Digital collections are a fact of the modern library and archives scene.  There are many publications which are now “born digital” and never appear in hard copy, but this post is concerned with “real,” physical artifacts which are digitized (scanned or photographed) in order to create a virtual, digital collection.

The sock monkey on the left is viewing the digitized Civil War Diary of Charles W. Chapman (1862-69) online through ISU Digital Collections. The sock monkey on the right is reading the original diary, which was conserved by 2010 Lennox Intern Henry Hebert.

Are digitization and conservation solid allies on a joint preservation mission, or are they frenemies, co-existing in a slightly uncomfortable partnership of necessity?

In a nutshell, the two main reasons to digitize a physical collection are access and preservation.  Digital collections can be accessed on the internet, granting casual users and serious researchers alike access to materials housed in distant institutions, materials which they may never have been able to use otherwise.  Online access offers even local users an added level of convenience, because collections can be viewed 24/7.  Digitization also serves an important preservation function, in that it creates a digital surrogate that can be used by many, without risking damage to a potentially fragile original.

So, what happens to that original once it has been digitized?  Is it discarded?  Is it “stabilized” and then housed in a box somewhere far from the light of day?  Does it receive the same level of conservation treatment that a non-digitized item would receive?  Are users still granted access to the original upon request?  Some of the variables at play in making these decisions include time and cost restraints, storage space restraints, age and uniqueness of the original, and access to affordable conservation services.

Is there a genuine risk of digitization replacing conservation, or is this just techno-hype?  On the one hand, the frequency of users visiting library reading rooms to read physical books and manuscripts appears to be dwindling since the advent of digital collections, which offer a level of convenience with which no physical reading room can compete.  On the other hand, only a tiny fraction of the vast sum of human knowledge contained in physical books and manuscripts has been digitized to date.  Even with the current, widespread funding and enthusiasm for digital initiatives, digitization progress is slow and piecemeal (in spite of Googlebooks best efforts).  Digital formats are still remarkably unstable when compared with the longevity of paper and books, and they require an electronic platform to access their informational content.  For many historians and materials scientists, the original artifact (the “container”) holds as much valuable information as the item’s intellectual content.  Can digital surrogates retain this physical information in a two-dimensional, image-only format?

Some less theoretical and more immediate questions to consider are: what kind of influence are digitization priorities having on conservation treatment decisions right now?  Does the creation of digital surrogates change the approach to long-term preservation goals?  Does this shift present a possible impact on the physical evidence of provenance or materials history?  Does funding for digitization trickle down to conservation, or does it significantly divert conservation funding?

If you’re interested in hashing out the nitty-gritty of these issues, come attend the Archives Conservation Discussion Group (co-chaired by Laura O’Brien Miller and yours truly) on June 2, 2011 at the AIC 39th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA.  One-day registration rates are available. Five speakers will present on the topic “Digitization and Its Effect on Conservation Treatment Decisions: How has wide-spread digitizing of collections changed our approach to treatment?” with an open audience discussion to follow.

Can’t make it to Philadelphia in June?  We welcome your comments and insights here on the PLP blog.