Reflections on Special Collections and the Role of Digitization

As I am wrapping up my internship with Virginia Tech Special Collections, I felt it would be a good time to reflect upon the role of digitization within the institution.

Whereas last week I looked at the digitization throughput initiatives and compared that with Virginia Tech’s Special Collections, this week I consider the overall role of digitization in Virginia Tech’s Special Collections in comparison with other archives’ digitization programs.

The Council on Library and Information Resources recently posted an interesting blog entry concerning their Hidden Collections Program.  Essentially, the goal of this program was to fund initiatives by institutions that aimed to make hidden collections – i.e. those that were in backlog, uncatalogued and unprocessed, and thus inaccessible – more visible.  Their previous focus was on the cataloging process, but they have recently shifted their focus to “envisioning new ways to promote innovative , efficient, and deeply collaborative approaches to creating access to otherwise hidden collections of scholarly value.”  They place new emphasis on digitization efforts, but not at the expense of cataloging, as the two go hand in hand.  It’s not an either/or scenario; rather than an emphasis on digitization supplanting the necessity of cataloging, digitizing collections becomes incorporated as part of the cataloging process, reflecting an emphasis on increasing accessibility.

I think Virginia Tech Special Collections has a long way to go towards achieving this goal of making so-termed “hidden collections” accessible.  Not only are there many unprocessed collections in backlog or without finding aids on Virginia Heritage, the online Virginia collections database, but the digitization of collections is also not yet a part of Special Collection’s “everyday workflow.”  Certainly, part of this comes down to manpower and the fact that Special Collections is just starting its efforts to build a digital presence for their collections.

Collaborating with Dr. Quigley’s Mapping the Fourth project, however, is a step in the right direction.  On this project, Special Collections both succeeds in rending more material accessible outside the walls of the archives and presenting this material in innovative ways.  The letters and diaries from the Civil War collections that I scanned are now able to be used, and Special Collections additionally benefits from the expertise and knowledge that Dr. Quigley and his team bring to the project, as they work with the collection material to illuminate historical themes, patterns, and trends.

However, regarding this collaboration, I think that it could be strengthened and improved even further if the whole of Special Collections were involved, rather than just my supervisor and those involved with digitization.  For example, if all student workers who processed collections, scanned full diaries, and transcribed letters and diary entries were notified of the project, they might keep their eyes open for entries that dealt with Fourth of July celebrations.  Even if the rest of the staff in Special Collections didn’t know the full specifications of the project, they could still at least identify material the referenced the Fourth of July, and pass the collection name to someone from Dr. Quigley’s team who could then evaluate it.  As a graduate assistant in Special Collections last year and this past fall, I processed a few Civil War collections that contained letters and diaries.  I can’t remember if any of these collections involved references to the Fourth of July celebrations, since I didn’t know about the project and thus was not looking for references.  It wouldn’t, however, have interfered with my duties or taken any additional time or knowledge on my part to at least inform my supervisor or mark down a collection that referenced the Fourth.  Additionally, this wouldn’t just benefit the Mapping the Fourth project.  It would also allow Special Collections to make more of its collection material accessible, visible, and presented as part of an interactive and interesting project.

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