Over the last couple of months the Perry Library has been going through some internal structure changes. While change is never easy, or readily accepted, one difference that I’m excited about is the merging of the Special Collections and Digital Services departments.
These changes were just made and the supervisors of each area are making the first tentative steps towards combining the two seemingly distinct spheres. The reality is that Archives, like most libraries looking to the future, are expanding into the digital realm. Why, you ask? Preservation, discovery and safety, I answer.
Preserving paperwork in a controlled environment will save documents for a very long time. Just check out the Declaration of Independence. While you’re at it, check out a newspaper clipping from the 1950s. It is no secret that I hate newspaper clippings. Please don’t get me wrong, I love the history of the medium and the knowledge to be gained from newspapers, but the actual news”paper” (stress on paper) is awful. The material is so acidic that it becomes discolored and brittle with age. Worse, newspaper clippings also damage anything it comes in contact with over time. It will leave large yellowed stains and even eat away at other materials. Yuck! Digitization creates a copy of the clipping that will remain stable and even better can be printed on acid free paper!
***Archivist Tip: If you have newspaper clipping you want to preserve, place them in separate archival quality sheet protectors. It will not stop the clippings from eventually breaking down, but it will help slow the process***
Discovery of archival collections is now a digital game. Only yesterday, a researcher called asking if we could send him scans of correspondence he found by searching the University Archives Digital Finding Aids. (I was even the one to happily fulfill his request!) I mean dear reader, you found this blog using the internet. So creating more digital content will only increase accessibly to archival collections.
Safety? That seems a bit extreme random internet archival blogger, you say. Yep, safety, I the random internet archival blogger says. In this imperfect world of natural disasters and criminal activity, even organizations dedicated to preservation are not immune. Old Dominion University is in coastal Virginia. Hurricanes happen on a regular basis. Before Florence hit this year, Special Collections and University Archives unplugged all of our computers, shielded windows with plastic and moisture absorbers and covered our movable stacks with large plastic sheets. Our area was lucky, Florence only gave us rain, but it’s our jobs to keep historical records safe.
Stolen artifacts from archives is rare, but it happens. That is why most archives will ask you to leave your bags at the front when entering. Last April, the Missouri History Museum had two artifacts stolen. Click HERE to read about the story. Even this archivist has firsthand experience with stolen historical photographs. While setting up an exhibit, years ago at my very first archival job, one of our World War I photographs was taken. I’m still heartbroken over the theft and probably will always be. When it is your job to keep artifacts safe and accessible to future researchers, you inevitably feel terrible when something happens that takes away that record forever. The silver lining to this story is that the photograph had been scanned and we were able to use a copy for the exhibition. Digitization saved the day!
Now is digitization perfect, no. Systems change, files degrade and computers crash…the list goes on. However, I am a firm believer in multiple copies. The LOCKSS system (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe). Digital records are just one more preservation tool for archivists to utilize to keep history safe.
As for my work, I can only speculate what the future might hold for the Allan Blank Collection. Yet, I am excited to think of the possibilities Digital Services can offer to Special Collections.