The Walt Whitman Archive – Greene 3
3What about the digital form – as opposed to working with the materials in analogue form, for example – works well for you, and what does not? How does this site’s digital form contribute to the archive’s strengths and weaknesses?
Mark A. Greene
Director, American Heritage Center – University of WyomingPast President – Society of American Archivists
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The digital form highlights a question faced by every project or repository working to build online digital collections from analog originals. The digital form permits creation of extremely high density and equally high quality facsimiles,[ref]Scanning requirements are in “Technical Summary,” TWWA.[/ref] making it possible to determine physical characteristics of the original impossible to consider during the era of microfilm or photocopying. For example, project transcribers can apparently discern
- ¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0
- ink blots, smudges, and stray pen marks;
- pin holes;
- variations in ink, pencil, or paper;
- distinctions between single and multiple overstrikes[ref]From “5.9.1 What Not to Encode,” TWWA.[/ref]
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 While these are “what not to encode,” they denote the expectation that facsimiles supplied to the transcribers are capable of producing such details. As an extra measure of quality, “project staff examine each digital image [when creating JPEGs from original TIFF files] cleaned and cropped for web delivery.”[ref]“Technical Summary,” emphases added.[/ref] The intricate encoding guidelines themselves are also part of making high quality facsimiles accessible.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The opportunity cost of demanding extremely high standards encompasses both a slow pace of making facsimiles accessible to users and the ability to create a complete archive of Whitman material—this latter price due to the inevitable (though not supportable) decision by some repositories to decline participation if it requires public accessibility to such high quality scans.[ref]See “History of the Project,” TWWA, for brief discussion of some libraries’ requirement to limit user access to 72 dpi facsimiles.[/ref] There is nothing inherently logical about sacrificing a complete collection for highest-quality facsimiles. Nor is there innate reason for choosing quality over quantity, particularly since one can structure a project whereby “inferior” facsimiles are placed online relatively quickly while higher-quality facsimiles are posted, gradually, later. The question of whether (and which) users are best served by large quantity rather than high quality is one accurately answered only by asking users themselves. Surveys or focus groups for gathering user input have not been employed by The Walt Whitman Archive it appears—but neither have they been used by the vast majority of projects and repositories creating online collections.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 For a decade now I have been actively involved in projects to increase the quantity of archival material accessible to users at the expense of traditional notions of quality. What began as an effort to speed processing of large modern manuscript (hidden) collections has evolved into jeremiads on trading speed for precision in most other aspects of archives administration as well—including the creation, description, and mounting of digital facsimiles online.[ref]See, particularly, Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” American Archivist, 68:2 (Fall/Winter 2005), 208-263 and Mark A. Greene, “MPLP: It’s Not Just for Processing Anymore,” American Archivist 73:1 (Spring/Summer 2010), 175-203.[/ref] In some cases, including processing and digitization, there is direct evidence that some users prefer “more” over “better” at a ratio of about two-to-one. Far more research is required, certainly, and we should never assume that what holds true for one project/repository and its audience holds equally true for all. But we should certainly be more anxious to determine the answers than we have been heretofore.