Terrence Lockyer

Archives: Why digital needs physical

In General on July 18, 2011 at 2:28 pm

In a recent New York Times piece, James Gleick offers a good response to Tristram Hunt’s Observer column attacking the use of digital archives by historians.

What Gleick doesn’t address here – and there’s no particular reason he should, since it’s a short piece with a different focus – are (at least) three real issues related to digitization of library and archival materials:-

1.) We live in a time of aggressive, many would argue philistine, diminution of budgets for the arts and humanities, and for libraries. Institutions are being forced to justify their existence and their funding in crude economic terms: how many people came through the doors, how many people used the facilities, how much income there was from rights payments (even if, as a 2004 report argues on p. 35, museums’ rights departments often do not even recover the costs of their own existence), and so on. The availability of high quality digital reproductions, as it is intended to do, widens access and reduces the numbers who need to visit the physical original; in itself also a good thing for conservation, since handling is the single greatest everyday danger to rare, fragile, and old documents. But digital availability wil inevitably reduce the numbers of physical visitors that libraries and archives are expected to produce to justify their funding, and in some cases their existence, not to mention the hiring of trained, specialized people to do the basic work that will remain essential before and that continues alongside the ever better quality digital reproductions. This is not an argument against digital archives at all; it is an argument for developing new criteria of what an archive is for, and how its contribution is measured in the eyes of funding bodies. Because physical archives of pre-digital materials don’t become less necessary as digitization progresses; they become more so, because in addition to their old functions, they become the sources that are essential for future digitization when current standards, methods, or formats are no longer good enough and it becomes necessary to go back to the original.

2.) While the availability of digital reproductions in itself is of enormous value both to the general public and to specialists, the fact that budgets are not infinite inevitably leads to selection based on institutional (or other) priorities. This raises the question of what gets left out. The larger the pre-digital archive, the more likely that something significant lies unnoticed, and because current digitization projects often prioritize what is agreed to be important, the less likely that individual overlooked item will be high on the list of things to be digitized. This is related to the issue of metadata quality: unless you know what’s in your archive (physical or digital), and it’s well catalogued, there’s a good chance of important things simply not being visible. Again, this isn’t an argument against digitization; it’s an argument for the value of well-funded, professionally run archives to do the preliminary work, and to maintain materials against the day when somebody realizes the importance of the previously unconsidered; and it’s an argument for making students, especially in the historical and related disciplines, aware that the increasing extent of digital archives doesn’t render physical collections obsolete or unimportant.

3.) No matter how extensive and good digital reproductions, there remain some questions that can’t be answered without the physical original. What paper was used, what ink, what pigments, what techniques. As digital technology progresses, we acquire more and more tools to address those questions, and others previous generations weren’t even able to ask. The average modern desktop or laptop computer possesses image enhancement tools that were once the province of specialized labs. Texts (palimpsests, scrolls from Herculaneum) that were once unreadable have become partly or wholly so through new photographic and other methods. What this argues is not that digital reproductions are less worthwhile, but that it’s even more important to practise high quality conservation, against the day we shall want to examine original documents in ways we haven’t even considered yet, with tools that haven’t been invented yet.

In sum, and as with digital materials in general, it seems to me that too much discussion is in terms of polar opposites:  libraries or online archives;  ebooks or print;  digitized sources or physical ones.  All of these oppositions strike me as misleading, mistaken, and even dangerous.  Digital archives aren’t an alternative to physical ones, but a means by which the contents of physical archives can be brought to wider audiences with less risk to fragile originals;  while physical archives remain essential to the existence of digital, because without them, and their specialist staff and techniques, there would and will be far fewer materials, is far less good condition, to form the basis of digitization projects.  The real question is not a debate between the two, but rather what purposes (and audiences) are best served by what kind of archive;  and how best to preserve the valuable and still necessary physical archive, even as more and more materials from it are made available to more and more people online.

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