This is the question many archive owners, collectors, and curators face. In an increasingly digital world, analog access to collections and archives is still the norm. But should it be?
A Philosophical Question
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
In the spirit of that popular mental exercise, if a physical archive exists but no one can access it, does it impact the world?
Sadly, this is the state many archives find themselves in.
For collectors and curators, the problem of access is one that can seem insurmountable. Many collections are housed in personal residences, in a dedicated room of a library, or even in storage. Finding aids such as indexes or the Dewey decimal system assist those who can visit the material in person, but the barriers to access are high.
The Limits of Physical Access
Take the example of a hypothetical newspaper archive. The entire collection, frequently cited in family genealogy research, is only accessible in one location. Rather than attempt to visit the collection, researchers call the curator with their questions. Often, these researchers only know a name or a location or some other fragment of data, so the curator must wade through decades of material, and once they discover the desired information, the researcher receives a copy or scanned image.
For researchers, limited access means the process takes time and reliance on someone else to find the information they seek. Often, copies of originals come with a price tag because of the labor involved in retrieving them. Other times, the cost is borne by the original material, which experiences wear with every turned page.
For the curator, the system seems to work. People can access and use the collection to enhance their research. Why should they digitize?
- Location: Instead of visiting or calling a single location, researchers could access the collection anywhere in the world with an internet-connected device. Potential visitors who may be limited by disability, travel funding, time, or state of emergency, could experience the collection digitally.
- Condition: Instead of risking tears, smudges, and other damage with every physical search, the material could be safely stored in its current condition while allowing continued, constant digital use.
- Search: Instead of relying on summary documents, finding aids, and the diligent labor of an authorized user, everyone accessing the collection could search for names, dates, locations, and other keywords, making the information they seek available in a click.
A real-world example of how digital preservation could have benefited mankind is that of the Museu Nacional of Brazil, which was almost completely lost to fire in 2018. It was the home of many unique collections and a frequent travel destination for researchers. Just months before the blaze, researcher Cassia Roth had traveled to the museum to view one of the exclusive collections in the massive archive housed there.
I was there for just a few days, so I only took pictures of a small fraction of [the] collection, telling myself that I could always come back—the archives were not going anywhere,” she wrote.
The museum was a hub of research and innovation for hundreds of years, but lacked funding. Why should they have digitized?
- Preservation: Hindsight is 20/20, but even without a disaster in the rearview mirror, curators could have investigated crowdfunding to restore the 200-year-old building’s faulty electrical and sprinkler systems or digitally preserve the museum’s collections over time.
- Impact: The truth is, we may never know how many researchers and students were unaware of the contents of the Museu Nacional until reports of their loss. Online access to a collection doesn’t guarantee widespread knowledge, but it does facilitate the possibility.
Ultimately, if access and exposure are important to the curator of a collection or archive then digitization should definitely be considered. Don’t let inertia prevent you from taking the initial steps towards digitizing your collection.
Types of Digital Access
The good news is that digitization can revolutionize how a collection or archive is accessed and used. Each collection is unique and some types of digital access may be more suitable than others.
- Open Access: Similar to the way Archive.org or Google Books function, this model makes all content fully searchable on the internet. Users may discover an archive through a wider web search.
- Free Access Once Registered: Need to track who is accessing your collection? Requiring users to register prior to gaining access keeps the documents available to those who sign up, but has the feel of private access.
- Paid Subscription: A potential revenue stream for the archive, this model unlocks the collection once a user has paid a fee.
- Additional Paid Perks: All levels of access can also offer options to pay for special features like high-resolution printing, guided research aides, photo licensing, etc.
Every level of digital access eliminates the limitation of physical location, offers enhanced search options, preserves the original documents from continued exposure, and provides a mechanism through which your archive can be utilized fully.
Access is merely one of the powerful arguments for digitizing your collection. Are you ready to start the process and protect your collection from an uncertain future? Contact Anderson Archival today at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314.259.1900.
When most people hear the term “technology obsolescence,” outdated hardware is probably what comes to mind. For archivists, though, a more covert danger to collections is outdated software. Once digitized, it’s easy to think that the collection is safe for decades or longer, but in reality, it may have far less time before it’s in danger of obsolescence. It’s not a matter of will this digital collection last, but will there be technology available to access it?
The consumer software industry relies on people upgrading from one version of their software to the newest version to make a profit, and that can be both good and bad for the consumer. On one hand, newer versions often fix problems found in previous iterations and add helpful new features. But if those changes aren’t enticing enough, and the old version serves its purpose just fine, what incentive does the consumer have to upgrade? Often the answer is forced on them by the software itself: no backwards compatibility.
Backwards compatibility is the ability of the software to read and run files created by previous versions of the software. A familiar example would be the difference between Word files ending in .doc and .docx. The current version of Word creates files as .docx, but it can still easily read .doc files (the format of Word from 1997-2003) without any problems.
For many types of software, backwards compatibility only goes back one or two versions, and this can have detrimental effects on digitally recorded archives. The film industry is already dealing with the problem of obsolescence. Digital film is saved on magnetic storage tape known as LTO, or linear tape-open. This type of storage is capable of storing data for thirty to fifty years, which would seem like plenty of time to deal with any danger to the data.
But as each new version of LTO is released, the software that reads the magnetic tapes can only read one or two versions before it. Meaning by the time LTO-5 came out, LTO-1 thru LTO-3 were obsolete and unreadable by modern software. This has shortened the effective lifespan of the magnetic tapes from three to five decades to less than ten years, and if film archives don’t keep up, even films created in the last twenty years could be lost.
While software obsolescence is a pressing problem for archivists, hardware obsolescence cannot be overlooked. It doesn’t matter how perfectly a collection is preserved if the media it’s recorded on can’t be read anymore.
Data on a well-preserved 5.25 floppy disk is just as inaccessible as data on a damaged or corrupted floppy disk, since modern computers no longer have a drive to read it.
Archivists need to be aware of what types of hardware they use to store digital data, and how close or far the technology is from becoming obsolete. The Digital Preservation Coalition maintains a “Bit List” of Digitally Endangered Species to help preservationists and archivists stay aware of the longevity and vulnerabilities of digital mediums and collections.
Properly configured cloud storage may be a good option for some archives to consider as it can be accessed by any device with internet access. This avoids the problem of computers needing compatible hardware to access a remote storage device. It also frees the archive of the responsibility to constantly purchasing new hardware to maintain the digital collection, as cloud service providers will manage all hardware upgrades for the digital environment.
What Does Obsolescence Mean for Digital Archives?
Digital archivists must remain vigilant in order to stay ahead of the danger of obsolescence and include mitigation in their overall digital preservation strategy. When determining the file format and storage materials used to house a digital collection, archivists and their clients should consider the following:
- Is the file type proprietary or open source?
- Is the file type designated for archival storage?
- Is it an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standard?
- Are the programs you’re using outdated or at risk of becoming obsolete?
- Does the software have backwards compatibility?
- Does the software/hardware need to be updated routinely?
- Does this require updating the format each time?
- Is the medium of storage sustainable?
- How rapidly does it degrade over time?
- Are there commonplace ways to access the data on this medium?
- Does the medium require specialized hardware or software to run?
- Do you have the correct conditions to safely house the storage hardware?
When choosing a file format that will last, an archival or ISO file format is the safest route. These file formats are designed to remain compatible with new software and retain the document’s integrity regardless of what program or computer opens it. Both the Library of Congress and the National Archives provide recommendations for the preferred file formats for digital preservation.
For collections already digitized in endangered or at-risk formats or hardware, a preservation plan needs to be put in place. This plan should cover conversion to safer formats, where possible, and migration of the data from the old media to a more lasting medium. Most important of all, this plan should require multiple backups of the collection in a variety of places, such as a remote storage device kept in the office and/or a secure, secondary location, and a reliable cloud backup that is kept up to date. This ensures that the loss of any one doesn’t mean the loss of the entire digital collection.
For those who prefer to outsource their digitization efforts, make sure the archival company won’t just scan it and forget it. An expert archival company should help you formulate a plan for technology obsolescence. Digital collections are meant to last long into the future, not vanish along with the technology of the past.
Do you have a historical collection that deserves digital preservation but keep coming back to the same problems? Maybe your project is so extensive you don’t know where to start, or you simply can’t afford an archival project right now. Even if you’ve owned a collection for decades, you’ve probably noticed more recent emphasis on the importance of digitization. To keep your collection pristine, secure, and free from dangerous overhandling, digitization is paramount.
If you have a historical collection that needs conversion, Anderson Archival’s advice is this: just get started!
Outsourcing Is an Option
Outsourcing the digitization takes a lot of pressure off you. While the archival company you choose needs to have your vision in mind, the day-to-day tasks are off your plate and entrusted to experts. Digitizing a project in-house is often an organization’s first thought, but there are many reasons this isn’t sustainable.
Daily tasks are resource intensive and include dedicated personnel standing at a scanner and turning the pages of a book in an expensive cradle scanner. Each page must be monitored for poor-quality images and followed up with a multitude of post-processing work. This is a full-time task for employees who normally have other responsibilities. Often, the project gets delayed. Inevitably, immediate tasks need to be fulfilled, and scanning gets pushed lower on the priority list. Outsourcing gets the job done in a timely manner with little or no burden added to your employees’ responsibilities. Before you consider bringing someone new in to do this work, remember taking on a new hire comes with its own long-term overhead costs, and having an intern perform scanning often means inexperienced hands on fragile and irreplaceable materials.
By sending your documents to a trusted archival company, your organization is freed from laboring over a game plan.
Archivists guide you through each step of the project using their expertise and experience. They’re happy to answer any questions, ask you pertinent questions you may not have considered, and get you started on the right foot.
In all likelihood, outsourcing your archival project provides better quality results as well. Archival companies are equipped with enterprise-grade scanners, software, organizational techniques, and the experienced archivists needed to put those tools to good use. Adding features to your project such as searchability through optical character recognition (OCR) and metadata will move your search to the next level in terms of speed and accuracy.
How can you get started right now? Evaluate your needs—but keep it simple because the heavy lift is for your archival team. How are your documents stored or organized? What would you like to be able to do with them? Which items are the top priority? Talk with your archival company and just start! They’ll guide you through the process.
Budget Wise? You Bet.
When choosing an archival company to kick off your digitization project, look for one that doesn’t require a massive price tag up front. Experienced archival companies provide the option of a metered approach to balance timely completion of a project with a client’s budget.
In this process, you prioritize what you need archived and divide the project into phases with a focus on what your budget can handle or what a board will approve. For instance, a project can be planned out to take two years to complete with each phase delivering you a portion of the collection. You will pay smaller fees monthly while also enjoying measurable deliverables throughout the process. You’ll be able to start using your archives right away. Don’t let budgetary concerns halt your progress or steer you to a poor-quality solution.
Another option that can help pay for digitization is monetization, but this only works if the documents are of wide public interest. In this case, the documents are displayed in an online collection, and the public (or libraries or schools) pays for subscriptions or printing rights. This allows your organization or company to make money off the project as documents are made available to users online.
There are many ways to get started, so if you have a vision for your project, don’t be too worried about what you should do first. Give your archival company a call, and they’ll guide you and get your project started!
Anderson Archival is an archival company that listens to your needs, takes the lead, and offers assistance every step of the way. If you’d like to hear more about what makes Anderson Archival different, give us a call at 314.259.1900 or email us at email@example.com today!
Why are collectors, organizations, and institutions bringing their collections into the digital age? What makes the effort and cost of digital conservation worthwhile?
As users, we can’t know the primary driving force behind the digitization of some of the most impactful collections on the internet, but at Anderson Archival, we’ve seen countless motivations for digitization. One common element is that the stewards of these collections want to bestow a gift on the digital landscape: the gift of preservation, the gift of a better future through learning and inspiration, the gift of accessibility.
New to digital libraries? Read more about digital collections and the Anderson Archival difference.
Here is a sampling of successful digital archives that showcase these three goals for digitization.
- Documenting and Preserving a Lost History
For some collections without a digital presence, the cultures, histories, and movements they represent may be lost in the event of a disaster. Those interested in historical preservation know that history is relevant for both today and tomorrow. Digital collections that preserve a little-known or previously lost history fill in gaps left by traditional education, inviting readers and viewers to explore and learn.
- Early Americas Digital Archive offers rare and out-of-print texts, written in and about the early Americas as full-text documents checked against originals. This text is easy to search, read, and reference.
- RomArchive is populated with highly curated sub-collections and journeys of thought that explore how the Roma people are represented in European history and culture, where gaps in coverage lie and affect public perception, and offer strategies for combating this skewed absence.
- Virtual First Ohioans, a sub-collection of Ohio History Connection, invites visitors to take a tour through this native history of Ohio, starting with the archeological process involved in modern re-discovery and preservation, and journeys through time with descriptive visuals. Clicking through the section acts as a virtual museum showcasing these ancient peoples.
- The Library of Congress’ Mapping the National Parks collection tracks the history of lands that visitors may take for granted.
- The Digital Library of the Middle East provides a vital resource to a region often divided by conflict, preserving documents digitally because the physical originals are often sold on the black market or destroyed.
These collections and archives could have remained behind closed doors, in drawers, in museums, or even destroyed, but curators identified a need to not only preserve but to share their contents with the world.
- Sharing History to Change the Future for the Better
Many collection owners believe that the material in their possession has the power to educate, enlighten, and change the world for the better. In some cases, documents present underheard worldviews or religious beliefs, while others highlight periods of historical upheaval, from which many lessons may be learned. For these curators and collectors, making the words, photos, or other historical materials available to the general public is deeply important.
- The Pearl Digital Collections of the Presbyterian Historical Society comprise the oldest denominational archives in the United States. Primary source documentation of Japanese-American internment during World War II, tied to the denomination through mission work in the camps, is just one example of a piece of history that still resonates today.
- Another highly-curated digital museum is the digital offerings of United States Holocaust Museum. The site covers brutal historical events with honesty, providing photographic and written record for a thoughtful tour or in-depth research.
- The Peace Database collections of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum serve a similar purpose. Though the digital archive hasn’t been updated since 2016, the site stands as memorial and marker of a horrific event.
These collections have the potential to make a profound change in the thinking of modern readers, and digitization has made them available to anyone.
- Giving the Gift of Accessibility
Digitization offers incredible freedom: researchers and other users no longer must travel to a single location and request limited time in a temperature-controlled room with just a copier to aid their memory. Research (and search in general) is far easier when done digitally, where a single keyword puts the user just a click away from the title, page, and paragraph they want to find.
- The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation brings historical artifacts to users who can’t make the trip to Michigan. Their digital collections mimic walking through a museum by browsing through Expert Sets or the back room of a research library through their advanced search.
- The New York Public Library’s Digital Collections are stunning in scope and content. Containing material that users might not have even known existed, NYPL makes these collections easy to browse and search, like this collection of The Black Experience in Children’s Books. While not every item in these collections is fully text searchable, NYPL makes discovery easy.
- The Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan continues to grow its collection, moving forward with the belief that the content it provides is valuable and that digitization offers unparalleled search for its users.
- The Internet Archive is possibly the longest-running and most comprehensive archive currently online. Founded on the ideal of “Universal Access to All Knowledge,” the Internet Archive has been in the news recently for linking Wikipedia-cited passages to digitized materials, stressing the importance of using digitization as a tool for verification.
Being able to access materials like these from anywhere in the world is a gift to this century. This massive amount of data is now accessible and at the fingertips of anyone in the world.
When all is said and done, the deciding factor to digitize may come down to the simple fact that the world is going digital. Don’t let your collection be left behind or forgotten.
Principal Farica Chang shared the importance of digitizing your “docs and pics” with Grit Daily.
While you might not have an original draft of the Declaration of Independence lying around, your collection—whether it contains historical newspapers or your grandparents’ letters from the war—has value to you and to the future.
Do you have a historical document collection that you’d like to make more accessible, relevant, and impactful? Anderson Archival uses proprietary methods to digitize collections so they are easily searchable, ultimately accessible, and even more meaningful to a wide audience. Let us help you preserve your legacy today! Give us a call at 314.259.1900 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are Quotables? This is a category in our posts to highlight any professional publications that benefit from our expert archivist experience and quote us in articles for their readers.
Is the perceived cost of digitally archiving your collection making you hesitant to move forward with an important project? Monetizing archival collections may be the answer!
Monetizing an archival collection involves electronically transforming the collection in a way that allows people to access it online for a fee. You use the digital collection to provide revenue to your organization, so the project helps pay for itself while allowing users to access what they need from the archives. TIME, Harper’s Weekly, Vanity Fair, and other magazines are transforming their historical collections in this way.
To monetize, your digitized collection needs to be available online. This has many benefits, including a variety of options for display and customization. With an online interface, the documents are beautifully preserved, interactive, and searchable.
Optical character recognition (OCR) creates document searchability, which is a prime benefit of digitization. Being able to search the full text—especially when there are thousands of documents in a database—can be life-changing for researchers. OCR takes digitizing to a new level, but it does require more time and resources for the digitization process. However, doing the project right the first time with quality and precision means your collection will be preserved long term and it could fund itself.
Anyone thinking about archiving their collection usually has a vision of what they want it to look like on-screen, but a limited budget could cripple the effort to make a well-preserved collection shareable with the world.
What Does Monetizing Look Like?
Say your organization has a website with a newsletter that averages one million subscribers. If 1% of those subscribers were willing to pay for enhanced archival access at $1/month, your collection would generate $120,000 annually. Engaging 4% of your subscribers would result in almost half a million dollars in revenue. If just a fraction of your current constituency engages with your digitized collection, the results could be substantial.
The key is strategically marketing subscriptions to users and organizations that will directly benefit from your collection. Think of the potential users. Do you have subscribers already, users accessing or already paying for access to a printed or digital newsletter? Current print and email subscribers might be attracted to the ability to access a digital collection for more robust study of their interest. Libraries, schools, archives, research centers, museums, and organizations specializing in the field of your collection would also be promising candidates.
It is important to consider where the paywall is placed. What materials, if any, are accessible for free, and what materials or functions are available only for a fee? Do you want all users to have to pay for the services (hard paywall), or do you want to grant users limited access to the documents and pay a subscription for full access or for specific functions (metered paywall)? Maybe you’d prefer to make the collection only available to members. The paywall’s location and function are dynamic, as customizable as the way your collection will be displayed, and can be adjusted based on specific users or specific materials.
Read more about custom software development – built for your collection!
Working Within Your Budget
Archival companies work with organizations that have a broad range of budgetary needs and considerations, including nonprofits, so the one you choose should understand the monetary considerations of archiving a large collection. Strong communication throughout the bid process is essential to make sure your exact budget needs are met. For example, the collection could be divided into sections so completed sections of the collection can be made available to users while another section is being digitized. In this example, project managers would work with you to determine an annual budget, prioritize your documents, and begin the digitization process for the first set. Once those are online and users are subscribing, you’ll have more resources for the next set of documents.
When digitizing your collection, remember that the cost is an investment in doing the project right the first time. Your archival company should balance budget requirements with providing a quality end product and thoroughly explore revenue-generating potential. Don’t sacrifice quality or your dream of a digital collection because of your budget.