The Spirit and Intent of Digitizing Hidden Collections

Chuck Henry


On January 1, 2018, our biweekly blog series, Re: Thinking, moved to this new location on CLIR’s website. We are pleased to start the new year with the following post by CLIR President Charles Henry.

Two press releases this month relating to CLIR’s Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives (DHC) initiative have invited wider interest in the program and prompted important questions that pertain to its provision of service to the community. The announcement of a generous, $13.2 million three-year grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is an opportunity to reflect on the goals and rationale for DHC; the release of the 2017 grants awarded to individual and collaborating educational and cultural institutions has also generated observations about the program’s scope and diversity.

Like its predecessor program Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives, DHC supports projects that make digitized resources easily discoverable and accessible alongside related materials held within the home institution as well as by other collecting institutions. The program’s core values include collaboration, by promoting strategic partnerships rather than duplication of capacity and effort; sustainability, by promoting best practices for ensuring the long-term availability and discoverability of digital files created through digitization; and openness, by ensuring that digitized content will be made available to the public as easily and completely as possible, given ethical and legal constraints. Committing to these values requires technological, cultural, and behavioral strategies to encourage collaboration, sustainability of effort, and content preservation and reusability over time. At its core, DHC attempts to create a lasting community of practice wherein all contributors come to see themselves as part of a larger whole: an interdependent system of activity in service to scholarship and teaching which we define as connectedness.

The background informing these values is instructive. During the 1990s and early 2000s there was a flurry of digitizing library content. “Just digitize” was a common mantra of the era. Unfortunately, the proliferation of digital projects was reflected by the proliferation of different standards and competing platforms: there was little interinstitutional coordination. Many of those projects are difficult to access or even find today. The state of our academic digital environment was further affected by increasingly restrictive budgets over the last ten years, which caused a steep decline in larger-scale digitization. In response, CLIR, working with the Mellon Foundation, devised a new approach that insists as much as possible on a collaborative, communicative, and coordinated methodology. The funding for, initially, cataloging hidden collections and presently for digitizing them was always tied to a systemic structure and purpose. In light of this, the three-year funding grant is especially welcome: compared to our more routine annual allocations, it assures a longer-term window of activity that encourages the community building at the heart of the program.

Building community requires attention to issues of social justice. All too frequently, staff who work on digitizing projects are not adequately compensated or given opportunities to expand their skills. CLIR’s review panel is aware of this and considers budgeted compensation levels for staff, as well as the project’s contribution to building local institutional capacity and professional development, in its final decision.

Scope and Diversity
The recent announcement of 2017 grant awardees is exemplary of the DHC program. The geographic scope of the project is bounded by North America and we are working with our Canadian colleagues to encourage more cross-border collaboration. The diversity of the DHC is reflected by the kinds of institutions funded and the spectrum of topical content that becomes digitized. This year’s awards are typical: institutions funded include Ilisavik College; the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at Boston Public Library; Indiana University; and the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pa. The array of resources is equally diverse: Cuban American radionovelas; Inupiaq audio recordings; archives of women’s activism, 1820-1920; and documents of Philadelphia’s historic congregations.

Vital to the integrity of any national grant competition is the issue of fairness: in the DHC program, how are the awards decided in ways that assure impartial and equitable results? All awarded proposals comply with the core values of the program. The value of the hidden collections’ contribution to scholarship and the comprehensive nature of the resources proposed for funding are usually the foremost criteria in the initial evaluation of each proposal. Grant writers have to persuasively argue that the digitized product will have genuine import for new scholarly discovery, providing a rich, accessible trove of materials currently difficult or impossible to access and use. The DHC core values thus provide a level playing field of rules and expectations common to all proposals, regardless of institutional size, location, or type.

Yet the issue of fairness is complex, especially when it involves the perception of an institution’s wealth. Intuitively, no one complains when a small historical society or rural college receives funding. When a university or college that publicly lauds its considerable endowment is funded, questions can arise. Having served on the DHC and Cataloging Hidden Collections review panels for a decade, I can say we take this issue seriously. It comes up nearly every year, and our response is keyed to several factors. While a university’s endowment can be famously large, this does not guarantee an equitable distribution of funds across the institution. Libraries and archives are almost always underfunded in relation to past practice and aspirations: it falls to the panel to confirm that the request for DHC support is honest and reflects a dearth of available capital.

Patterns of cultural philanthropy are also in play. The gift of a famous author’s papers and other special donations almost never comes with adequate funds to curate and maintain the gift; funding for digitization of the papers or artifacts is rarer still. The review panel does weigh the potential opportunity for other, external sources to fund digitization, and in some cases has turned down a proposal when the archives or collections appeared to us to be of such broad appeal that our support is not essential. Nonetheless, this is quite unusual. The contemporary budgets of educational and cultural institutions require, urgently, a program like the DHC to compensate for a paucity of local funding and the bewildering stew uncoordinated digitization can cause. Providing the fiscal resources at a national scale is one part of our mission; enabling an interdependent cohort of hundreds of institutions and thousands of professional service providers working together to enhance scholarly productivity and enrich the public good—that is the vision.