Why — and How — We Digitize

It’s February, and we’re now in the second month of our NHPRC-funded digitization project. In twenty-three more months, we’ll have completed scanning and uploading 400,000 pages of our most-viewed material to our finding aids, and anyone with an internet connection will be able to view it.

This is just the most recent effort to introduce digitization as a normal part of our practice at Mudd. As I said in my previous post, we know that it’s well and good that we have collections that document the history of US diplomacy, economics, journalism and civil rights in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But for the majority of potential users, who may never be able to come to Princeton, NJ, this is irrelevant. However interested they may be, they may never be able to afford to visit us. And there’s a whole other subset of potential users — let’s call them working people — who can’t come between the hours of 9:00 and 4:45, Monday through Friday. Are we really providing fair and equitable access under these conditions? Since we have the resources to digitize, it’s imperative that we develop the infrastructure and political will to do so.

We know that it’s time to get serious — and smart — about scanning.

The ball has been rolling in this direction for some time. We have three “streams” of making digital content available, and with our new finding aids site, we have an intuitive way of linking descriptions of our materials to the materials themselves.

Images of the collection in the context of the finding aid

Images of the collection in the context of the finding aid

Our first is patron-driven digitization.

The Zeutschel -- our amazing German powerhouse face-up scanner

This is our Zeutschel scanner. It does amazing work, is easy on our materials, and usually requires very little quality control.

Archives have been providing photoduplication services since the advent of the photocopier. At Mudd, we have dedicated staff who have been doing this work for decades. Recently, we’ve just slightly tweaked our processes to create scans instead of paper copies and to (in many cases) re-use the scans that we make so that they’re available to all patrons, not just the one requesting the scan.

A patron (maybe you!) finds something in our finding aids that he thinks he may be interested in, and asks for a copy.

If he’s in our reading room, he flags the pages of material he wants. If he’s remote, he identifies the folders or volumes to be scanned. The archivist tells him how much the scan will cost, and he pre-pays.

Now, the scanning. This either happens on our photocopier (the technician can press “scan” instead of “photocopy” to create a digital file instead of a paper one) or on our Zeutschel scanner. And while we feel happy and lucky to have the Zeutschel, we don’t strictly need it to fulfill our mission to digitize.

The scan is named in a way that associates it with the description of the material in the finding aid, and is then linked up and served online. We currently send the patron an email of this scan, but in the future we may just send them a link to the uploaded content.

Our second stream is targeted digitization based on users’ viewing patterns

Our friendly student receptionist, Ashley, scans materials at the front desk when she isn't welcoming patrons.

Our student receptionist, Ashley, scans materials at the front desk when she isn’t welcoming patrons.

We try to keep lots of good information about what our users find interesting. We use a service called google analytics to learn about what users are browsing online, and we keep statistics about which physical materials patrons see in the reading room.

From these sources, we create a list of most-viewed materials, and set up a system for our students to scan them in their downtime when they’re working at the front desk.

We do this because we want to make sure that we’re putting the effort into digitizing resources that patrons actually want to see — there are more than 35,000 linear feet of materials at the Mudd Library. We probably won’t ever be able to digitize absolutely everything, and it wouldn’t make sense to start from “A” and go to “Z”. So, we pay attention to trends and try to anticipate what researchers might find useful.

Our final stream — and the one for which we currently have to rely on external support — is large-scale vendor-supplied digitization.

Our current cold war project is a great example of this. We’ve put together a project plan, chosen materials, called for quotes and chosen a vendor. We recently shipped our first collection to be digitized, and I’ll be posting information to the blog as we move forward.

Another good example of an externally-supported digitization activity is the scanning of microfilm from our American Civil Liberties Union Records. Our earliest records were microfilmed decades ago and recently, Professor Sam Walker supported the digitization of some of this microfilm so that they could be made available online.

No single stream — externally-supported projects, left-to-right scanning, or patron-driven digitization — would be enough to support our goal of maximizing the content available online. We hope that the three, each pursued aggressively, will help us realize our mission of providing equitable access to our materials. And we think that focusing on this cold war project will help us reflect on and improve all of our digitization activities.