Thursday, October 27, 2011

Maintaining a Sense of Place in Digitization Efforts

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about the Digital Public Library of America and the challenge to make collections accessible online. I began discussing why we should not let small collecting institutions miss the great digital push. While DPLA has grand plans for making information from cultural collections accessible remotely, there seems to be a gap in their scheme for accommodating small repositories that still lack any digital presence. Antiquated access and a local focus does not negate the value of their collections to a greater society.

I believe that the small archives such as the town historical society have a place in this world and I have argued for that throughout my career. The community story is best told locally and this story has the ability to lift up its citizens. Assuming that the online world is just part of our existence and that our true locale still deeply influences us, it makes sense to retain a sense of place. Our buildings and landmarks provide us with a sense of identity and belonging. And, therefore, our physical repositories offer something beyond a shell for housing information. Local collecting institutions, their physical existence, their staff or volunteers, and their collections come together to support a community hub for sharing local culture in a tangible way.

What I will call "small stories" helped build the culture of larger United States society and knowledge about them remains important. How did we get to be the country we are? Our understanding of a larger history hinges on smaller stories housed in local repositories. When such institutions do not have an online presence, their local presence might still be strong. Some of their communities have a very large appreciation for their small stories and may even have an important sense of their connection to a greater national culture. Such repositories may host speakers, attract many visitors, and continue to accept new collections into their holdings. Other similar repositories might have a weaker presence, struggling to keep their doors open. Yet, inside their walls are still housed cultural materials that are valuable toward a better understanding of American culture.

A number of things can happen to these small places during this transitional time. (In anticipation of some discussion or confusion about this, maybe I should emphasize that I am talking about small struggling repositories, not strong ones that have a solid program established to encourage their success.)

1. The doors to many local historical societies, town museums, and stand-alone libraries will close forever due to lack of funding and lack of interest. Their collections will be discarded in the worst case scenarios. Or, their collections will be transferred to larger institutions. Those collections that are transferred may or may not go to local repositories. In many cases, towns will lose the resources of their heritage to distant universities or other archival repositories that have the means to handle them. They may not realize at the time this happens what exactly they are losing. But, in my opinion, moving the materials of local history to a remote location is not a good thing for the morale of any town.

2. Many small archives will struggle along for awhile, continuing to run on a shoestring as they have been doing for decades. They will continue to have issues with funding. They will continually be searching for new volunteers to take the place of those who want to move on. The new problem with this scenario, I believe, is that the end of this kind of fumbling along is near. There are fewer people willing to volunteer in such organizations as younger generations prefer to put their energies elsewhere. The money that such institutions once scraped together to keep the doors open has dried up. Many such institutions never had a clear mission or vision, and without that focused view, their purpose will become even muddier as other's move to digitize.

3. Small institutions can be buoyed by larger institutions. DPLA seems to be looking for ways to make all of America's heritage available online and if they are really committed to this, they need to encourage large institutions to look for ways to help promote smaller ones, whether or not they have begun to digitize. Local universities, library networks, state cultural heritage associations and others who can make a connection to these small repositories need to do so soon. We need to find creative ways to budget for the digitization of their collections AND to help them keep their doors open. Training programs to teach communities basic archives management skills should be a priority. We must make sure that whenever possible, our small local repositories have a solid management foundation that can be followed up with digitization. Make them strong internally so they can then reach out.

I know that what I am proposing is more easily said than done, especially in this economy. But, it is vital to include the challenge in planning efforts so that we do not casually lose collections, knowledge, and historical awareness. Additionally, efforts to collaborate for access -- so that it doesn't matter where physical collections are stored -- should not lose sight of what importance local physical ownership may take on for a community's sense of identity.

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