Not As Many Pixels As You Think

An interesting article from the NY Times on digitization of library collections:

“There’s an illusion being created that all the world’s knowledge is on the Web, but we haven’t begun to glimpse what is out there in local archives and libraries,” said Edward L. Ayers, a historian and dean of the college and graduate school of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia. “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.”

To be sure, digitization efforts over the last 10 years have been ambitious and far-reaching. For many institutions, putting collections online, for both preservation and accessibility, is a priority. Yet for every letter from Abraham Lincoln to William Seward that can be found online, millions of documents bearing fine-grained witness to the Civil War will never be digitized. And for every CD re-release of Bessie Smith singing “Gimme a Pigfoot,” the work of hundreds of lesser-known musicians from the early 20th century are unlikely to be converted to digital form. Money, technology and copyright complications are huge impediments.

The largest impediment to getting most everything on line is money. We’re talking millions of dollars to get this far, which is just a drop in the proverbial bucket. That’s not saying it couldn’t be done. The Library of Congress and NARA could be made top priorities, if only they didn’t have their budgets routinely slashed and staff cut. And it isn’t just an argument of there not being money, either. For what we spend in Iraq in one hour, we could pay for everything at the LoC to be digitized and hire the people to do it. But the money isn’t spent in making the nation’s archives available to everyone everywhere, it’s spent blowing the arms off Iraqi children.

As I said, this is only part of the problem. Another is simply advertising. No one thinks to brag about what their collections have. In order to attract researchers who don’t know that you have the Steinbeck papers or Spanish Colonial records, why not have a blog? Even a weekly feature of of one item from your collection, using the power of the Internet to communicate it’s existence to a wider audience would attract some attention. There are thousands of librarians (OK, hundreds, maybe even dozens) who would be able to pas so the news that your library has genealogical information, if only they knew where to look. Making blogging and social networking acceptable practice in the Library field is another hurdle, but time will solve that one. As younger, technologically savvy librarian bloggers become more influential and the old dinosaurs who fear that Technology is killing the trade rather than revitalizing it (I’m looking at you, Michael Gorman) then the more likely it will be that emerging technology will be put to service in a library near you.

Then of course there’s the dirty secret of the library world: not everything is worth saving. while genealogical information and the history of Scott Joplin’s recording sessions are important, the napkins that Einstein scribbled his equations on are not. Knowing what is valuable and what is trash is always a tough call, as one person’s trash is anther’s dissertation topic, but still, it’s necessary to weed out the Danielle Steele Manuscripts from the Vonnegut first editions.

Thanks to Steve for the link!

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