we must digitize them, and we must digitize them well. Should the digital representation be the only survivor, it must be top quality.
Even if our archive doesn’t physically perish, we still face a great risk of our collective history disappearing. If information is not digital in today’s world, it simply doesn’t exist. If a fifth grade googles the history of school integration in her home town and the only information she reads comes from the Fox News archive, that will seriously limit and shape her understanding. We can argue all day long about the education system and the library’s responsibility to teach children how to effectively use finding aids and their search portals. At the end of the day, the vast majority of the public discovers information through discrete online subject searches. The information that they retrieve, whether through Google or an online library portal, is, to them, the entirety of information available on the subject.
If you are charged with caring for our historical record – either as an archivist, a manager, a director, or a Board Member, you bear a great responsibility that you may not even know of: you must ensure that the public is not consuming information junk food and thereby growing increasingly disconnected from our past.
It seems trite to make any additional argument for the urgency of digitization after declaring our great social disconnection from our own sense of self, but there’s another compelling reason for institutions to digitize sooner rather than later, or “some day.” It’s called return on investment. I don’t just mean monetization here (although that is one version of potential value). There are multiple ways in which institutions may draw new value from existing assets. Beyond the investment in being a smarter society, there are tremendous institutional benefits to be gained by creating robust digital spaces. Our historical collections – whether they be documents, images, artifacts and objects, and/or a/v materials – are unique content. Libraries, museums, historical societies and other repositories of our collective history have within their walls content. Not just content, but unique, valuable, and often one-of-a-kind content. Have you ever heard that content is king? That’s because there are all sorts of ways to utilize content and there are all sorts of outlets crying out for unique and meaningful content. Once an historical item is digital, there is literally no end to the number of ways you might utilize it. And that means there is almost no end to the number of ways you might be able to draw value from its digital presentation. Institutions that conceive of their archives as silos, separate from the rest of the institutional operations and priorities, are leaving money on the table. Even museums that have robust physical and digital presentations of their museum collections often relegate their archives to another world – to a space meant only for professional researchers. They don’t yet understand that the archives are more content, more sources for sharing, presenting, and telling our stories.
We hear it all the time from stewards of our collective history: “We’ve decided not to pursue digitization this year.” “We have a scanner and an intern/volunteer, so we will start scanning on our own.” “We have a 10-year digitization strategic plan on the agenda for our next board meeting.” While these statements appear to express different levels of commitment about digitization, they are in fact the same. They are all saying that we do not value our one-of-a-kind historical assets enough to assure that they are expeditiously well preserved and made available to the public in the way that the public now accesses information. We must demand better treatment – and urgent treatment – of the core of our collective information.