Digitizing Collections: Strategic Issues for the Information Manager

Johnson Paul (Assistant Director, National Library Board, Singapore)

Program: electronic library and information systems

ISSN: 0033-0337

Article publication date: 1 December 2004




Paul, J. (2004), "Digitizing Collections: Strategic Issues for the Information Manager", Program: electronic library and information systems, Vol. 38 No. 4, pp. 284-285. https://doi.org/10.1108/00330330410566204



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

A timely addition to the Digital Futures Series, Hughes’ Digitizing Collections offers library, archival and museum professionals practical insights into major digitisation initiatives primarily focussed on American, British and Scandinavian examples. Hughes writes with exhaustive references to tested digitisation projects, often evaluating them critically. The title is organised into two major sections: the first dealing with the strategic issues and the second with case examples on the digitisation of different types of collections. The second section is built on the fundamental premise established by the first, that digitisation is not an alternative to a well‐formulated preservation strategy. Digitisation is assumed as purely an access initiative, advancing scholarship and integrating disparate resources.

As an expert in human and historical computing, and author of several monographs on digitisation of electronic texts, text analysis, hypertext and digital libraries, Hughes takes the reader step‐by‐step into the different techniques available to deal with a wide range of collections residing in libraries and archival repositories. The author has a clear formulation of the problem confronted by organisations undertaking digitisation and offers a logical explanation, if not a guideline, to manage the critical issues surrounding digitisation. There is considerable analysis on how organisations can weigh the cost and identify or even quantify the benefits, the selection process, resolving copyright and intellectual property issues, institutional considerations in project management and collaborative approaches in addressing cost. She takes a step further to outline major milestones in developing a digitisation initiative and highlighting best practices in the digitisation of special collections. The author assumes that her audience is conversant with the “repository” environment and therefore deploys terminologies commonly used in the selection, acquisition and management of repository collections. Making references to an extensive range of organisational experiences and their varying objectives, the title makes fairly solid reading with some fascinating ideas and findings, which are broadly applicable.

However, Hughes adopts a narrowly focussed approach in the book by limiting the scope of digitisation to “memory” institutions and how to leverage the digital technology to broaden access. To this end, copyright issues, collaborative approaches and technological challenges are reiterated in the book. She vaguely links digitisation to the larger issue of the “digital future” in her concluding chapter but adopts a minimalist interpretation of what this could entail and therefore deliberately ignores the management of “born digital” collections of memory institutions. There is an implicit assumption that memory institutions are preoccupied with repository management and access rather than information production. Many of the examples cited, which includes the case of the “Blake Archive”, “the Huntington Archive”, “brittle books” has no reference to techniques and best practices in re‐purposing of digital information. Consequently, she argues that copyright protection should be strengthened and extended to the digital environment. This is highly contentious given that the open source movement challenges this approach. More importantly, new business models of managing online collections are evolving and would redefine copyright principles that were founded on print and analogue technology. Though Hughes argues that the principle of fair copying has limited application over digital collections, she does not explore how digitisation and digital technologies could eventually stretch existing boundaries of copyright regulation only to make it irrelevant. A digital collection lifetime value assessment is also absent in her treatment of the subject. Digitisation is reduced to a process in the life cycle of print or analogue materials and does not take digitisation beyond that induction. Inevitably migration of electronic documents and management of digital surrogates is superficially treated.

Digitisation as a means to preserve important collections merits objective attention. Hughes, like most collection specialists, subscribes to a subjective stance. Her proposition is that digitised collections cannot preserve print or analogue materials. The underlying assumption is that the age of digital materials is limited and is unlikely to pass the test of time. One would beg to differ as history has proven time and again that market forces dictate the posterity of any new technology. It is only rational to assume that the market will be guided by user demand and technology will tread the path of mass adoption. “Life caching” trends and the diversion of investments from microfilm technologies to digital preservation technologies point to a drastically different digital future than what is conceived of by the author. Digital archival is deemed by some as an important emulation strategy in a preservation programme. Elsevier Science, for example, has adopted this strategy for preservation. The title does not place sufficient importance on digital formats and technology standards. Summarised in five pages, the discussion on formats fails to distinguish archival formats with that of access formats. She also does not accord importance to storage media in digitisation initiatives. Different storage media offer different potential for access and archival of digital material. The specific advantages and disadvantages of magnetic tape storage to optical disks and DVDs are not highlighted as critical issues for operational consideration.

Hughes has successfully dealt with the complex issue of digitisation by offering byte‐sized recommendations for digitisation managers. Specifically in her explication of “Intellectual property, copyright and other legal issues” she raised peculiar concerns of “moral rights” attributed to content creators, issues of privacy and “defamatory” or culturally sensitive content. These may have implications beyond copyright but are nevertheless legal in nature and hence critical for information managers. The author's discussion on metadata and naming conventions is clear and simple though not dealt with in entirety. Nevertheless references to Web sites that offer more information on standards for digital collection management are made. Chapter 4 on “Project management and institutional framework” and chapter 5 on “The importance of collaboration” are worthy of special mention. Chapter 4 explores the different options, from processes to funding models that are available to organisations when undertaking a digitisation initiative. The most significant contribution to the subject is chapter 5 which carries an extensive documentation on “collaboration” and Hughes has built a register of international collaborative projects. This chapter also articulates evolving frameworks and approaches adopted by leading institutions and would be useful for many, if not all, institutions embarking on digitisation as a corporate initiative.

A subject index at the end of the book supplies a feature that enhances the reference function of the book. It is a compelling read for all managers of digitisation centres and the interpretive approach has given the title a broad reach. The material is however not written for popular readership. Though the author has been selective to include literature or references, which only take positions she agrees with, the titles listed in the bibliography would comprise a significant collection to reference libraries supporting digitisation initiatives. The book is a compulsory read for any student of digitisation as it captures major issues and debates on the subject matter and provides sufficient examples for investigative research. It is however weak in dealing with the philosophical and social issues associated with digitisation and therefore would not be a desirable read for corporate strategists or policy makers. The scope and structure of the book allows the reader to be selective in the choice of chapters. Each chapter is not built on the former though there is a logical sequence to the arrangement of ideas in the book. Digitising Collections is a necessary reference for every information manager. It offers a panoramic view of collection digitisation initiatives coupled with operational insights relevant for an experienced information manager as much as a starter in digitisation.

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