Harriette Hemmasi: Saving libraries from digital destruction

[This commentary by Harriette Hemmasi, Joukowsky Family University Librarian, appeared in the March 25 issue of the Providence Journal.]
RECENTLY, PROMINENT scholars and librarians from some of America’s largest research institutions have lamented that the digitization of relics and manuscripts from the past represents a mounting threat to our common cultural heritage.
They worry that the selective and piecemeal way in which digitization is undertaken will mean that certain works will never be made available digitally and that as more scholarly research becomes Web-based, many print-based and other analog artifacts will cease to be a part of our cultural consciousness. Here at Brown we take a more optimistic outlook, while remaining intensely aware of the drawbacks to a process that is still in its nascent stages.
Brown University’s library has rich special collections. We boast the most comprehensive collection of material related to the Temperance Movement and the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous; an extensive collection of letters and manuscripts from that master of the macabre, H.P. Lovecraft; more than 950 manuscripts written by or signed by President Abraham Lincoln; one of the largest collections of material relating to military and naval uniforms in the world; a wide array of 16th Century titles on natural magic, religious rites, and witchcraft; and perhaps most notoriously, three books bound in human skin. The treasures that Brown holds are incalculable and too extensive to list here.
The digitization of rare books and archival material marks an important step in the development of our university and the library’s support of new methods of teaching, learning and research. Popular perceptions of libraries characterize us as static repositories of cultural works, as intractable as the columns that are prominently featured in some of our more famous incarnations — from the Library of Alexandria to the New York Public Library. Digitization refutes this prejudice, showing that, at our best, libraries can and must be dynamic institutions that drive changes in the method by which knowledge is disseminated.
To give you a sense of the progress that Brown has made over the last 10 years, I would note that in 1996 the library had not made a single digital image of any of its special collections or archival material. Less than a decade later, we have more than 350,000 individual digital files and have digitized more than 20,000 items from the library in the past five years. A testimony to the unprecedented access that our collection provides is that the library’s Web site received 3 million hits in 2006 alone, with 62 percent of our virtual visitors coming from off-campus. At the same time, statistics on use of print collections, numbers of users coming into library buildings, and requests to access the physical special-collections materials, both digitized and not, show a steady increase.
The digitization of material has let the library share our treasures in exciting ways. We are using this opportunity to elucidate the history of Brown as an institution as well as the history of Rhode Island — stories that are by their very nature entwined. From the papers of Isaac Backus, a Baptist minister in colonial New England who argued for religious freedom, to the correspondence of Thomas Wilson Dorr, whose role in the eponymous Dorr Rebellion brought about our state constitution, we have assiduously set about preserving important aspects of Rhode Island’s history, both in print and more recently online.
Perhaps most importantly, the remarkable compendium of high-resolution images compiled by members of Brown’s Slavery and Justice Committee help shine a light on some of the darker recesses of the past. From the digitization of the compelling materials used by the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to the acquisition of original manuscripts that document Rhode Island’s deep connections to slavery and the slave trade, the Brown University Library has positioned itself as the creator and supplier of important tools for scholarship by our students, faculty and other researchers.
At the same time that we set about trying to recapture the analog past, one of the great challenges we face will be to figure out an effective way to preserve the digital present. Advances in technology have significantly altered the way in which we communicate and how records are kept.
We no longer keep ledgers and write letters by hand — these records exist digitally, and very little has been done to ensure that they are not simply deleted. Moreover, the rapid advancement of technology means that archivists have a somewhat fickle relationship with the hardware and software that they use to preserve material. Consequently, there is a very real possibility that this material might become inaccessible once the software used to access it is no longer available.
More needs to be done, and it is undeniably true that lack of manpower and funding does impose restrictions. It can cost $2.50 to $5 to produce, catalog and deliver a digital image from our collections and the costs associated with this process will continue to accumulate as we struggle to meet rising demands of students, faculty and researchers. There are also issues of copyright in digitizing material from the last century that prevent us from making certain work available over the Web. We are still attempting to navigate this new terrain, but ultimately the possibilities inherent in digitization far outweigh the potential pitfalls.
Over 2,000 years ago, the great Roman orator Cicero spoke presciently about our responsibility to the past – “Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.”
Today, Cicero’s admonition continues to motivate all of us in academic life to discover new and more vibrant ways to expand the scope of human understanding. Digitization is an important tool in this process, as it lets students of history, science, and culture experience the past with greater ease and immediacy.
It is true, however, that a digital image is no match for a physical document. Nothing can equal the sensation of actually seeing something tangible. To touch one of these treasures is to feel in some infinitesimal way, be it in the looping gait of the “A” in Lincoln’s signature or the litany of names in the personnel files of the Gorham Manufacturing Company, that these are not simply relics of the past, but a vital part of an everlasting present. I invite you to see firsthand what we are doing to preserve our shared heritage by visiting: http://dl.lib.brown.edu.

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