Digital image collections are a significant part of the future of any library or information science organization, and I have come to believe, archives in particular. This is part of the reason for taking a course on design and management of digital collections. Recently, in my Intro to Archives course, we watched a video of Rick Prelinger’s lecture, “Are the archives doomed?” In watching that lecture, Prelinger posits that the future of archives is in providing access to the information that they hold (Prelinger, 2006). One of the best ways that archives will be able to provide access is through digital collections. In addition, throughout SAA’s annual conference this year, there were sessions regarding the Archivist’s Toolkit and Encoded Archival Description, evidence that the profession is looking at the future of digitization. Economic struggles as with the current recession and travel difficulties often make traveling to distant archives untenable. Digitization will allow distance access for those users who cannot travel to the archive.
Digitization will also be an excellent method of preserving older documents for posterity. Although preservation techniques continue to advance, the nature of paper documents is such that eventually, despite all preservation efforts, documents will become unreadable, or even simply fall apart. Through digitization of collections, these documents can be preserved as they originally looked, long after they have crumbled to dust and been lost. Additionally, archives and special collections will continue to see ever increasing numbers of born digital records which must be preserved. These records, like their paper counterparts, need to be retained, some for a limited time for legal reasons, others as part of a long-term permanent collection. As the records were born digital, they will need to be maintained in digital form.
Unfortunately, archives, like all institutions developing digital collections will face problems. Funding issues will make purchasing the necessary equipment for digitization difficult. Compounding the problem of funding difficulties is the ever-changing nature of technology. At the outside, new hardware technology will be obsolete within only a few years, sometimes even a matter of months; meaning that archives will often have to rely on older technology to complete digitization projects. Software changes rapidly as well, and with no industry standard for file types and constantly evolving software, it is likely that file formats used today will not be compatible with software in the future. Storage space will be a continuing issue for archives, as digitizing high quality images can use large amounts of space, but digitizing at lower quality could compromise information, and make conversion to new file types more difficult.
Frustrating as these problems are, it is, and will continue to be, important for archives to digitize collections. The recession and financial concerns keep scholars from traveling long distances to access collections for research. The age of the Internet has set expectations for fast access to information, this expectation of fast access will continue to grow not diminish. Without online access to collections, archives will be left behind. But we have to ask important questions about digitization. With limited resources how do we decide which projects should be digitized? Do we digitize strictly based on popularity of specific collections or on which collections are in the poorest physical condition? How do we handle the problems of ever-changing technology? When collections are not yet in the public domain, how should digitization and access to digitized records be handled? How do we justify large expenditures for equipment that will need to be replaced in only a few years? As archivists and records keepers, these are questions which will have to be answered as we go forward with the process of digitization and which I hope to answer as I continue through this course.
Prelinger, R. “Are the Archives Doomed?”. University of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, PA. 26 Jan. 2006. Retrieved from http://mediasite.cidde.pitt.edu/mediasite/Viewer/?peid=effed7f4aecc4448b1eb10a90916f48b