11 February 02004

Why digitise cultural collections?

The Facet Publishing web site currently has a free download of the first chapter of Lorna Hughes' recent book, Digitizing Collections: strategic issues for the information manager. This 28-page chapter introduces the costs and benefits of digitisation in a very straightforward and easy-to-read manner.

The book appears to be aimed mainly at curators, librarians and other managers of collections, particularly linked to universities. Its focus is more on higher education, research and scholarship than what might called 'lifelong learning for the rest of us.'

The main benefits of digitisation that the chapter identifies are the 'obvious' ones of increasing access to rare resources, and enhancing capabilities for searching and browsing of collections. Hughes is also admirably direct about the collateral pay-off for institutions with collections in raising their profile generally, and specifically gaining more leverage with benefactors and funders.

She also points out some of the downsides. The development of tools for digitisation is led by the market, and thus many of the existing technologies are better at meeting the needs of business than those of 'disinterested' scholarship. The churn and short life-cycle of digital technologies in recent history also raises important concerns about preservation issues, as anyone who's got their old work saved as WordPerfect files on 5¼" disks will tell you.

There are aesthetic questions with digitised versions of collections. Particularly in the visual arts, critics have rejected copies as surrogates of the originals, which destroying the latter's uniqueness and scale (cf what Walter Benjamin called the "aura" of a work of art). The ease of manipulating and editing digital files also raises issues of authenticity.

The sentence which struck me most in the whole chapter is the one that refers to what Donald Rumsfeld would call the 'known unknowns': "Digitization is also a means of creating resources that can be re-purposed for unforeseen uses in the future." Remember, kids, re-purposing is subject to license and copyright and all that, so don't do it without consulting an overpaid lawyer. But assuming you've dealt with that, there must be major long-term benefits from integrating the new capabilities for access, searching and re-purposing with new kinds of learning behaviours that are afforded by the networked 'commons' environment. Those behaviours will be likely to have a reach much wider than the institutional practices of academic research and museum management. It would be unreasonable to expect an introductory chapter to explore these issues, but the fleeting reference is nevertheless a little disappointing.

The latter part of the chapter includes an interesting case study of digitisation at the National Gallery, plus a review of impact of digitisation on institutions and assessment of economic models (with a focus on cost savings).

Finally, there are some links to interesting digital collections you may not previously have known about — of which my favourites are the Blake Archive and Historical Voices.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Curatorial, E-learning, Music and Multimedia on 11 February 02004 | TrackBack

http://www.rlg.org/events/2003rlgjisc/ contains links to presentations at a 2003 event about selection and collaboration in preserving digital materials organised by RLG (a not-for-profit membership corporation of over 160 universities, national libraries, archives, historical societies, and other institutions with remarkable collections for research and learning) and the Joint Information Systems Committee (a UK organisation which works with further and higher education by providing strategic guidance, advice and opportunities to use ICT to support teaching, learning, research and administration).

Posted by: Seb Schmoller on 11 February 02004 at 10:39 PM

Thanks, Seb!

Posted by: David Jennings on 12 February 02004 at 9:38 AM
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