By Marci Chen
Homebound Project Coordinator, North Texas Library Partners
My interest in digitization began when I became self-appointed family historian, scanning boxes of my grandparent’s negatives and photographs and sharing the digital images with my family. It is true what they say; a picture is worth a thousand words. Suddenly, the stories from my childhood were vibrantly illustrated by photographs of people, places, and things from my past, as well as before my time. It was remarkable to see a photograph of my grandmother in her early 20’s, lying under a quilt, gazing at her first newborn with a mixture of love, apprehension, and uncertainty. How different she seemed from the strong, capable matriarch that I knew in my lifetime! It was as if a magical window opened and my family’s past jumped into the present. The experience was personal and communal at the same time, as members of my family reacted to particular photos both individually and with one another, sharing new stories that had been buried in those boxes of photographs for years. The images awakened our collective family history in a way that would not have been possible without digitization. In a nutshell, I was hooked!
My family digitization project was so fulfilling that I felt compelled to explore the ways in which libraries and museums could provide this service for our communities. In his March column, NTLP Executive Director Adam Wright wrote about the library “as curator of current events.” The word curator derives from the Latin curare, which means “to care for.” Our profession has traditionally embraced this role: we gather, protect, and make accessible society’s collective knowledge because we care about the communities, organizations, and institutions we serve.
Libraries have a long tradition as caretakers of local history, both past and present. Not too long ago, we were clipping newspaper articles about anything and everything relevant to our communities and filing them faithfully in scrapbooks and vertical files. Many libraries have been entrusted with photo collections, artifacts, letters, postcards, and other items of local interest. Some of our buildings have beautiful spaces in which to display these items, others partner with local historical societies and museums, but most simply store them for posterity. Our communal history is preserved, but not easily accessible and thus, sadly, at risk of being forgotten.
With the advent of the Internet, life became digital. Our snapshots, communications, newspapers, and communal memory jumped into virtual space. Through social networking sites like Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube, people began to interact like never before, sharing and photos, stories, and life events with one another. Many libraries entered the virtual arena with blogs, podcasts, videos, e-newsletters, and other social networking media. Suddenly, our communal knowledge became highly interactive and overwhelmingly accessible, but not well organized or preserved. Like the vertical files of decades past, the future our “born digital” history is just as precarious.
Digital collections of local history combine the best of both worlds—the analog and the digital—allowing libraries to perfect our role as curators of communal memory. While undertaking a digitization project is no small feat, it is a natural extension of what libraries do best: preserving, organizing, and facilitating access to information relevant to our communities. The collective memory of our communities also lies preserved—yet buried—in the boxes, vertical files, and in public and private collections. Libraries are uniquely poised to make these collections available through digitization projects, enabling us to fulfill the role of curators of community history.
Indeed, libraries large and small are beginning to undertake digitization projects. I recently conducted a podcast interview with Gerald Warfield, writer and chairman of the Advisory Board for the Boyce Ditto Public Library in Mineral Wells, Texas. Mr. Warfield was instrumental in bringing the Weaver Collection of historic photos to the library and planning and executing the processing and digitization of those photos and making them available on the Internet through the Portal of Texas History. The project was accomplished by enlisting a cadre of community volunteers of all ages who worked together to organize, scan, and create metadata records describing the images. With one project, the Boyce Ditto Public Library established itself as a vital part of its surrounding community by acting as curator of local history.
In February, I had the opportunity to attend the annual meeting of Texas Heritage Online. If I had any doubts as to the efficacy of libraries undertaking digitization projects, they were quickly put to rest. Libraries, archives, and museums from around the state shared five minute updates on digitization projects of all shapes and sizes, including images, historic newspapers and documents, maps, and yearbooks. It was very exciting to hear first-hand stories from these institutions that echoed my own experiences with digitizing my family’s photographs.
This is not to say that digitization is an easy undertaking. A successful project takes planning, commitment, and patience. Copyright issues must be addressed, funding secured, and workflows established. Institutions must decide whether to do the work in-house with staff or volunteers, or to contract with an outside organization or vendor. It is not unusual for a digitization project to take years and years.
Is now the best time to begin a digitization project? After all, libraries themselves are facing a shaky future. Funding sources and staff sizes are shrinking, usage patterns are changing, and the growing popularity of electronic resources such as e-books and other digital media brings both the promise of improved access along with the pitfalls of licensing concerns and device incompatibility. There are so many factors outside of our control which can potentially affect our future; it is difficult to fathom jumping into a new arena of digitization.
It may be now or never. Digital collections have the power to unify a community; as librarians, we have the knowledge, skills, and motivation needed to make it happen. What better way for a library to establish itself as a relevant, integral part of a community than by fully embracing our role as curator of communal memory?
Marci Chen, librarian and self-proclaimed family historian, has 10 years experience in public libraries. She is currently pursuing a graduate academic certificate in Digital Content Management at the University of North Texas, Denton.