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Author: Jeffrey G. Barlow
Title: Research Globally, Post Locally: Which Documents Should Be Digitized?
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2000

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Source: Research Globally, Post Locally: Which Documents Should Be Digitized?
Jeffrey G. Barlow

vol. 3, no. 2, August 2000
Article Type: Editorial

Research Globally, Post Locally: Which Documents Should Be Digitized?

Jeffrey Barlow

For historians, one of the most troublesome elements of the World Wide Web is, surprisingly, its breadth and depth. Most of us have functioned in a research economy of scarcity—the most valuable artifact, we learned in graduate school, was that document which no other historian working in our topic area had yet seen. Now our problems are quite different.

The rate of expansion of the content of the World Wide Web quite defies description, there is no cliche-free way to describe it. Electronic content continues to expand exponentially, even for those of us who work in non-English languages, including very uncommon ones. We are currently addressing these problems in a variety of ways—by teaching students to better evaluate materials, by working toward standards for electronic evidence which would suggest to the reader the probable level of authority the material possesses, and doubtless many other approaches as well.

It seems unlikely that any approach can restore anything like the status quo ante; our problem will continue to be one of abundance. There is, however, another side to the problem which must also be addressed: what sort of materials should be posted onto the web? The great archives and libraries are all working toward digitizing their collections. I have heard graduate students in the United States lament that this work is proceeding so quickly that soon they will have no legitimate reason to go abroad to do research. While I think this, too, unlikely, it does raise the question as to the order in which particular types of materials should be posted.

The current standards for digitization seem to me to reflect an international society increasingly driven by market forces. Those collections which are being digitized are, I believe, those owned by prestigious and well-funded institutions. Essentially, they are digitizing those materials most likely to draw considerable traffic, the currency of the new global electronic society. While it is true that they do a service by saving individuals the necessity of making a trip to their collections when they make key documents available on the web, a service to individual historians and researchers may not be the greatest contribution to the field of historical research itself.

My own approach to this question is perhaps an unlikely one—it seems to me that the major documents and collections might well rest undigitized for some time. After all, these are precisely the materials which we are most likely to be able to locate, and generally speaking, the conditions under which they can be used are conducive to research. The documents themselves are well cataloged and will be properly cared for and preserved. They are also located in areas which richly repay a research visit in terms of efficiency. A visit to Berkeley's libraries can easily include Stanford, the Hoover Institution, etc, just as a visit to any Boston, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, London, or Paris library facilitates research at many other local institutions.

But it may be that the most valuable collections in a cyberworld are the most local and geographically isolated ones—those which will not be collected at the British Museum, the Academia Sinica, or their equivalent institutions, and hence difficult of access and largely unprotected. This is particularly true, of course, if that location has some element of historic importance. As Patterson Toby Graham points out in his article "Researching American History..." in this issue of the Journal of the Association for History and Computing, few researchers, relative to the number who visit it electronically, will visit his institution's archives on race relations in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Documents which are rarely requested by anyone may well be the most important to be digitized from the perspective of the field of history as a whole. They are often unique local documents which are not duplicated elsewhere. In addition to being made widely available by digitization and posting on the web, they would also be preserved by the process; otherwise their fate is frequently uncertain.

Such local artifacts are, of course, likely to be filed in the shelves of smaller institutions, including local libraries. Unfortunately, these are the institutions least likely to be able to raise the funds necessary to do the work, and least likely to have the staff qualified to do it. Large institutions which do have the funding and the staff could well engage in some pro bono work, examining materials in local collections, local museums, and county libraries as well as in their own labyrinthine stacks as they proceed to digitize. Such collaboration could make an important contribution to the field as a whole, and greatly facilitate future research.

Jeffrey Barlow

Editor, JAHC
August, 2000