Digitization Issues for Academic Archives

Archives are in a unique position to consider digitizing their collections. There is much conversation and disagreement about the role digitization should take in an archival collection. Some archives have boldly digitized entire collections while others have opted to wait and see how this technology evolves. Because of the differences between types of archival institutions and the breadth of the issues surrounding digitization this paper is limited to a discussion of 3 issues important to academic archives: access, preservation and storage, and description.


Imaging is perhaps most appealing in terms of access and the positive benefits are readily seen. Collections can be made broadly available through Internet access and developing search and retrieval capabilities promote new uses of collections. Archivists have always struggled to balance the needs of user to access material with the responsibility to preserve collections. Access traditionally requires an interview, proof of identification, and monitored use of a limited amount of material. Material is available only during limited hours, it can not be removed from the archive and photocopying is restricted based on the condition of the condition of the documents. The reference archivist is closely involved a patrons research. The stacks are closed and browsing is not allowed so an archivist will bring material to a user based on the patron needs and the archivists own knowledge of the collection. Because material is arranged according to original order and provenance each collection is separate from the others and cross collection research is difficult.

Digitization of archival collections simplifies this arduous process. If collections can be accessed through the Internet then the number of potential users increases exponentially. Patrons won't be limited by time or place. Perhaps even more appealing is the ability to search across and within collections more fully. Photographs from different collections can be easily extracted and compared. The traditional finding aids that accompany each collection can not describe fully the richness or depth of materials. Full text searching is possible for documents that have been scanned with optical character recognition technologies. Imaging software continues to develop with more capabilities and sophistication that will continue to promote easy and meaningful access to digitized collections. Access can also be enhanced by the ease with which material can be printed. It is desirable to print copies of documents or images from digitized images because it protects the originals from additional handling or damage. Also as the quality of scanned images and printers increases the quality of the reproduction exceeds that of a photocopy. It is however this aspect of digitizing collections that most concerns some archivists.

There are copyright and privacy issues that impact and compound the decision to digitize material. When colleges and universities are dealing with institutional records then copyright is less an issue than if material relates to alumnus or other individual private collections. This paper can not begin to tackle copyright issues other than to acknowledge that it is indeed an unresolved problem. Some archives choose to forego digitization projects because of copyright considerations.

Preservation and Storage

Use and manipulation of digitized images and documents protects the original. As indicated with copying it is extremely beneficial to protect material from handling damage or theft. There is some concern that the scanning process itself may be harmful to originals. As imaging technologies continues to evolve these fears can be eliminated. Archives can choose the type of scanner, "copystand, drum, flatbed, slide, and video digitizer" that best protects the material to be scanned.(Besser, http://www.ahip.getty.edu/intro_imaging/11-Scan.html)

Storage is also an issue. Because digitized images and documents take up so little physical space it would be tempting to conclude that imaging resolves the space issue which challenges almost every archive. However, archives have yet to embrace digitization as a replacement for the actual physical artifact or even as a replacement to microfilming. The necessarily long term goals of archives require them to carefully consider the implication of future technologies. Archivist generally feel that the rapid pace of changing technologies prohibits total conversion and long term storage in digital forms. There is agreement that the quality of digital images surpasses that of microfilm but there remains some reluctance to fully embrace imaging technologies as long term storage options. Corporate and commercial archives have more fully and quickly embraced many new digitization options. The conservative and often financially poor position of academic archives have created a wait and see attitude within academic archives. However, academic institutions are considering and exploring new digital opportunities in a careful manner.


Archives describe collections in unique ways. Finding aids with scope notes detail a collection but not usually at item level. Because each collection is unique, description within and between archives vary. The challenge to describe collections becomes even more complex when considering digitized material, especially images. To be sure there are some cataloging guides and MARC-AMC records lend themselves to some structure but standards have not yet been fully developed.

Cataloging scanned text is less complicated than cataloging digitized images. Text can be described and linked to its collection but can be still be extracted. Much of the existing description can be easily applied to an electronic record. Images have traditionally been less descriptively catalogued. The extent of detail may be limited to "photographs, 1895-1898" for example. Even though images are available they may not be easily retrieved. This lack of standards prohibits integrated and wide spread retrieval of material. Again, academic archives are experimenting with digitization prototype programs but are reluctant to invest the considerable amount of time and money that particularly image cataloging would require.

Archivists are working and experimenting and researching ways to incorporate image technologies into the archival world. They do not want to be left behind or simply follow other leaders. However, academic archives carefully if not conservatively, and without rushing are exploring how the long term goals of archives as institution can best be achieved by considering the implications of access, storage, preservation and description of digitized collections.

Works Cited and Consulted


Howard Besser and Jennifer Trant, Introduction to Imageing: Issues in Constructing an Image Database The Getty Art History Information Program Imaging Initiative. 1995 http://www.ahip.getty.edu/intro_imaging/11-Scan.html


Harriet Hagenbruch, "American Memory--history meets the age of technology" Library Software Review 13 (Spring 1994): 35-8.

John McDonald, "Commentary" American Archivist 57 (Winter 1994): 42-5.

Luciana Duranti, "Commentary" American Archivist 57 (Winter 1994): 36-40.

Ronald Weissman, "Archives and the new information architecture of the late 1990's" American Archivist 57 (Winter 1994): 20-45.

Martha Chantiny, "Incorporating digitized images in the UHCARL PAC online catalog" Library Software Review 12 (Spring 1993): 22-6.

Frederick J. Stielow, "The impact of information technology on archival theory" Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 34 (Winter 1993): 48-65.

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Kenneth Cory and David Hessler. "Imaging the Archives: now is the time" Library and Archival Security 12(1) 1993: 7-15.

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