A few years ago I remember doing research on a paper for a class that I had hoped to turn into a journal article. My area of research focused on African American women in Philadelphia during the Civil War and Reconstruction period. Through some preliminary online research I discovered that the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) had recently acquired diaries of Emilie Davis. Davis was a young African American woman who lived in Philadelphia during the war and the diaries that HSP acquired dated from 1863-1865. At the time I was living in New York and Philadelphia was a hour and a half away. In order to take advantage of a full day of research, I left my Brooklyn apartment at 6am to take the 7:30am bus to Philadelphia. When I finally arrived at the HSP at 10am, I requested the diaries and excitedly opened the box that held 3 hand-sized booklets. The pages were yellow and fragile. Davis’s writing was barely legible due to fading from age and Davis’s poor penmanship. I was nervous that I would ruin this artifact with every page that I turned. Unfortunately, I was unable to finish my research before I had to return to New York. Months later I traveled back to the HSP to look at the diaries again, but they were out for digitization at Pennsylvania State University’s Richards Civil War Center through its People’s Contest, A Civil War Era Digital Archiving Project. Transcriptions of Emilie Davis’s Diaries can be found online at Memorable Days: The Emilie Davis Diaries which is a Website hosted by Villanova University.
The digitization and transcription of Emilie Davis’s Diaries was a multi-institutional project that will save future researchers countless hours in travel and provided more access to these important materials. In addition, it reduces the physical usage of the diaries thus prolonging their life. However, even as the archival community moves toward digitization because of the increase of digital-born records, converting analog records remains a controversial practice for the same reasons that make preserving digital-born records so difficult.
Several reasons for the controversy over the digitalization of analog items lies in the ability of archivists to migrate the data across platforms as older hardware, software, and storage systems become obsolete. Think about the transition of storage medium from 8-inch floppy disks, to 3.5-inch floppy disk, to zip disk, to flash drives, and now to cloud storage. Most of that data on those first generation floppy disk cannot be easily accessed today (Ex: Andy Warhol’s Computer Art). Essentially, you have created another preservation problems when you create a digital surrogate of analog materials. Also, preservation is about maintaining the content, structure, and context of documents, and all of these can be easily manipulated within the digital format that is not possible in analog format. This threatens the authenticity and integrity of materials which is an inherent function of archives.
These reasons led Abby Smith (1999) to advocate for a shift to digitalization in order to provide more access to users of libraries and archives, but she emphatically declared that digitization was not a form of preservation. She writes that “Though digitization is sometimes loosely referred to as preservation, it is clear that so far, digital resources are at their best when facilitating access to information and weakest when assigned the tradition library responsibility of preservation…Digital imaging is not preservation, however. Much is gained by digitizing, but permanence and authenticity, at this juncture of technological development, are not those gains” (Smith, 1999, p. 3-4). Two other issues that quelled Smith’s excitement for digitization were cost and time. When Smith wrote this for the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) in 1999, digitization was still an emerging process. Since then advancements in technology have been made that significantly reduce the cost and time of digitization.
By 2004 beliefs about digitization began to change when Association of Research Libraries (ARL) Preservation of Research Libraries Materials Committee issued the policy statement “Recognizing Digitization as a Preservation Reformatting Method” in which it stated that “digital reformatting should now be considered a valid choice among various methods for preserving paper-based materials” (Arthur, Byrne, Long, Montori, & Nadler, 2004, p.172). The ARL urged for the further development of standards and best practices for reformatting and metadata. Where Smith was cautious around issues of obsolescence, the ARL urged that research libraries must be at the forefront of digitalization wave in order to help develop better preservation plans for digital materials. It writes, “Libraries cannot wait for these solutions to be completely settled before testing the waters. Therefore, we must be prepared for persistent technological change” (Arthur et al., 2004, p. 174).
The Library of Congress have embraced digitization as a form of preservation. The video below discusses the relationship between physical and digital preservation:
For some institutions, digitization is the only preservation solution. Without it researchers would be completely denied access to the content of analog materials. Lacking funds for tradition preservation, the archivists at the University of Southern Mississippi Libraries relied on their digitization program in the absence of a conservator and a microfilming program to preserve 72 damaged negatives from The Robert Waller Photograph Collection (Capell 2010). These negatives would have otherwise been destroy if not for their importance to the history of the University of Southern Mississippi and the surrounding community. The negatives were digitized with a negative scanner and the originals were placed in cold storage until funds became available for traditional preservation. The scans preserved and made available the content for the university to use in its upcoming centennial celebration and for researchers. Without digitization, these materials might not have ever been seen by the public again.
Even when materials are not significantly damaged or fragile, libraries and archives have chosen digital preservation over traditional methods of preservation such as microfilming. Colorado State University Libraries (CSUL) decided that digitization was the best solution for their project to preserve monographs on agricultural and rural life in the states from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The primary reason that they chose this method is because it provided users more access to the materials. CSUL, however, realized that the success of this project relied on having a good long-term digital preservation strategy with “backup copies, non-proprietary formats, migration arrangements, and emulations plans” (Merger & Draper, 2011, p. 63).
While I do not regret taking those early morning bus rides years ago to examine the diaries of Emilie Davis, I would have been just as satisfied to access a digitized and transcribed copy from my couch in Brooklyn after my initial visit. Davis’s diaries have an intrinsic value. Nothing can replace the feeling of paper that is over a century old, but we have do have to guard against its deterioration so that it is around to be examined by future generations.
- Is digitization preservation or is it a tool of preservation that provides more access to people?
- What is more important for analog materials, the information it holds or the artifact itself?
- Digitization seems to be replacing analog preservation, but is digital preservation a quality alternative to analog preservation?
- Born Digital (digital-born)-records that began their lives as digital material.
- Digital/data migration-Transferring digital resources from one hardware or software generation to the next in order to overcome obsolescence (http://www.dpconline.org/advice/preservationhandbook/introduction/definitions-and-concepts)
- Digital surrogates-Digital representations of analog documents. This includes but not limited to paper documents, sound recordings, and photographs.
- Emulation- “A means of overcoming technological obsolescence of hardware and software by developing techniques for imitating obsolete systems on future generations of computers.” (http://www.dpconline.org/advice/preservationhandbook/introduction/definitions-and-concepts)
- Preservation-Interrelated activities used to preserve the usability of artifacts and manuscripts. It is one of the key task of archivists. For the most part, librarians do not have to worry about this as much because they do not deal with unique materials as often as archivists.
- Reformatting-To copy a material from one storage medium to another storage medium (Hunter 264)
- The Digital Preservation Coalition provides a more comprehensive list of important terms on its Introduction - Definitions and Concepts Page.
- Arthur, K., Byrne, S., Long, E., Montori, C. Q., & Nadler, J. (2004). Recognizing digitization as a preservation reformatting method. Microform & Imaging Review, 33, 171-180.
- Capell, L. (2010). Digitization as a preservation method for damaged acetate negatives: A case study. The American Archivist, 73(1), 235–249.
- Hunter, G. S. (2003). Developing and maintaining practical archives: A how-to-do-it manual. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.
- Meger, A. L. & Draper, D (2012). Digital preservation and access of agricultural materials. Journal of Agricultural & Food Information, 13 (1), 45-63. http://10.1080/10496505.2012.637437
- Smith, A. (1999). Why Digitize? Available from http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub80-smith/pub80.html