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Digitizing Hidden Collections: What You’ve Told Us

Back in April, we announced that we were discontinuing Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives in its current form and that we were working to replace it with a program that could accommodate funding the digitization of rare and unique collections. The succeeding months have involved a great deal of deliberation and consultation with other funders, with leading practitioners in the field, and also with readers of Re:Thinking, who provided thoughtful and provocative responses to the series of four questions (below) posed in our announcement.

While the prospective program’s future is still uncertain, and will remain so through December, our plans have evolved to the point at which it’s useful to revisit those questions and consider how what we have been learning has affected the choices we are making about our program’s design.

(1) What level of intellectual control over a collection is necessary before you can plan a digitization project…to what degree must a collection be “un-hidden” before you can digitize? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the responses we have received to this question amount to: “It depends on the collection.” While it may sometimes be easier to digitize after rare materials have been fully described at the item level, it isn’t always most expedient, or even desirable, to structure a digitization project in this way. Particularly with audio or audiovisual formats or other especially fragile materials, coupling description and digitization can be the least risky and most efficient strategy for creating access. Large archival collections might require only minimal metadata at the item level if they are digitized and arranged and described well at the box or folder level. In short, there seem to be a variety of valid starting points from which to begin a digitization project.

While phrased in practical terms, this question strikes at the heart of a dilemma we have been facing as program developers: Do we define our new initiative as a departure from the cataloging project or, alternatively, might we describe it as an extension of our original priorities? If we are principally interested in funding digitization going forward, to what extent does our program remain about “hidden collections”?

After much intense debate, our consensus seems to be that we are interested in more of an evolution than a departure, so the new program’s name will probably reflect that. Our primary criterion always has been and will remain exposing collections of highest scholarly import in ways that maximize their potential impact on scholarship. Grant applicants will still need to convince reviewers that their collections are significant and will have a meaningful impact on scholarship if digitized and fully accessible online. They will need to argue that “un-hiding” their collections through digitization is a worthy investment in the creation of new knowledge. We hope to find a way to structure the program so that it could accommodate some description as well as digitization in the cases where combining these into the same workflow makes the most sense.

(2) What is “cutting edge” or “innovative” when it comes to the digitization of cultural heritage collections? We received many intriguing suggestions in response to this question, including the development of new online interfaces for access, better incorporation of links to digital objects within finding aids, “crowdsourced” tagging or transcription, 3-D scanning or scanning with non-visible light spectra, establishing new standards for minimal metadata for digitized rare materials, incorporating digitization into classroom or other experiential learning activities, new and better ways of aggregating related collections, deriving digital copies “on the fly” from preservation masters, and supporting multilingual and non-language search and discovery.

What is more interesting, however, is the strongly expressed resistance to the term “innovative” that came through in many responses. Our readers are concerned that we not strictly focus on “celebrating the new,” as one put it, and instead aim to provide help with the “sustained heavy lifting” that creating access to collections requires. In the words of another reader, “Sometimes a straight-up scanning project is all one institution needs, but the content is so vital that it trumps fancy experimentation.”

This resistance echoes much of what we have heard from our constituents over the history of our cataloging program. While we have always asked our applicants to discuss the ways their approaches are innovative and could be models for others, and will probably continue to do so in any future program, it has not been a strict requirement for funding. We hope that applicants will see any prompt to discuss innovation or models as an opportunity to demonstrate their awareness of relevant advancements in practice they and others have made, as this will build reviewer confidence in their ability to make intelligent choices in how they approach their projects. Our applicants have a great deal to teach us about digitization, and this is one way we can learn from them. Once again, we are considering our future as an evolution rather than an entirely new start; incentivizing innovation for its own sake is not the goal, but raising awareness about new and better practices is still central to CLIR’s mission and all that we do.

(3) What measures for cost-effectiveness and sustainability make an investment in digitization worthwhile? Our colleagues in the field gave us a good sense of the complexity of factors that must be weighed in order to consider digitization a wise investment. The commitment to preserve content in a trusted digital repository is one requirement, as is the commitment to support the use of the content through public service activities, but the overall “value proposition” for a digitization project seems difficult to articulate. As one group of readers wrote,

Web analytics and use statistics provide some measure of value – but only after the fact. The advance creation of user profiles and persuasive use cases for the digitized content can help drive design and also provide a baseline against which to measure success after the fact. Too often the justification for conducting a digitization project is still purely speculative. The decision to provide grant funding to institutions for new projects should perhaps take into account the institution’s track record in user-driven design, assessment and success in implementing the lessons of these initiatives.

The prospect of incorporating clearer assessment benchmarks into our application structure, review process, and overall program review is a serious challenge but well worth the hard work. At this point, even the most basic questions about what it should cost to digitize a particular quantity of materials in a given format do not seem to have simple answers. The variety of possible staffing structures, workflows, and the close interrelationships between digitization and description activities make it difficult to compare one project with another, but if we are successful our program could be an opportunity to articulate our questions about the value of digitization and describe how our constituents demonstrate this value. It would be helpful if our readers could share their ideas about current research in this area and what kinds of broad assessment strategies seem most appropriate for the varied and complex circumstances under which the digitization of rare and special collections take place.

(4) What might be the value of cooperative/coordinated approaches to digitization of rare and unique materials? How can institutions work together to create broader and easier access to scholars, students, and the general public? Our final question prompted the most enthusiastic responses from our readers. The prospect of sharing equipment, tools, repositories, and expertise seems to have broad support, as does building coordinated discovery and access systems that expose relationships between collections held at disparate locations. Most of our respondents seem to believe that the rewards for scholarship and the prospect of preventing duplication of effort can offset the additional planning and management burdens required for successful multi-institutional collaboration. The overwhelmingly positive tone of the feedback we received is encouraging, since it resonates well with the core values of the program that is now taking shape. It is our aim to encourage deeper collaboration among institutions in the interest of more cost-effective and efficient practice as well as better service to scholarship.

We will be exploring these values with more specificity in the coming weeks here on Re:Thinking and will reflect upon how these will affect the design of the application for the new program.

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