Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
So Much To Digitize, So Little Time (and Money)
So you want to build a digital library. You have some money or some staff to throw at the project -- ideally, both. Now what? More specifically, what do you choose to spend that money and staff time to digitize? It's a good question, mostly because there is no single best answer to the selection question. Rather, there are a number of issues librarians at any level must consider. Publication rights A primary consideration concerns what you have the right to digitize. For published material, it depends on the publication date. Generally, anything published at least 75 years ago is now in the public domain. For most published material less than 75 years old, and unpublished material, you must receive publication permission from the rights holder. That rights holder may be the person who created it, an estate, or some other entity. Generally speaking, it's less costly to get permission to digitize unpublished or out-of-print material, but costs vary widely. For more information about copyright, see links below to "Copyright Basics" and "How To Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work." For more information on how to research the rights holder of unpublished material, see "Locating Copyright Holders." Choosing material Critical mass. There should be enough related material available in one place to make the collection worthwhile to search or browse. No one wants to find only a few photographs, a couple of books, or a handful of manuscripts devoted to a topic. Therefore, you should overlook your collection of three rare published volumes and focus on, for example, your large collection of historical photographs. Diversity of material type. It's also good to have a variety of material types united by topic. For example, an author's archive, along with published works, could include correspondence, photographs, manuscripts, and critical work. Such richness of material in one place attracts scholars and interested amateurs alike, as they can explore a person's work or a topic in a variety of ways. Uniqueness. If you are going to spend a lot of staff time or money -- and you'll do at least one, maybe both -- then you don't want to stumble across a rival who beat you to your topic. So, focus on material that is unique to your library or that is highly unlikely to be digitized by others. Reputation. If your library has already established a reputation for a strong collection in one area, build on it digitally. Your reputation as the prime source on an individual, a region, or a topic will only be enhanced by your digital collection. On the other hand, try to avoid areas in which other libraries have better-known collections, unless you are fairly certain you can establish a substantial digital presence before they do. Never underestimate the power of a committed individual and a scanner. Money and technical questions Preservation. Digitizing print material to preserve it is a questionable proposition at best. Nothing created or stored on a computer has lasted as long as a cheap paperback, if only because it hasn't had the chance. Computers have only been around for several decades; acid-free paper will last for centuries, even millennia. When you talk about digital preservation (which will be the topic of a future column), you must consider migration, preservation strategies, and long-term institutional commitment. If you don't throw away the original after digitizing it, then you have a good chance at increasing the odds that the material won't disappear by creating a digital copy. Audience and potential use. It's hard, expensive work to create digital library collections and services. Before embarking on a project, you should be sure you know the target audience and what they want. If you build it, they might not come. And if they come, the materials must be presented in ways that encourage and support exploration and use. Available support/revenue opportunity. In the end, one of the most influential factors is funding. While this may sound crassly opportunistic, it is also realistic. Any library will only have limited (if any) funds to devote to this activity. But you would do your library a grave disservice if you ignored the opportunity to obtain grant support. Such a collection may not be your first choice, but something is better than nothing. Ease/difficulty/expense. There are many different ways to digitize material (another subject for a future column). Virtually none are easy and inexpensive. Therefore, the relative cost or difficulty may provoke you to alter your selection. For example, the cost and expense of reproducing newsreels digitally may lead you to focus on the transcriptions instead. Looking ahead Access. Digitizing rare and fragile material can greatly increase access to it without harming the original. Thanks to the digital efforts of libraries around the world, anyone with access to the Internet can now view such fragile treasures as ancient papyri (see the Duke Papyrus Archive) and the Magna Carta. While some believe that such digital facsimiles decrease "foot traffic," anecdotal evidence so far indicates just the opposite. Once facsimiles are easily accessible, people want to view the originals. Experimentation. Consider picking materials to digitize that allow you to experiment with different kinds of materials and formats. One Library of Congress digital collection consists of panoramic photographs, another contains old movies, and another features large-format maps. The best situation may be to mix material types that share a common theme. For example, the Everglades Digital Library includes published works, technical reports, photographs, university course materials, brochures, and other materials. The bottom line When choosing a group of items or a collection to digitize, keep in mind a few very general (and seemingly conflicting) considerations. First, you may not soon get another chance. Therefore, think carefully about what digitization effort will provide the largest and most lasting impact for your users. However, you may soon get many chances, either through grant opportunities, cost recovery options, or greater institutional support. Therefore, think about how you can logically build on your digitization efforts to create critical mass and synergies from related collections. And, finally, as long as you stay away from your personal bottle cap collection, it's really hard to go far wrong. You are, after all, a librarian. You know about selection.