Today, many archives and libraries around the world have embarked upon projects to digitize portions of their holdings. Motivations for this work vary, but often the goal is to broaden access, facilitate retrieval, and reduce handling of the originals.
With rapidly changing technologies and costs, planning for the management of such projects over time becomes difficult. As a result, much digitizing work today is undertaken in “pilot projects” that allow institutions to learn by doing and learn from each other.
The project of the Archivo General de Indias (AGI) in Seville, Spain, is an important case study both for its size and for its track record. Over the past decade, the AGI has digitized more than eleven million pages of documents relating to Spanish history in the New World. In addition, its system for providing access to the digital documents has been in use for five years. The Archives has thus had to deal with the day-to-day practical problems of operation and longer-term issues such as obsolescence of hardware, software, and storage media.
From the start, the AGI was clear about its rationale for digitizing to “preserve.” Its objective was not to create a preservation copy in digital form to replace originals, but to offer digital surrogates to reduce the handling of originals. Today, about one-third of AGI’s on-site consultations are done electronically, greatly reducing exposure of original documents.
The report illustrates the range of difficult decisions that managers have faced throughout the project. Decisions often had to be made where no precedent existed. And, as always, decisions were bound by time and money, forcing choices that were not always optimal, but realistic.
We hope that the experience of the AGI, as described in the following report, will be a useful case study for planners facing the myriad technical, organizational, and managerial challenges presented by their own digitizing projects.
The author wishes to acknowledge all the people at the Archivo General de Indias who have collaborated in the design, development, installation, and operation of the computerized system. The Archivos y Bibliotecas group, from Informática El Corte Inglés, gave its close collaboration throughout the project and its advice in preparing the work.
In the United States, several people collaborated in bringing this report to publication. Ruth Morales translated the original work from Spanish. Dan Hazen and Chris Faulhaber read through the paper, and Kathlin Smith edited the English version. Hans Rütimann, long interested in this project, encouraged the writing and publication of this report.