As a history blogger, I am required by law to talk about this article on digitization which appeared in the NYT this Sunday (might require registration).

As more museums and archives become digital domains, and as electronic resources become the main tool for gathering information, items left behind in nondigital form, scholars and archivists say, are in danger of disappearing from the collective cultural memory, potentially leaving our historical fabric riddled with holes.

Though it’s great to read an article on archives and digitization in the Times, even in the Business section, the whole argument strikes me as specious. As Sharon Howard counters,

But only a few of us ever were willing or able to go out there in the first place. Archival research has always been a minority pursuit, given the commitment and resources (including time) that it demands. Is it really the case that that minority will be even smaller in the future because some research can be done without leaving one’s desk? Or is digital history creating large numbers of new researchers who, even if what they’re doing is limited by what’s available online, would never have even contemplated visiting archives or record offices to look at original documents?

The Times article seems like a rehearsal of the argument that since we’ve got the internet, no one will go to the library anymore, just replacing internet with “digitization projects” and library with “special collections”–and we know that that hasn’t proved true with libraries.

Sharon’s point is especially important here, though: not many people go to archives and special collections in the first place. The museum I work for is rather small and obscure, open twice a week, in the basement of a hospital. We don’t have the resources to digitize all of our collections, but the bit the Minnesota Digital Library is doing, and the oral history digitization and collecting I’m working on, will certainly increase the use of our collections: people will know that we’re around and have collections. If the only part of our collections researchers use are the photos up on the Minnesota Reflections website,* we’ll still probably double our collections use.

Greater access equals greater use, but it’s not an either/or proposition. Archives are not abandoning their mandate to hold objects in trust because they’re digitizing some and not others; in fact, they’re fulfilling their mission to the greatest extent possible with these new tools.

*They’re not up yet, I just wanted to link to it.

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