“It’s all online, right?”: Myths of the Digital and the Archives

Among the many myths of the archives, the ones around digitization and digital libraries are perhaps the ones that can frustrate me the most. But then, I am a digital archivist so that will not surprise you. However, ever since archives started to digitize their materials and share them online, we’ve been battling these myths and they don’t seem to be going away. Today, I’d like to take on four myths around the digital and the archives to hopefully clear up some confusion.

“It’s all online, right?”
No. No, it is not. And, while I hate to be a Debbie Downer here, it probably never will be. For a lot of reasons, some of which are myths I’ll explain below, but also because of one very important reason, and I know it’s hard to hear, but…not everything is worth the effort of digitizing and putting online. Some materials we don’t know enough about to describe and put online in a meaningful way. Some materials are already available online, perhaps in a different format, but they are there so we’re not going to re-digitize them. And some materials just…aren’t a priority and probably never will be. That does not mean they don’t have important research value or they are worthless, they aren’t since we made the decision they fit into the scope of Special Collections & Archives, but they are just at the back of a very long digitization queue that grows on a daily basis.

“After you digitize the materials, you just get rid of it.”
So this is one of those myths that has a kernel of truth. Sometimes, for materials NOT in Special Collections and Archives, disbinding, digitizing, and then discarding is a viable option. Long ago in my graduate school career, I was working at a large university doing that exact work. I pulled books from the general collection, disbound them, and sent them to a vendor where they were digitized and then recycled. However, these were also books in remote storage, had often not been checked out to patrons in years, and shelf space was at a premium. It was essentially a weeding project with the added step of making a digital copy before the library discarded the item. So, that works for some things. That is NOT what happens with Special Collections materials. In the Digital Library Center, we often have to work around difficult bindings, paper that is fragile, photographs that are damaged and adhesives that caused damage in order to capture our materials to present them online. Our goal is cause no damage and return the item to the SCA shelves in the same state that we received it so it can be used by the next patron who requests it. We digitize to provide better access to our materials to those who can’t visit in person, not to clear off shelf space.

“Digital storage is cheap; keeping it all is an option now.”
Another myth that has a slight hint of truth to it. Digital storage is fairly cheap; the problem is in forgetting that costs over time add up. 1 GB of digital storage costs mere pennies. The current size of DigiNole: FSU’s Digital Repository is over 30 TB and growing each year. And, that is only the public digital repository. We also have terabytes of information stored in our dark digital preservation system and terabytes of unprocessed born-digital collection materials on private servers. Paying for all of that on a yearly basis is not cheap. Not to mention all the time and labor from FSU Libraries’ faculty and staff that goes into maintaining those systems and files over the years. Keeping it all is never an option when it comes to the archives and, trust me, you wouldn’t want us to either. Maintaining archival standards of appraisal is just as important for the digital as it is for the physical materials we receive. You don’t want to have to click through 20 duplicate digital files any more than you want to sift through 20 duplicate flyers in a folder. And archives can’t afford to store them either! Another part of why not everything will ever be online.

If only it were that easy…

“Digitizing things is easy! We’ll just hire a couple of students and buy a scanner.”
This may be the sentence that will start this digital archivist internally screaming the fastest. It comes from the invisible labor that goes into getting an item into the digital library. It takes a lot of time and effort to get an item into our digital library. It takes project planning, preparation of the materials for digitization, the actual work of digitization (which, when done well, takes time, effort, and expertise to use the equipment and software), description of the materials, processing of the images and metadata for loading into the digital library, and then the maintenance of those materials over time in a public server. To make sure we are getting an item online in a way that will be beneficial for researchers over a long period of time, it takes much more than a student and a scanner.

Published by Krystal Thomas

Digital Archivist at Florida State University

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