Mussel – Question 4
4What do recent developments in archival representation mean for the use of specific archives in teaching and public engagement?
Associate Professor of Victorian Literature – University of Leeds
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 I’ll focus on digitization, as it offers considerable opportunities for teaching and public engagement. Simply publishing images of archival objects, with appropriate metadata, radically increases accessibility. The sensible use of licensing—publishing content under the more liberal Creative Commons licenses, for instance—allows people to use these images (and their metadata) for their own purposes, whatever they might be. This, in itself, offers the opportunity for more people to engage with and make use of archival objects, whether for historical research, general interest, or as part of their own creative work. By storing, sorting, and making available objects from the past, libraries and archives have fostered cultural, political, and commercial activity in the present. Digitization, by overcoming the limits of location and opening hours, radically extends the reach of these institutions.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 There is always a cost to digitization, and any accompanying interpretation makes digitization more expensive. In the United Kingdom (and I am sure elsewhere), budget cuts have reduced funding for digitization (and in many cases removed it entirely). As the running of libraries and archives become subject to privatization, archivists and librarians have found themselves facing the renewed threat of deprofessionalization, in many cases with qualified and experienced staff being replaced by volunteers. In this context, digitization could be viewed as an expensive adjunct, and thus discontinued; a cheap replacement for qualified staff; or a possible income stream, pursued for profit.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 It is particularly disappointing to see national institutions adopt digitization policies that lock content behind paywalls. The British Library, for instance, is in a position where it can only fund digitization projects in partnership with publishers who, quite rightly, expect a return on their investment. The Library maintains that it is not funded to digitize material and make it publicly accessible, and that providing access to everyone with a web connection far exceeds its (national) mandate. Institutions like the British Library are subject to considerable political and commercial pressures, and their staff members do the best they can in difficult circumstances. I think there remains room to maneuver, however. Scholars in higher education already work closely with their colleagues in libraries, museums, and archives, but stronger alliances might be forged that would allow each to learn from the other and make the most of funding opportunities and other resources. I think the wider public, too, could play more of a role in developing collections. In my area, there have been a number of successful public text-enrichment projects, where members of the community dedicate time to correcting OCR-generated transcripts. The Australian Newspaper Digitisation Programme began a text-enrichment program in 2008 and, more recently, Dickens Journals Online crowd-sourced the correction of its transcripts for Household Words and All the Year Round. Such projects require an investment of time as well as infrastructure, but they offer the opportunity to develop engaged groups of users who can take some ownership of archival objects and the institutions to which those objects belong. I would like us, in other words, to imagine users as partners.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 To return to the question, what really interests me is how attitudes to archival objects change as a result of digitization. I do not mean how people view the objects after they have experienced digital representations online (I address this in Question 5), but rather how the archival object is reconsidered once it has been encountered in different contexts, repurposed, annotated, etc. Although I find the language of “digital surrogacy” misleading, the ready access to digital versions of what would otherwise be rare objects—only accessible under certain conditions—has the potential to change their status and that of the institutions in which they are stored.