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What’s the rush? Why build a robust digital archive now?

On any given week, I talk with 20-25 organizations or institutions about their efforts to build digital archives. Projects to preserve history and make it accessible in a meaningful way are almost always placed on the back burner for “future consideration.” However, that “future consideration” seldom occurs. In other cases, an organization digitizes only a limited number of items for an exhibit, or focuses exclusively on a single collection.

Many people mistakenly believe that documents, images, and artifacts that have been around for decades or even centuries won’t be affected if we wait a few more years to digitally preserve them. They’ve survived this long, right? So, what’s the rush to make them digitally available?

My response in three words: Preservation. Information. Value.

Digital Preservation

People generally accept that if a catastrophic event damaged or destroyed their historical materials, it would be smart to have a digital representation of the original. When undigitized materials are destroyed, they are lost forever.

We never believe it will be our house that burns to the ground until it does.

It is a matter of urgency. We are the stewards of our collective history. To keep our historical materials safe, we must digitize them, and we must digitize them well. When a digital representation is the only record, it must be top quality.

If information is not digital in today’s world, it simply doesn’t exist.

If a fifth grader Googles the history of school integration in her home town and the only information she reads comes from a biased media source, that will seriously limit and shape her understanding.

The vast majority of the public discovers information through online searches. The information that they retrieve, whether through Google or an online library portal, is, to them, the entirety of information available on the subject.

This phenomenon explains why fake news has been able to spread so readily in the United States – people rarely look deeper than a quick online search to ascertain the veracity of the information they’re sharing. The more accurate, easily findable information we put online, the less susceptible people will be to fake news, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories.

If you are charged with caring for our historical record – either as an archivist, a manager, a director, or a board member – you bear a great responsibility. You must ensure that the public is not consuming information junk food and thereby growing increasingly disconnected from our past.

Value

There’s another compelling reason for institutions to digitize sooner rather than later. It’s called return on investment. There are multiple ways in which institutions may draw new value from existing assets. Beyond the investment in being a smarter society, there are tremendous institutional benefits to be gained by creating robust digital spaces.

Our historical collections – whether they be documents, images, artifacts and objects, and/or audiovisual materials – are unique content. Libraries, museums, historical societies and other repositories of our collective history have valuable and often one-of-a-kind content.

Have you ever heard that content is king? Countless outlets are crying out for unique and meaningful content.

Once an historic item is digital, there is no end to the number of ways you might utilize it.

Consequently, there is no end to the number of ways you might be able to draw value from its digital presentation. Organizations that conceive of their archives as silos, separate from the rest of their operations and priorities, are leaving money on the table.

Even museums that have robust physical and digital presentations of their museum collections often relegate their archives to another world – to a space meant only for professional researchers. They don’t yet understand that the archives are, in fact, more sources for sharing, presenting, and telling our stories.

Our collective history deserves better

We hear it all the time from stewards of our collective history:

“We’ve decided not to pursue digitization this year.”

“We have a scanner and an intern/volunteer, so we will start scanning on our own.”

“We have a 10-year digitization strategic plan on the agenda for our next board meeting.”

While these statements appear to express different levels of commitment about digital preservation, they are, in fact, the same. They all say that we do not value our one-of-a-kind historical assets enough to assure that they are made available to the public in the way that the public now accesses information.

We must change that mindset. We must make our history important. We must make truth accessible. It’s up to you. Now is the time to give your history a place in the future.

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