Something I’ve thought a lot about ever since my intro classes last year is the issue of digitizing for preservation vs digitizing for access – digitizing with individual care to replicate resources in the highest possible quality, or digitizing quickly to make sure that lower quality versions of resources are available to the public as soon as possible. It’s a complicated question, and the answer varies depending on the purpose of the collection; archivists digitized the Mona Lisa for preservation, placing emphasis on the best replication of colors and marks, but they might digitize written documents from Da Vinci for researcher access, as their value comes primarily from their contents, not their artistic execution. A low-quality digital double is not an archival-quality facsimile, just like a black and white scan on a copier is a poor replication of the pages of the original book, and while some grainy 8.5×11 copies serve their purpose just fine, a book with color illustrations would lose much of its nuance and value.
The preservation vs access debate is ongoing in digital archive circles. In their article Digitization as a Preservation Strategy, Krystyna Matusiak and Tamara Johnson explain that cultural heritage digitization started purely as a strategy for access, a way of creating easily distributable copies of original resources, and that the movement to include digitization in resource preservation plans is relatively new and controversial. According to their assessment, however, digitization for preservation is becoming more and more popular, particularly for endangered materials like photograph negatives and audio recordings. Instinctively, I’m inclined to agree without reservations; I’m a millennial digital hoarder who likes to buy their movies in 1080p, and lower-quality digitization pains me. It could be because I grew up in the age of the internet, where storage seems endless and everything lasts forever (especially when you don’t want it to), but I err on the side of new digitization thought – that digitization can be part of a long-term preservation plan for analog visual archives.
However, I’m learning to spot when I need to temper that instinct. In their overview of Thirteen Ways of Looking At … Digital Preservation, Brian Lavoie and Lorcan Dempsey discuss both preservation and access. In their section presenting digital preservation as “a selection process,” they remind us that digitization can be expensive, and that it is advantageous for leaders of digitization efforts to think ahead regarding which objects they plan to digitize for preservation, and which they plan to preserve for access. While digitizing en masse and sorting later may sound appealing, particularly when unconcerned with storage space limits, they note that “saving is not preserving” – digitizing an entire collection at the highest possible quality is rarely affordable or a good use of time, but digitizing an entire collection at a lower quality and sorting back through for preservation would require re-digitizing selected resources, which is not an effective use of money or time, either.
This all comes back to stuff I’ve been chewing on thanks to other classes dealing with archives – namely, how do we as archivists actually know what people in the future will need high-quality digitizations of? The Mona Lisa is a pretty safe bet, but what if researchers in the future need high resolution scans of Da Vinci’s ‘boring’ handwritten records to study his penmanship? It’s impossible to anticipate every possible need, which Lavoie and Dempsey acknowledge when they refer to digital preservation as “an ongoing activity,” one that, with changing file formats and digitization technologies, is never truly complete. All archivists can do at this stage of the evolution of digitization technologies is make educated guesses based on current research patterns. Perhaps, as technologies evolve further, someone will create a miraculous workflow that allows for high quality, time sensitive digitization, and all of these problems will be solved – assuming, of course, that the technology is open source. Fingers crossed.
Lavoie, B. and Dempsey, L. (2004). Thirteen ways of looking at … digital preservation. D-Lib Magazine, 10(7-8). http://www.dlib.org/dlib/july04/lavoie/07lavoie.html
Matusiak, K. and Johnson, T. (2014). Digitization as a preservation strategy. The American Archivist, 77(1), 241-269. http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/mow/VC_Matusiak_Johnston_28_B_1400.pdf