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Digitization: Is It Feasible? Emporia State University LI 827 3 April 2011 Adrienne Clevenger

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Nearly all institutions would like to have their collections digitized. In an ideal world all collections would be available via the internet. One would never require the use of fragile original documents. The documents could stay safely in their Hollinger boxes but the information would still be available. Popular documents could be utilized by multiple researchers at one time. Digitization really is a magical thing. But is it feasible? Is it realistic to expect institutions to digitize all or a good portion of their collections? The National Archives (US) only keeps 1% of all created documents permanently. These documents are said to have intrinsic value and are irreplaceable. They include among other things, court records, constitutional amendments and the Declaration of Independence. Other documents are kept for a while and eventually destroyed, such as tax forms. Out of the 1% of permanent records, less than 1% of those have been digitized. Why is it that the leading archival institution in the United States cannot digitize all of their holdings?1 There are many reasons digitization is not possible for all institutions. Institutions often do not have enough employees available to dedicate to digitization. The employees that are available often have little or no training in digitization. It is probably not worth the time to digitize holdings if the institution does not have adequate equipment and the original document may not be in good enough condition to digitize even with the best equipment (Sager). The biggest hurdle for institutions is usually a lack of funds (Digitizing local history,). Due to the present economy many institutions are being required to limit or eliminate some staff positions. This makes day to day functions much more difficult to complete with the same level of quality as a bigger staff. Digitization can be very time1

Information obtained during my employment at NARA-Central Plains Region.

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consuming. The lack of adequate staff would be a big factor in the decision to digitize collections. If the institution is digitizing materials such as newspapers they may choose to use OCR so that patrons can search through the documents. OCR is notoriously inaccurate, resulting in a need for staff or volunteers to go through the digitized material and make sure the images were interpreted correctly. It should be noted, however that the rate of OCR accuracy is improving, with some sources reporting a rate of 98-99% (Hurst-Wahl, 2008). With the proper equipment digitization can improve the lifespan of original documents. Once the item is digitized, the image can be used in place of the original. This is the strategy being used by the National Archives and Records Administration (2008). This is of course, reliant on whether or not the equipment is adequate and the operators digitized at the correct resolution. Although flat bed scanners can be used there is much less risk to documents when using a hand held scanner. Staff and volunteers must be trained to properly handle the original documents so as to not cause any damage during the digitization process. The strongest opposition to digitization is the availability of funding. It is widely known that the government is operating on a deficit that measures into the trillions (Department of the, 2011). Many museums and archives are at least partly funded through grants from the federal government. Without the grants many organizations cannot obtain the funding necessary to train staff, purchase equipment or hire extra staff for digitization projects. Institutions are having to rely on the donations of the public to fund these projects. They are also being forced to use volunteers who may not have an

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appropriate level of training, creating another risk to these irreplaceable documents and books. Digitization of original documents can open a world of possibility for scholarly research and the common genealogist. Unfortunately, unless the economy improves it is simply not reasonable for most institutions to be expected to digitize all or even some of their holdings.

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Resources Department of the Treasury, Office of Management and Budget. (2011). Monthly treasury statementWashington, DC: Financial Management Service. Retrieved from National Archives and Records Administration. (2008). Strategy for digitizing archival materials for public access, 2007-2016. Retrieved from Digitizing local history on a budget. (n.d.). Retrieved from Hurst-Wahl, J. (2008, February 1). White paper: optimizing ocr accuracy on older documents [Web log message]. Retrieved from National Archives and Records Administration. (2008). Strategy for digitizing archival materials for public access, 2007-2016. Retrieved from Sager, P. (n.d.). Newspaper digitization: issues and opportunities. Retrieved from