By Irina Sandler
This is the seventh post in the bloggERS series #digitalarchivesfail: A Celebration of Failure.
We all have dreams…
Have you ever found yourself enamored with the idea of digitizing? How fast and easy it would be to just scan an image and post it online (or email it) instead of pulling item after item after awkward map off the shelf in the stacks day in and day out? Have you ever imagined a world where small institutions have metadata as good as the Digital Commonwealth? While these are all great dreams to have, the reality of the situation remains that many repositories cannot digitize entire collections and on-demand digitizing requires consistency on both collection and item level metadata. This is the story of backtracking through years of unlabeled scans, and what I learned about part time, lone arranger digitization practices.
For every good intention, there is an equally powerful Murphy’s Law reaction…
In a small institution with limited personnel and resources, it is very easy to leave a long trail of to-do tasks that simply do not get done on time. For example:
A researcher asks for a scan of a photograph they found on a finding aid posted on your website.
You scan the photograph, email it to them, and then get pulled off task because your intern needs help with some loose papers in the box she is processing.
Before you get back to the computer, your co-worker asks to meet about pulling materials for an event.
You don’t get back to the computer for another hour, and by then there are six more emails waiting for you and new reference requests. You dive into those.
You haven’t even looked at your to-do list from yesterday.
Maybe you remember to put the photograph into the correct collection folder. Maybe you labeled the photograph 3.014 LLH but never uploaded it onto the server. Maybe you forgot about it all together until someone asked for it again and you remembered doing it before. Do you take the time to find it? Do you rescan it?
I came into years of unlabeled scans, almost a terabyte of images either completely unlabeled or images organized into collection folders, and I am sure I am not alone. I’m sure I’ve also contributed to this type of problem over the years.
By not labeling the images, the person scanning is either relying on visual recognition for the future, or not thinking about the future at all. What if you get sick and need someone to cover, or leave the institution? What if you forget the number you assigned it in the finding aid? This all begs the following question: can anyone keep thousands of images straight? I sure can’t. By not organizing and labeling the scans from the get-go, the person wasted time and resources, exposed the originals to adverse conditions, and flooded the server with useless materials that just make searching harder. Looking at a sea of scans and not knowing where they might belong is difficult and intimidating. Scanning an image and emailing it, then forgetting about it because of other goings on, is quite easy.
With many scans comes great responsibility…
On one hand, someone already took the time to scan all those materials, pulling them out of their controlled environment and subjecting them to the scanner. On the other hand, deleting everything without metadata and starting from scratch with specific standards in place would eliminate significant time spent backtracking. I chose to act on a case by case basis, working through the images that were sorted into collection folders, and relegating the completely unlabeled photographs into a folder to delete or deal with later. I ended up going collection by collection through the finding aids to determine which scan was which, ending up with 25 collections with a significant number of scans identified with their item number in addition to the collections that were scanned in their entirety.
Making the best of it all
With all these scans identified, I have been able to enrich the metadata of our collections posted on Flickr and on our website. Well, once our new website is actually up and running. Digitization is only step one of the process…and only if you set the correct dpi the first time around…
Irina Sandler graduated in May 2017 with her MLIS from Simmons College. She is currently an archivist at the Baker Library of Harvard Business School as well as the Cambridge Historical Society.