Expert Panel Discusses Libraries and Digitization

iStudent Blog

Published: December 10, 2015

With the growing need to preserve and protect historical materials, curate born-digital materials, and make materials more widely accessible to the community and the world beyond, digitization is becoming more of an issue for libraries today.

Recently the American Library Association’s TechSource hosted a panel discussion on many of the challenges libraries are facing as they digitize their collections and seek to preserve historical documents. I’ve captured some highlights here, and you can watch the whole discussion online if you like. The live webinar allowed audience questions through both text chat and Twitter (hashtag #ALLive).

Why Digitization Matters
The SJSU School of Information’s director, Dr. Sandra Hirsh, introduced the panel members: Suzanne Caro, government documents librarian at the University of Montana’s Mansfield Library, Julie Warren, project manager at Georgetown County Library in South Carolina, and the Alyce Scott, the iSchool’s very own instructor for two Info 284: Seminars in Archives and Records Management, which focus on digital curation.

Then moderator Dan Freeman of the ALA’s publishing division started the discussion by asking, “Why is digitization so important to libraries today?” Scott answered the question simply by simply stating, “Digitization provides access to primary, unique resources.” Warren noted the need for preservation as well as access. With rain, hurricanes and a generally moist climate on the East Coast, where she lives, Warren has seen a lot of lost and damaged documents that need to be saved. Caro mentioned outreach and increased awareness as being an important component of digitization and why it’s so important for libraries today.

Funds, Skillsets and Standards
The panel went on to discuss many of the challenges that libraries face with digitization, and always, the lack of funding came up. “Funding is always a challenge as it’s so often unavailable,” said Caro. “Many libraries are collaborating with other libraries and institutions, applying for grants and doing a lot of fundraising.” While the lack of funding for library digitization projects is disappointing, I am confident that the skills I’ve learned in my iSchool Info 282: Grant Writing will serve me well in my next job. Warren’s public library used a grant to support archiving and digitization.

Caro talked about the use of crowdsourcing in a digitization project at the Cambridge Public Library. The public could log on to a website to help transfer a large volume of newspaper articles from print to digital. This method both saved money and helped increase the searchability of those documents, but Caro emphasized the need for volunteers to be able to help out in their areas of interest and expertise in order to stay motivated and have their efforts best utilized.

Scott’s concerns with the digitization process focused on the need to have someone who was adept at collecting the metadata involved in these projects, especially since she felt this was usually the most time-consuming task. She stressed the importance of standards and best practices in digitization, citing examples of students who had issues with the institutions in which they worked not digitizing their collections with any sort of consistency. Having dabbled in metadata and taxonomies in Info 202, I can only imagine the time and meticulous expertise that would be necessary for digitization projects. Each and every item would need to be preserved, curated and then made findable.

Curating and Collaborating
Warren also fielded an audience comment about how to pick and choose what gets saved to a digital format—“Doing it all just isn’t possible,” she lamented. “Selection is so important,” added Scott. “You want to get the most bang for your buck with a grant, so it’s important to have a goal in mind. The reason you’re digitizing is as important as the items themselves.”

All three panel members agreed that collaboration is vital. Warren worked with local museums and other community organizations to save a variety of materials, create access for everyone, and also bring together the whole community and multiple partnerships. Caro mentioned digitization hubs—state libraries and other organizations that specialize in scanning or metadata. “Partnering,” she mentioned, “can help you with marketing your material as well.” If you don’t know something, you probably know someone who does. And collaboration is the way libraries work these days.

Copyright issues came up a lot on the Twitter feed, and before any of the three librarians began answering questions, the ALA’s Freeman gave the disclaimer, only slightly in jest, that none of them were lawyers. “Play it safe,” said Caro. Anything before 1923 is probably okay. Scott emphasized the importance of knowing the very basics of copyright. In her classes, she has students use Peter Hirtle’s chart, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

Warren, who deals a lot with historical materials, stressed the importance of correct and thorough documentation. “Make sure you know where it came from,” she said, “especially if historical items are donated. Document everything you can as you receive the materials—where it came from, name of studio and photographer for old photographs, etc. It will save you a lot of time and trouble later on.”

Learning the Ropes
Beyond webinars like this one, more formal training is available for those who want to learn about the various aspects of digitization. “Library schools have been very responsive to the needs of the community, as well as future and current librarians,” Scott said. The SJSU iSchool for instance, is now offering a way to give students and working librarians an advantage when it comes to fields like digitization: the new Advanced Certificate in Digital Assets and Services is available to current iSchool students and information professionals everywhere.

When it comes to librarianship, digitization and the information future, things don’t look quite like they used to, and we need to be prepared. “It’s a brave new world out there!” said Scott.

For more about the future of digital, check out:
Exploring iSchool Career Pathways–Digital Curation

Master Your Skills with the Advanced Certificate in Strategic Management of Digital Assets and Services


image courtesy of rajcreationzs


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