In the modern age people still seem to see archives as a guarded treasure trove. While this is not untrue it is far more accessible than many think. On the other hand, people also seem to expect everything to already be digitized and waiting for them to ask for it. This brings up an interesting point. How do archivist know what to digitize first? What will be asked for in the future by the majority of patrons? At the McCall Library we have always been primarily known for our large photograph collection. Despite having been around for forty years only about 5% of our negatives have been digitized and even less of our manuscript collections have been. This is primarily due to a lack of staff, funding and equipment.
In 2011 the McCall Library received an unrivaled collection of papers from some of the most prominent families in Alabama history. This collection was valued at 3.1 million dollars. One of the stipulations for our receiving the collection was that we would digitize the plantation ledgers. We do not know why these were chosen as there are far more valuable research materials in this collection but digitize them we must. Earlier this year I pointed this clause out to our new director of the libraries and I was tasked with finding a scanner that would work for both this project and ILL.
Our new director then stated we should make a priority list for items to be digitized after these ledgers. This made us start wondering what would be most useful. Having worked there for four years I have noticed the requested collections change roughly every 5 months and come in large waves. This makes it difficult to determine what would be highest priority. In the past we digitized as items were requested instead of making these decisions on our own. Jones gives an interesting insight into why and how books were chosen for digitization in the past and how personal bias unknowingly plays a roll (2017). When it comes to our negative collections we have always decided based on request and the condition of the negatives. As they get closed to a century old we have started trying to speed up the digitization process but the side effects of working with the chemicals and lack of scanners and workers make this difficult.
At one point our direct worked with history pin to upload images of historic buildings where they once stood. This allowed for her to make some interesting decisions on what to use in a book she coauthored. However, a lack of interest made her abandon the project halfway through. Cohen mentions how “playing” with history like this can make for some interesting discoveries (2010). I find this to be very true. We were once asked where the Spanish Alley in Mobile, AL was located but the exact location was not written anywhere. I scoured though our pictures and google maps to compare the areas until I located the buildings on all sides of it and could conclusively locate it. I was even able to figure out why it was nicknamed the Spanish Alley, it had once been next door to the Spanish consulate in Mobile. Without “playing” around with these tools I could not have found the answer.
Another road block in deciding what to digitize is space both localized and on the hosted site. Currently we are restricted in the space we have to host our collections, so we have our finding aids and roughly a hundred photographs displayed on there. This frustrates our patrons to no end because they cannot simply access the collection they want. Instead they have to contact us and wait for us to digitized it and pay for the cost in some instances. Wu, Thompson, Vacek, Watkins and Weidner give a fairly detailed look at how to decide which hosting content to use for digital collections and why you should use them (2016). Our institution is our main road block to providing the information our patrons request from us. Hopefully as digitization becomes the norm we will be able to convince the president that this is a good use for the universities funds, space and time.
Cohen, P. 2010. “Digital keys for unlocking the humanities’ riches.” The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/arts/17digital.html
Jones, E. (2017). The public library movement, the digital library movement, and the large-scale digitization initiative: assumptions, intentions, and the role of the public. Information & Culture, (2), 229. Retrieved from http://libdata.lib.ua.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.494741834&site=eds-live&scope=site
Wu, A., Thompson, S., Vacek, R., Watkins, S., & Weidner, A. (2016). Hitting the road towards a greater digital destination: evaluating and testing DAMS at University of Houston libraries. Information Technology & Libraries, 35(2), 5–18. Retrieved from http://libdata.lib.ua.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=tfh&AN=116674974&site=eds-live&scope=site