Share in our discoveries across three projects as we work to provide the first intellectual access to our hidden treasures relating to work and labor in early 20th Century New England, the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair and its period, and Boston local TV news.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Digitally Speaking

I quite clearly remember the horror of knowing I would have to “go digital” upon entering library school. Database management systems and XML gave me a nightmarish tic. I had applied based upon my love of books - the intellectual content combined with the book as a physical object - the colour, the smell. The nervous tic was soon replaced with a curiosity (and, dare I say, a thrill) while learning these special languages! I became equally interested in hierarchical database relationships and the standards used to create information that could be shared in systems alongside all that goes with it. That said, I never saw technology or digitization as anything more than a companion to our physical collections.

Digitization was first presented as a means of providing access points. We could provide enough information to highlight holdings, to make collections known. Initial digital lists became collection-level and then item-level finding aids found via searchable digital catalogs. This is where I feel most comfortable. Where technology is utilized to provide access to holdings and representations of collections/items.

The information world has shifted more to a technological race. A race to digitize as much of our collections as possible. Born-digital materials are an altogether different issue, but digitizing our physical collections before our technology is even remotely stable means not only robbing researchers and users of the physical experience of a collection, but creating digital information that we are not sure how to preserve over time (while spending a whole lot of money). Research is informed by knowing who is keeping the information sought. Research is also enhanced by knowing how information relates to other materials within a collection, and, furthermore, how these materials relate to the institution housing them. Removing physicality in lieu of quick and dirty digitization is overshadowing our role as institutions - and arguably providing information directly to users.

The digital does not replace the need nor the contextual significance of the physical, and I was glad to hear this sentiment reinforced in keynote speaker Francis X. Blouin’s opening address at the CLIR Symposium. While I see no perfect solution at the moment, I do enjoy the conversation.

Our project serves as a way to provide access points, complete with digital representations of collections, and encourages the researcher to visit and enjoy the full experience of Northeast Historic Film. I was very aware of the "full experience" first when working at James Madison's Montpelier in Orange, Virginia. I would study his letters for curatorial clues and then sit in his garden for lunch. Viewing film specific to a region in that region affects the connection one makes to the information sought, and informs the way it will be used.


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