At UWM we’ve been digitizing our archival and special collections materials since 2001 – right now we have nearly 120,000 objects available online and that number is growing. Like us, many libraries and archives are working toward greater access to archival collections via digitization. We do this to provide broader and open access to the public so people can make new uses of these materials, to increase access for research and teaching, and potentially to ease the burden on fragile physical items.
At THATCamp, I’m interested in inviting a lively discussion about how researchers, instructors, artists, students, etc… actually use these digitized archival collections, especially now that we’ve entered an age of big data, access to massive corpora, and expectations of open and online access.
At UWM we have begun to experiment with making entire archival collections available online. But through design or through necessity, given limited resources and space, most of what we have made available to date are selections from collections, rather than the whole thing (stay tuned, though …). But what changes when we go big? Making complete collections available online raises a number of provocative questions about how archives might be used and how archival research is conducted.
We have seen examples of how access to massive corpora of digitized texts can enable researchers to ask questions they couldn’t have asked before. What does access to more and more (but still only a fraction of) digitized archival collections enable? What are the benefits?; what new questions can be engaged (and by whom) with access to tools like full text searching, metadata structures that reinforce relationships between objects, and simply being able to access disparate collections in a homogeneous environment; can new relationships and contexts become apparent? What are the costs when you consult a digital rather than a physical artifact; what is crucial about consulting the physical object and what isn’t; are relationships between materials and the context of the collection still apparent in an online environment; does research that relies entirely on digital surrogates count in places like academia; does its “aura” matter?
Ultimately, the point in talking through these questions would be to come up with some best practices/protocols, etc. for how can we make research in the digitized archives richer and more productive.