Archives and Digital Expectations

The Region of Peel Archives recently published a blog post that is relevant to our course titled “Why Don’t Archivists Digitize Everything?” The post, which is part of a series on “Archives FAQ and Facts,” addresses a common question from users, who often assume that all archival materials can and should be digitized and made available online. The post is a great and informative read for anyone who has ever asked or been asked the titular question. It addresses issues around sheer volume, technical difficulties, loss of contextual information, preservation of digitized objects, and limited resources.

The response in the comments section and on twitter was strong – archivists were grateful to be able to share a clear answer to a question that they get so often! York University Archives tweeted “A wonderful post by @archivespama that answers a question we get asked at nearly every class presentation. #archivalresearch” –@yorkuASC. Commenters commiserated that they have been asked similar questions for years. The post clearly resonated with frustrated archivists whose desire and capacity to digitize their materials is at odds with user expectations. This reaction highlights the fact that there is a major gap around understandings of digitization between archivists and archives users that archivists have not yet been able to address.

Part of the reason for that gap between users and archivists may be a conflation of libraries and archives in the minds of users, which often results from the fact that most people have more experience with libraries than with archives. Archivists have long dealt with this issue, managing users who expect to be able to access materials by subject keyword and must reckon with a provenance-based system, or who are frustrated that materials cannot be taken home. But the differences between libraries and archives are perhaps even more extreme in the digital realm.

While libraries can use established publishers and vendors to make commercially published books available in electronic form, archives’ holdings are unique to each institution. This means that individual archives must do everything themselves: digitize materials (usually on-site), negotiate copyright issues, and create an access system that retains context and metadata. While providing access to technology and electronic resources has become a core library function, these hurdles mean that digitization is likely just one tool that archivists use to disseminate our materials, rather than the future of archives. As the Peel archivists point out, “we may never, in fact, digitize everything.”

Of course, it is not just libraries that are raising digital expectations: with so many resources available online, it seems inevitable that users expect everything to be digitized and freely available. While one hopes that clear communication will be able to mitigate these expectations, archives may not be able to avoid disappointing users of the digital age. The best we can do is try to explain ourselves.


One thought on “Archives and Digital Expectations

  1. Excellent post! I think there are many misconceptions about what an archivist does in general, and digitization as a process in particular. In light if this, user expectations need to be mitigated. Anna St. Onge has a wonderful blog post about collaboration between archivists and historians:

    She cites the article you reference, and much of what she writes about can equally apply to digitization projects.


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