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Smithsonian digitization strategic plan

The Smithsonian has just released their digitization strategic plan for fiscal years 2010 – 2015 called “Creating a Digital Smithsonian” — executive summary and full report.

I’m in 2 minds about this as well as similar digitization plans. On the one hand, the digitization of Smithsonian collections — books, research reports, data, music, film and other sounds (like frog vocalizations!) — will mean potentially a boon to online access to some really amazing materials.

On the other hand, this quote from the executive summary worries me:

To preserve our collections, the Smithsonian constantly battles the destructive forces of time and environment. Despite our best efforts, plastics discolor, wax cylinder recordings distort, and botanical specimens become brittle. Digitization offers a way to make objects — and the valuable information they contain — available without jeopardizing their integrity by handling or by exposure to the elements.

While they mention a “life cycle-management approach to digitization,” there doesn’t seem to be a serious amount of thought given to the fact that digital objects degrade faster than physical objects, and that digital preservation is an ongoing and potentially more expensive effort. I worry that SI.edu will broker the same kind of disastrous deal that GAO did with Thomson-West whereby a whole swath of public domain information was privatized.

I would call on SI.edu and ALL .gov agencies to insert a clause into ANY digitization contract that ALL digital files and metadata will be accessible via free and open sites. That means where applicable, copies of all digital content would be ingested into GPO’s FDsys, Library of Congress, NARA and/or publicly accessible non-profit sites (eg. UNT digital library or Internet Archive). Please help us get this message across to your friends in the .gov sector. Public information should remain public!

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