:: Digital Libraries Columns


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 They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

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   For most published material less than 75 years old, and unpublished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   permission to digitize unpublished or out-of-print material, but costs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   unpublished material, see "Locating Copyright Holders."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.