Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Realities of Digitization

One of the most frequently asked questions we receive is, “when will the AHC have everything digitized and online?”  Unfortunately, the answer to that question is probably not soon, if ever.

Although we live in an age where almost anything can be Googled and access to so much information is instantaneous, putting all 110 years of our collections online would be an enormous project.  We have over 13,734 cubic feet of material, including:

-Well over 4,000 manuscript collections (and manuscript collections can be made up of anything from a couple of pages of material to thousands of pages of material).
-Over 3,000 newspaper titles published at around 250 different locations in Arkansas, spanning the years from 1819 to the present. In addition to papers featuring state and local news, there are also religious, professional and special interest publications.  In a previous grant, we estimated we have over 2 million pages of newspaper.
-Over 3,000 historic maps.  Currently, have roughly 60 of those maps online.  More than likely, more maps will be added over time.
-Records from every county in the state ranging from the early 1800s through the mid-1900s.  This includes (and this will vary by county) deeds, tax records, marriage records, personal property tax records, estate tax records, circuit court records, chancery court records, civil court records, criminal court records, probate court records and wills, divorce records, church records, cemetery records, funeral home records, mortgage records, county survey records, city records, land records, plat books, family history records, naturalization records, and school records.  (This is not a full list of what county records are available).
-Military service records, casualty lists, correspondence, muster rolls, narrative battle reports, questionnaires, pension records, discharge papers, and many others, from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World War I.
- Tens of thousands of postcards and photographs

On top of our huge collections, the process of digitizing everything in our collection is complicated by:

1.       Lack of funding.  We have an unbelievably small budget.  The budget for maintenance and operations for all three of our facilities for FY16 Fiscal Year is a little over $225,000.  Maintenance and operations includes everything we do.
AHC Director, Dr. Lisa Speer wrote about the estimated costs of digitization in our June/July newsletter.  She discussed a 1999 article written by the late Steve Puglia, who worked as a Preservation and Imaging Specialist at NARA.  She says, “While Puglia’s article is sixteen years old now, it provides us with some basis for understanding the challenge archivists face in choosing what materials to digitize from large collections.  Puglia breaks down the cost of creating a single digital image into three categories: digitizing, metadata creation (i.e., cataloging, description, indexing), and “other,” a category that includes administration and quality control. The average adjusted price per image for digitizing is $6.15; $7.00 for metadata creation; and $10.10 for administration and quality control.  At these average rates, the price for creating one digital image is $23.25.”
Dr. Speer goes on to note, “these costs do not include any additional work…nor do they include the maintenance and migration of digital data into the future.”

Ultimately, even the best-funded archives are running into difficulties when it comes to funding projects this big.

2.       Lack of manpower.  We don’t have a large staff.  We have 25 full-time staff members across three facilities. It’s difficult to tackle such an enormous project with so few people.  Much of our staff maintain positions dedicated to other duties.  We have one person whose job description encompasses digitization….and that person has a multitude of other duties as well.  It’s a difficult balance. 

3.       Time.  Because we have so much in our collection, even with proper funding and enough manpower, it would still take years and years to digitize everything.  Why?  Because archives and museums are required to follow certain standards when it comes to digitization in order for digitized material to stand the test of time.  Those standards make the process of scanning and digitizing slower, especially if we’re working with fragile material.  Above, I mentioned that we currently have 60 maps online. It actually took 2 people several months to digitize those maps and place them online. 

4.       Not everything in our collection should be digitized.  We have material in our collection that either has privacy limitations placed on it or simply isn’t interesting enough to digitize. We’re trying to choose wisely what we place online because it costs money to maintain an online presence (again, limited funding) and we don’t want to waste precious space, money or resources. 

Ultimately, as time marches on, it isn’t unrealistic to expect more and more material to be placed online.  And over time, we hope to do just that.  Last year, we restarted our online digitization project.  In a year, we’ve managed to increase our online presence from 200 pieces of material to over 2,400 pieces and our online catalog also has over 13,000 digitized images. Additionally, we maintain three separate online exhibits consisting of digitized material.  Those exhibits are Civil War Doc A Day (which commemorated the Civil War Sesquicentennial), Walter Lemke drawings, and images of African American legislators.  We also consistently share newly digitized material on our various social media accounts every week. 

Digitization is a slow process, but it’s one we’re working on.  We hope you’ll continue to follow our progress via our website, online digital collections site and our social media accounts.  

To read more from our Director, Dr. Lisa Speer, on the process and costs of digitization, please visit our newsletters online at:!userfiles/pdfs/June%202015%20final.pdf