Amy H. Chen, English and Communication Librarian at the University of Iowa, loves to talk about digital archives. It may not sound like the most exciting or pressing topic in the world to the uninitiated, but librarians like Chen know that creating and preserving access to older works is an increasingly central part of their role – especially in this time of misinformation and deliberate disregard for scientific knowledge.
“I do think there’s a growing need for archival material,” Chen told us. And with that need new challenges arise for librarians. “It’s now assumed that everything is on the web, but folks need to be taught what it takes to make those resources available, why it’s a project that will never end, and how to critically read digital archival representations versus working with the real thing.” As young researchers and students are now taking the existence of digitized archive material for granted, the teaching of what Chen and other librarians call “information literacy” is becoming more and more important.
Growing demand for access to historic publications online
“It’s now assumed that everything is on the web, but folks need to be taught what it takes to make those resources available.”
Older works have long been an integral part of ongoing scientific inquiry, and not just for historians. This is reflected not only by the number of citations they receive in modern works, but also in usage statistics reported by both libraries and publishers.
And it’s not just senior researchers who are regularly accessing this material. Because older seminal works can provide greater context to set texts, lecturers across disciplines encourage students to use archives for enhancing their knowledge of a subject.
To become accessible online, archives need to be digitized first, and that’s a lot of work. Amy Chen served on a committee overseeing archive digitization and found that due to the high demand for access to archive material the library had to manage and prioritize a long queue of publications for digitization.
“We prioritized reasonable patron requests and projects related to high-impact projects such as grants, exhibitions, and collections of note. Digitized collection of our medieval manuscripts, Fluxus, and Dada were the most used.”
Libraries and publishers working together
Luckily, libraries are not alone in their efforts to digitize collections and archives. Academic publishers are also investing in the digitization of their own archives. Prior to launching a full-blown archive digitization project in 2017, De Gruyter’s on-demand digital service had seen consistent demand from librarians and researchers for access to older titles.
“We wanted to invest time digitizing our entire back catalog of over 40,000 titles and make these accessible.”
Archive Project Manager Danielo Methke explains: “During the on-demand project, we couldn’t always locate a print version of the title and sometimes had to cancel the order. To avoid disappointing customers, we wanted to invest time digitizing our entire back catalog of over 40,000 titles and make these accessible.”
For publishers, such projects can pose surprising challenges that can only be tackled by cooperating closely with partners. “Amongst others, the project has involved partnering with libraries to borrow physical copies of De Gruyter titles we no longer held ourselves to produce digital formats,” Methke said.
International Digital Initiatives
Fortunately, libraries and publishers are not only developing their own extensive repositories, but are also working together to deliver international digital archive initiatives.
Gregor Neubock, Librarian at The Upper Austrian State Library, explained to us: “In the last few years, the number of digital archive projects launched across Europe has grown. These initiatives depend on widespread collaboration between individuals, institutions and countries. Libraries across Austria, Germany, France, Spain and Italy have worked together to deliver projects such as READ and the network for repository managers in Austria within the VÖB.”
The current momentum for building large electronic archives that are accessible to a broad, international user-base, speaks to a collective desire not just from publishers and institutions, but also from individual librarians to preserve historical material for generations to come. The combination of new technologies and more collaborative research trends has served to unlock masses of new potential from publications decades, even centuries, old.
The current momentum for building large electronic archives that are accessible to a broad, international user-base, speaks to a collective desire not just from publishers and institutions, but also from individual librarians to preserve historical material for generations to come.
But the availability alone of digital archives isn’t the end of the story. The quality of digital publications, along with fast discovery are also crucial to researchers who find themselves increasingly pressed for time, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of available research, and often in need of remote access to publications.
Gregor Neubock told us how he had observed faculty, researchers and students interacting with archive content over recent years: “What I’ve learned is that for researchers, reliable access to publications is the most important thing. They want long-living archives, but they also want archive material to be highly accessible and highly discoverable.”
Digital archives – when implemented well – can satisfy these demands.
Helping librarians better support their researchers
For librarians, digital archives can help quickly fill essential gaps in their holdings. They also play an important role in helping libraries grow their collections economically. Not only can they free up substantial (and costly) shelf space, they generate a lasting return on investment through exposure to much bigger audiences, with cost-per-title download substantially reducing over time.
Usage and download data from digital archives give librarians greater insight into research trends, and highlight which titles are most influencing emerging scholarship at any one time. This data is an important resource in helping librarians strategically expand collections and optimize their content offering.
By providing access to online archive platforms, libraries help researchers locate historic publications faster. Advanced search features and high-quality metadata make content more discoverable and the platforms themselves open older content up to larger global research communities. This can help build critical mass in a particular field of research and make breakthroughs more likely.
Digital archives, Fake News and critical thinking
Librarians play an important role in teaching the value and significance of older publications in academic research. As part of her role in special collections, Amy Chen taught archival and book history sessions on everything from incunabula to contemporary zine culture:
“I saw a pressing need to explain to students the broader world of archives: where to find them; how to navigate discovery systems; how to understand the complexity of digitization; how to compare local digitization priorities and platforms versus proprietary curated platforms, and so forth. I’ve seen more humanities faculty turn away from critical theory as a methodology to embrace archives.”
Today, this is not just a pedagogical task, but a political one too. For students as well as researchers, archive content not only has the capacity to influence new discoveries. In an age of deliberate misinformation and unreliable sources, it gives researchers confidence that they are starting from a point of strength and trust.
Teaching Information Literacy
At the University of Iowa, Chen focuses on ramping up efforts to teach information literacy, with a new working group dedicated to the topic: “A recent project I developed for English began to meet this need by having students evaluate resources related to Shakespeare and create a LibGuide. While that wasn’t about ‘fake news’ and politics, it was about thinking critically when it comes to information resources.”
Today more than ever, with fast access to exponentially growing sources of information, students as well as researchers need help to cut through the noise and quickly identify the most reliable material to support their work.
According to Gregor Neubock, universities and libraries play a key role in teaching the value of primary sources:
“In the past few years, plagiarism has been a big problem for universities. The proliferation of fake news has also created challenges in the academic world. As a result, institutions have created repositories of scientific works that everyone has access to. Today, most university curriculums include modules on media literacy and media competence. Because of this, we’ve seen the use of archive material rise and the standard of scientific work rise along with it.”
Challenges and Opportunities for Researchers and Libraries
Media literacy also means keeping in mind that digital versions of archive material are copies of an original. According to Neuböck, some researchers had to get used to the idea of accessing original sources and archive material digitally. “In the beginning, some researchers were resistant to the idea of digital versions of original works, but today the majority see the real convenience and power of electronic copies in supporting their work.”
Digital archives also create some challenges for libraries. Speaking about the impact digital archives have had on the role of librarians, the services they provide, and the changing shape of libraries, Neubock told us: “Digital archives are playing an important role in re-shaping academic libraries. Today the library needs professionals with significant technical expertise as well as specialists in big-data.”
Ultimately, though, the benefits clearly outweigh the challenges. “Libraries can now present their inventories to the world and attract international audiences. Books that haven’t been read for decades suddenly have thousands of new readers,” Neuböck said.
Digital archives go beyond driving new and experimental research. Their influence stretches from making primary research materials more widely accessible and routinely used, to better informing librarians of research trends at their institution. And, perhaps most importantly of all, they play a vital role in preserving a lifelong record of academic history.