Why Digital Archives Expand Access and Awareness

I was once the director of an archival collection related to historical buildings around the world. From Babylon to Bauhaus, the collection held just about every amazing world monument you could think of and documented state-of-the-art historic preservation techniques. Here was my challenge: the archives was institutional with no public access, and I was a “lone arranger” in charge of all aspects of archival management at the organization. How could I share these treasures?

Given the limited resources of the archives, I had to be creative in my methods for revealing this collection to researchers.

Accordingly, I launched a digitization project, which created digital proxies of 2,000 of the best images in the collection. The images acted as surrogates of the original slides and prints. Digital surrogates are superior to past forms, such as microfilm, because they are delivered via networks, offering enhanced access to simultaneous users around the world.

Access: expanded and enhanced

Digital collections grant valuable remote access to the information contained within the original records, provided that they are created within an infrastructure that reflects archival hierarchies and has appropriate metadata and search functionalities. The images were indexed for instant identification and retrieval, which eliminated time-consuming searches through slide drawers and print files. Even better, physical proximity to the collections was unnecessary, unlike analog collections. In an average day, I could assist researchers in Lexington, Lima, and London. My turnaround time for fulfilling requests was reduced from days to minutes.

  • Digital collections of archival items online provide multiple points of access and enhanced image details.
  • Digital surrogates allow for more in-depth study than their analog originals, allowing scholars to view details that the photographer may have never seen.

Delight in the details

When the images were uploaded to Artstor, a digital image library that offers unbelievable zoom in and panning features, researchers could get a better view of architectural details than they could from looking at the original image or even by being at the historical site. For example, they could see the minute brushwork a restorer used to preserve a crumbling fresco—almost as if they were performing the work themselves on site.

Collaboration builds user community

Thumbnails can be mounted on websites as reference copies of the originals, and images from different institutions can be displayed together. For example, selected images from my digital collection were added to Google’s Cultural Institute, which combined our images, metadata, and captions with other collections which were enhanced with user annotations. The project allowed new users around the world to learn about the organization’s mission and engage with our work.

New ways of seeing

Online collections increase access in a variety of ways, especially for archival collections that are in high demand and with crucial historical or intellectual content. Conversely, digital collections may increase interest in items which have been relatively ignored. New viewing experiences are possible through browsing, allowing for a different type of intellectual access to visual information. Users can mix and match their sources, connecting disparate collections in new ways to provide a fresh perspective on digital humanities research and pedagogy.

Making memories

Digital collections can grant access to materials that have been withdrawn for conservation or security reasons. They can also represent things that cease to exist, such as the famous colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The sculptures, hewn from living rock in the seventh century, were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Reconstruction of the statutes would result not only in a loss of authenticity of the site, but also cause further damage. Images collected by the organization I worked for have aided in the research and documentation of the site and supported the analysis of the remains of the rubble by conservators currently in Afghanistan. The ability to share this information would not be possible with analog collections.

The availability of digital surrogates satisfies most users’ research needs. However, access on the Internet brings wider knowledge of the existence of items, which ironically leads to more research requests to view the original. Once major parts of the collection were digitized, I had to shift my work responsibilities be able to perform more research services for new users.

Digitization promotes, preserves and protects

Digitization can also act as an advocacy tool for an archives. The more materials that are provided online, the more the resources are used, and the higher the demand for other resources of high quality. If preservation is an issue, high-resolution surrogates and sufficient hardware and software in the institution’s reading room or website allows for satisfactory access. Additionally, as analog collections become more vulnerable to damage through access, and as their monetary value and susceptibility to theft increase, the current trend toward more restrictive access to the originals will accelerate. Preservation and access can be achieved with digital surrogates, making it possible to retire the original material with access restrictions, extending its life for future generations. For some well-known, historically significant, or fragile items, the only safe access is through its digital version.

One side of the story

The availability of an inexhaustible supply of identical copies, what Roland Barthes calls photography’s ability to “reproduce to infinity [what] has occurred only once,” is an important consequence of digitization. Surrogates can be generated for specific purposes such as JPEGs for web display, TIFFs for storage, and PDFs for print reproduction. The millionth copy of a digital image is indistinguishable from its progenitors. Electronic copies suffer no degradation through the duplication process, unlike other forms of copying, such as facsimiles of analog photographs. A copy of a digital photograph is indistinguishable from its source so that “original” loses its meaning in this electronic world. It’s important to remember that with digitized images, researchers risk losing information that enables them to understand how the image was accessed and how its physicality changed over time.

Expanding awareness

As humans, and especially as historians and archivists, we are drawn to the tactile and the tangible. While access to original, analog collections is always ideal, it may simply not be possible for a variety of reasons. Digital surrogates of collections open the archives’ reading room to the world, allowing access to—and building awareness of—important historical collections for new audiences.

The blog was originally published on Lucidea's blog.

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