The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 23, Number 2
1999


Is Digital Conversion Really Part of Preservation?

by Janet Gertz

This presentation was given at the PARS Selection for Preservation Discussion Group at the ALA annual meeting, 1999. The slides are the best representation of the text at present, though the paper may be published later in full. The text of the slides is published here with permission of the author.

Preservation and Digitization

Preservation means guaranteeing a long-lived version of at least the intellectual content

No one can guarantee that a digital version will survive as long as microfilm

Digital conservation alone does not constitute preservation

Preservation without access is futile

Digitization offers enhanced access

The hybrid approach combines traditional preservation with digitization to get the best of both

Is the process of selection for digitization significantly different from selection for traditional preservation activities?

Traditional Preservation Selection Criteria

1. Is the item or collection damaged or endangered?

2. Does the item have sufficient enduring value to justify preservation?

Artifactual features, e.g., bindings, illustrations

Uniqueness or historic importance

Distinguished long-term intellectual content for teaching and/or research

Consonance with the mission of the institution

Contribution to or support for historically important areas

3. Which options are available, given the item's physical nature, its importance, and current and future use?

Can we repair it?

Can a preservation copy successfully capture its content and support current and predicted future use?

Or is reformatting appropriate?

4. Which preservation option expense best matches the monetary and intellectual value of the item/collection?

Selection for digitization reverses traditional priorities where endangered physical condition is the primary criterion and instead starts from a desire for wider/better/easier access.

Because it is possible to scan something, does not mean that we should scan it.

We need to match the strength of digitization with the materials it handles best, to gain as much as possible from using digital images, by doing what cannot be done with other technologies.

Is digital conversion the best preservation option for traditional low-demand, low-illustration brittle books?

What does it add beyond quick access?

Is immediate access cost effective for the amount of use they receive?

Brittle books have been selected for filming because they have potential research value, but are low priority for current researchers and so can be put on film for storage even though it is an awkward access medium.

Alternate Uses of Digitization

Display of illustrated and visual materials (which have not been handled very successfully with microfilm)

Ready access to high demand materials

Creating new research tools through combining scattered resources and building new search and manipulation capacities

We find ourselves dealing with digital conversion efforts that have relatively little directly to do with preservation but which can take full advantage of the strengths of digital imaging in ways that textual materials like brittle books often do not.

Each institution must develop strategic plans and priorities for digital conversion grounded in its mission and goals, or risk enormous waste of human and financial resources on projects that use digitization when other technologies would be more appropriate, or that are poorly designed, or that focus on low-priority materials.

National Library of Agriculture "Selection Criteria & Guidelines"

Select materials in a core area of NAL's collecting responsibility

Give preference to works of historical value: [those that] document the history of agriculture, fill gaps in the history of USDA, contain rare illustrations, [are] published by USDA

Give preference to materials [that are] unique to NAL or [are] uniquely preserved at NAL

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale

Bring added value to high-level primary research materials where interpretation could materially benefit from conversion to digital, making visible information not derived readily from close inspection of the original

Visual materials, because of the overall benefits in access, preservation of fragile originals, and overall reader services

Columbia University Libraries

Emphasis on visual materials:

Building shared collections of primary materials with other institutions

Criteria for Selection for Digital Conservation

1. Does the item have sufficient value and demand from a current audience?

Does the item or collection have active current users?

Is there greater demand than can be served by the originals or a traditional type of copy?

Is it marketable at the local level, or among a subject specialty group or discipline, or broader group?

What is the item's intellectual, historic, physical value? Is it one of the best in the subject?

Is the content unique, is it broad, deep, accurate?

How does the item fit with other materials on the same subject? Does it help build a core collection?

Does it further the work of the institution and its clients?

Does it support historic strengths of the institution?

2. Do we have the legal right to create a digital version?

Do we have the legal right to disseminate it?

3. Can the materials be digitized successfully?

Poor quality older film may be the only version of the item available

A fragile original must be retained in original form and cannot be forced flat or disbound

Oversize items are not easily scanned or used at high resolution, but are not fully legible at lower resolutions

It may not be possible to capture three-dimensional objects to full satisfaction

4. Does digitization add something beyond simple reformatting?

improved image quality

better intellectual control

ability to search and manipulate text

enhanced resources through dissemination

creation of a "virtual" collection

5. Do we have the infrastructure to carry out all aspects of a digital project?

6. Is the cost appropriate, and can we afford it?

What effect will all this have on traditional preservation methodologies?

Potential Effects of Digitization on Preservation

Digital conversion allows us to satisfy scholars and others better while carrying out preservation because we can finally create use media they like and want to use

It can broaden the scope of what we can address--color, visual, audio, etc

Digital conversion will make us review and refine traditional procedures to improve them and make the interaction of digital and traditional easier and better

Re-think the tradeoffs between achieving high image quality versus destructive capture processes that harm or destroy the original object in the process of preserving its content

Digitization may bring in more resources

It will consume and divert resources because it is more expensive than filming

Digital conversion can divert attention and resources away from preservation to purely access projects

Digital conversion will increase the amount of preservation that is needed, because we will have to preserve the digital resources we are producing.

The author's 12-item selected bibliography on the subject of this presentation can be sent upon request to readers by Abbey Publications.

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