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Digitization does not magically preserve paper

When we think about the historical paper-and-ink collections that FDLP libraries have built over the last 200 years, we often wish we could make them more accessible through digitization. But we have to be careful when we think this way. One thing I have learned repeatedly as I have worked with digital information over the last twenty five years is that, in the digital world, “access” and “preservation” have to go together. When we neglect either, we lose both.

Some recent writings have reinforced this old idea and are worth remembering:

  • All Digital Objects are Born Digital Objects, by Trevor Owens, The Signal (May 15th, 2012).

    There is no large red button that says “digitize” on it, we make decisions about what significant properties we want to record from a physical object and we work to ensure that those properties are recorded in the newly created digital object. When we talk about the scanner “digitizing” it’s all too easy to forget the history of the creation of the digital object and we can easily forget that there are a range of individual and institutional authorial intentions that go into deciding what and how to digitize.

  • Digitization is Different than Digital Preservation: Help Prevent Digital Orphans!, by Kristin Snawder, The Signal (July 15th, 2011).

    Many institutions see the immediate value of having materials available electronically. This is valid reasoning. Many researchers no longer want to come and see the materials. They want access from the comfort of their own couch and fuzzy slippers. But, in the hurry to meet user expectations, institutions may scan large quantities of materials without having a solid plan for preserving the digital images into the future.

  • Approaching Digitisation Through A Digital Preservation Perspective. by Alenka Kavčič-Čolić. Presented at the SEEDI (South-Eastern European Digitisation Initiative) 2012, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

    Most libraries still conceive digitisation as a digital reproduction aimed to provide access to library materials only. The master files resulted from digitisation are usually not digitally preserved and the digital collections run the risk of being lost for the future.

The above examples are about short-term thinking and lack of planning when libraries aim for access without planning for preservation. The same mistake can be made the other way, too: when libraries plan for preservation without access. Paul Conway made this point more than 15 years ago:

For years, preservation simply meant collecting. The sheer act of pulling a collection of manuscripts from a barn, a basement, or a parking garage and placing it intact in a dry building with locks on the door fulfilled the fundamental preservation mandate of the institution. In this regard, preservation and access have been mutually exclusive activities often in constant tension. “While preservation is a primary goal or responsibility, an equally compelling mandate–access and use–sets up a classic conflict that must be arbitrated by the custodians and caretakers of archival records,” states a fundamental textbook in the field (Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn. Preserving Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1993. p. 1). Access mechanisms, such as bibliographic records and archival finding aids, simply provide a notice of availability and are not an integral part of the object.

In the digital world, the concept of access is transformed from a convenient byproduct of the preservation process to its central motif. The content, structure, and integrity of the information object assume center stage; the ability of a machine to transport and display this information object becomes an assumed end result of preservation action rather than its primary goal. Preservation in the digital world is not simply the act of preserving access but also includes a description of the “thing” to be preserved. In the context of this report, the object of preservation is a high-quality, high-value, well-protected, and fully integrated version of an original source document.

– Paul Conway Head, Preservation Department Yale University Library. Preservation in the Digital World Council on Library and Information Resources, Pub62 (March 1996).

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