History, Digitized (and Abridged)

Posted on March 12, 2007 under digital history

As a history blogger, I am required by law to talk about this article on digitization which appeared in the NYT this Sunday (might require registration).

As more museums and archives become digital domains, and as electronic resources become the main tool for gathering information, items left behind in nondigital form, scholars and archivists say, are in danger of disappearing from the collective cultural memory, potentially leaving our historical fabric riddled with holes.

Though it’s great to read an article on archives and digitization in the Times, even in the Business section, the whole argument strikes me as specious. As Sharon Howard counters,

But only a few of us ever were willing or able to go out there in the first place. Archival research has always been a minority pursuit, given the commitment and resources (including time) that it demands. Is it really the case that that minority will be even smaller in the future because some research can be done without leaving one’s desk? Or is digital history creating large numbers of new researchers who, even if what they’re doing is limited by what’s available online, would never have even contemplated visiting archives or record offices to look at original documents?

The Times article seems like a rehearsal of the argument that since we’ve got the internet, no one will go to the library anymore, just replacing internet with “digitization projects” and library with “special collections”–and we know that that hasn’t proved true with libraries.

Sharon’s point is especially important here, though: not many people go to archives and special collections in the first place. The museum I work for is rather small and obscure, open twice a week, in the basement of a hospital. We don’t have the resources to digitize all of our collections, but the bit the Minnesota Digital Library is doing, and the oral history digitization and collecting I’m working on, will certainly increase the use of our collections: people will know that we’re around and have collections. If the only part of our collections researchers use are the photos up on the Minnesota Reflections website,* we’ll still probably double our collections use.

Greater access equals greater use, but it’s not an either/or proposition. Archives are not abandoning their mandate to hold objects in trust because they’re digitizing some and not others; in fact, they’re fulfilling their mission to the greatest extent possible with these new tools.

*They’re not up yet, I just wanted to link to it.

4 Comments on “History, Digitized (and Abridged)”

  1. Guess what I just did, Suzanne? I printed a copy of the NYT article to read at my leisure, in physical form, not on a computer screen. Museums have so many demands on us to digitize, and I mean outright demands to get all of our collections online, but people forget that we still have the real stuff, whether we digitize or not. Digitization is no substitute for the physical items in our collections. Because we lack the resources and some artifacts are not good candidates for digitization, museums will have to be selective about what we put online. We might as well use items that will attract more people to visiting our physical locations, rather than simply handing everything over carte blanche. Nice post.

  2. I agree with you and Sharon. So few people use these archives anyway that any little that helps get their materials on the web can only increase interest in those collections.

    Museums do have to be selective about what materials they digitize b.c of funds but people will still visit even if entire collections are digitized.

    What’s funny is that I wrestled with posting on that article knowing everyone was reading it and writing about it, so I’m glad you wrote about it.

  3. Thanks, folks.

    There’s always going to be that selectivity over what we’re able to digitize–and that’s part of what makes us curators, not robots.

    This kind of article also makes me long for more communication between librarians, archivists and museum folks, since libraries have been working on these PR issues for quite a while and have developed nice 2.0-ish counterarguments about the changing ways patrons use collections.

  4. I’ve had a chance to read the NYT article and I’m struck by Edward L. Ayers’ statement, “Material that is not digitized risks being neglected as it would not have been in the past, virtually lost to the great majority of potential users.” Part of the fun of history is the sense that we have mysteries to solve. We have some information, but not all of it, so we have a puzzle to put together. Over time, little pieces come to us that help to complete the picture. Material that is not digitized is simply missing material that adds to the mystery. If someone is keen enough to solve the mystery, they’ll go seeking that puzzle piece, no matter where it may be. This was true about historical research long before there was an internet, and it’ll be true whether we decide to digitize all of our collections, or only a portion.

    Hey, Sheila, I wouldn’t worry about doubling up on posts. We all have different news sources and it’s good to have some repetition in order to make things stick and to reach a larger audience. Because of your comment, I’ve added your blog to my feeds.

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