Digital archives v physical – can they co-exist?

As part of our dissemination and evaluation plan, the project last week became the topic of a New History Lab seminar, held here at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Urban History.

Despite it being a Friday afternoon/evening, the event was well attended by the Centre’s staff and students alike, and after an introduction to the My Leicestershire History site by Colin Hyde, and an introduction to the project and the learning resources by Rebecca and Terese respectively, an active discussion ensued as to the merits and pit falls of digital vs physical archives.

The general consensus was that digital archives provide more convenient access to items which would otherwise require perhaps a great deal of research to track down, as well as a site visit, which you may recall were two of the main issues we sought to address in  our initial funding bid.

Reflecting on digital archives in general, the discussion generated a number of points:

  • It is useful for researchers to know whether the digitised items represent all or part of the physical archives from which they are taken, and therefore whether there may be more items of interest that can only be seen by going to the physical archive
  • Introductions and a background to the collections were essential to enable the researcher to get a perspective on the materials
  • Establishing a community about a digital archive.  Whereas with a physical archive there are usually fellow researchers present, and an archivist, this is often absent with a digital archive.
  • Maintaining long term sustainability.  Many digital archives are a result of time-limited funding and there needs to be a clear plan for sustaining the archive once the funding ceases.  This is less of a problem with physical archives as there tends to be a collections/archives policy in place to prevent them simply disappearing.
  • Quality of downloading.  To enable researchers to reuse the materials, it is essential that the quality of any material is retained when it is downloaded.

 All of these comments are important and relevant to the Manufacturing Pasts project.  We are already addressing the second point by adding an introduction to both the Skinner archive and the Local Record Office to our website, and taking on board point one, we have amended the text to reflect the fact that only some of the materials from the archives have been used in the project.

The issue of establishing a community (point three) led us to discuss the merits and feasibility of using Facebook.  When Terese held a straw poll of hands on Friday most attendees thought it would be beneficial for the project to have a Facebook page.  Despite using many other forms of social media (Twitter/this blog/Slideshare/Flickr) we have not been keen to create a Facebook page for the simple reason highlighted in point four, sustainability.

Despite the Library’s strategy incorporating digital scholarship and digital curation, the fact remains that once a project finishes, there will always be less support available to maintain a collection.  In terms of Facebook, we feel that this would not be something that we could easily maintain after the life of the project, and instead we feel that including links from our site to other websites of interest (other Facebook and Flickr community groups) will help researchers to get more up to date information on the topics we cover.

Of course, the Library has recently appointed a Digital Collections and Special Collections Manager, Simon Dixon, and this will provide some continuity and support for the MyLeicestershire site once the Manufacturing Pasts project officially ends in January 2013.  Our Project Director, Ben Wynne, also very recently wrote a blog on this very subject.

On the last point, relating to the quality of downloaded materials, regular readers of this blog will remember we do have a limitation in the quality/dpi of the items, due to the constraints of the OCR software we use.  Most items on the site are around 300dpi to overcome allow us to OCR the text, but the site does offer three different download sizes for Jpegs (all of which appear to be of decent quality), and PDFs also seem to retain their quality, despite their dpi reduction. 

It was incredibly useful for us to be present and involved in this type of debate, and to showcase our materials and learning resources, and I am glad that we are able to address the issues raised.

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