Earlier this week I read an article titled “Why Don’t Archivists Digitize Everything” by Samantha Thompson from the Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives. Thompson thoughtfully provided both positive and critical reflection regarding archival digitization initiatives. With seemingly so many documents, objects, and audio recordings available online, digitized sources still only represent a fraction of all primary sources. This fact is easy to forget or gloss over, especially when sites like the Digital Public Library of America boast on their landing page that their catalog contains exactly 36,476,461 items.
The article drew attention to two key points. First, the process of digitizing records is physically, financially, and temporally taxing. Secondly, digitization is not simply “scanning” documents, but providing the best digital representation of the source with adequate metadata about the item. Throughout the work, Thompson offers important clarity on digitization as more than just improving accessibility and preserving deteriorating sources. Although these things are important, it is equally critical to learn about the concerns and challenges of digitizing archival material. When taken together, being better informed about digitization will make us stronger researchers and educators in the digital age.
“But digital research is not the same as archival research!”
In my personal experience, digital records have always been central to my work and development as a historian. The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America was in its formative stages when I began to use it for my undergraduate research and it provided an experience that inspired my growth as a digital humanist. At the time, I was researching newspaper reactions to the Piegan Massacre (1870) and used the diverse search results to identify regional patterns in reporting. As these trends reflected post-Civil War political tensions and debates over Federal Indian Policy, I knew this project needed additional research and attention—it will now be the fourth chapter in my dissertation. As an undergraduate, I did not have funding opportunities to go to multiple archives, so learning how to do responsible and in-depth online research was a skill set I had to acquire. I learned firsthand that taking a digital approach meant asking different questions about historical research—questions that only the use of computational methods could answer. As such, one of the greatest (and most fundamental) benefits of conducting digital historical research is to take large quantities of data and analyze its entirety. Without digital records of newspapers, I would not have been able to garner local, regional, and national perspectives on a significantly understudied topic. Now that I am researching and writing my dissertation, I find myself again turning towards digital sources to hone my emphasis on comparative local to national views.
Going to archives is still important, and like Thompson suggests in her article, digitization initiatives will never replace the work and roles that archivists fill. I am personally indebted to the wonderful team of archivists and librarians at the Newberry Library, the National Museum of the American Indian, and Montana Historical Society whose consultation and guidance has introduced me to new sources and directions. Archivists’ knowledge of the collections, how they are organized, and the context of curation are the bits of experiential knowledge that cannot be captured in quite the same way online.
Online collections face a variety of questions for the future: How can we improve interactions with physical objects beyond a series of 2-D images? How does digitization threaten the exposure of culturally-sensitive objects? How can digitization initiatives replicate the experience of archives (or should they?) and encourage the “accidental discovery” of sources? On this final point, the process of physically perusing a catalog and checking out boxes that contain folders can lead to unexpected finds. In a digitized archive or online collection, a casual browsing experience is replaced with advanced search forms that are designed to give you exactly what you are looking for. While this sounds enticing, search forms subtract from the workflow historical research truly requires. Not to mention, a text-based search is only as good as the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) of the documents. As educators and researchers, it will be critical to encourage students and ourselves to make strong usage of metadata, search by subject headings, and notice the gaps of what is absent. This also means that we need to responsibly and deliberately decide on what does not belong online. It seems that this subject leaves more questions than answers, all of which needs confrontation.