Beacon Street Diary blog

Deciding What to Digitize

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

In the information age, digitization is access.

When we digitize records, as either an individual or as an organization, we are actively deciding which materials will be more widely accessible, and to whom. Digitization is, at its heart, about providing access to the widest possible set of current and potential users. For the Congregational Library & Archives are as diverse as they come: institutionally backed researchers, family genealogists, church members, underserved populations within the Greater Boston Area, and more. Accessibility is not just about convenience – it is also about bridging the gap between historically-privileged groups with ready access to information and those who may have had minimal or no access to information. Accessibility is the key to understanding the selection and appraisal workflows within archives and correcting historical injustices found within today’s collections.

I find that there are fewer processes more fraught or stressful than appraisal within the archival workflow. New materials in hand, I am forced to ask, does this have a place within the archive – and, by extension, in the history that we make accessible to our patrons? This is the moment of most power for an archivist. We can single handedly alter the context and meaning of a collection in that moment. It is a daunting task, but it is one I often face as the archivist responsible for new acquisitions at the Congregational Library & Archives.

On their face, terms such as “appraisal” and “value” seem to have more to do with Wall Street than with the archival field. Within the archival context, appraisal is, according to the Dictionary of Archival Terms, “the process of identifying materials offered to an archives that have sufficient value to be” added to the archive. Value, to an archivist, is “the usefulness, significance, or worth” of a record based on internal collecting policies and historical context. It is my job, when presented with new collection, to appraise records and determine whether they have value within their cultural and historical context. Only these materials of “value” will be formally archived.

If this process of deciding what pieces of our human story are of value sounds daunting (and it is!), it should be known that the CLA actually has a fairly relaxed acquisition and appraisal policy compared to other archives! That is mostly a function of the amount of materials we handle; large archives that receive many more materials must be stricter with their appraisal procedures. Still, there are times when I have to weed out materials which fall outside of our collecting purview – a print book unrelated to congregationalism or a single church bulletin without context may be among the first items to be removed from a collection. While these weeding decisions are never made lightly, and are backed by internal checks and balances, it is always difficult to throw away a recorded moment in our shared experience.

However heavy these decisions are on their own, however, their weight is magnified by the historically oppressive practices associated with archival work. The appraisal process has been used to bury and eliminate the history of marginalized and underserved groups Rarely were these appraisal processes blatantly exclusionist, but implicit biases born of the time and the archivist themselves largely resulted in today’s archives consisting predominantly of the records of white heterosexual men. Only in the last two decades has there been a growing awareness of this and active efforts undertaken to reverse this unfortunate pattern. In fact, it was only in 2010 that the Society of American Archivists added a diversity and inclusion statement into the code of ethics that archivists vow to uphold. The weight of this history bears down on all archivists and it is our duty to ensure it never happens again.

Small wonder, then, that born of all these momentous considerations comes one of the most fraught tasks of all: selecting which materials should be digitized. Selection is ostensibly the same process as appraisal; the archivist makes decisions about which materials will be digitized based on archival value. However, the cost, time, and preservation concerns associated with digitization limits the scope of any digitization project. Each time one document is digitized, it results in the delay, if not outright exclusion, of another document. This unfortunate reality, combined with the current lack of diversity within archives, can easily prolong historic exclusionary processes within the field. And the loss of digitization means the loss of information accessibility.

Increasing access must then become the guiding principal behind all selection decisions before cost and time come into consideration. The New England’s Hidden Histories is a great example of this selection criteria in action: the project began by bringing historic early-American church records, stored on site where they were minimally accessible to church members (let alone the general public), online, where they are freely available to anyone with an internet connection, either at home or at a public library. Selection will always be a balancing act between competing pressures, but keeping decisions focused on user accessibility, will help to guide selection criteria away from convenience, and aid in correcting historic injustices. When archivists focus on bridging the information gap, the documents they select for digitization are going to be those which are most inaccessible and most important for marginalized and underrepresented groups.

While there is incredible energy within the field to enact these guiding principles, there are always factors which slow down the rate of change. Issues of trust, internet access, and the outsized role academia in digital humanities are just some examples. However, the staff at the CLA are keyed into these incredibly important issues and are active participants in the dialogues taking place right now within the library and archives field. Sara Trotta’s recent work with the library collections has been foundational for these conversations. We are constantly working on improving our internal policies to ensure marginalized groups are not excluded from our records, including our digital and digitized content. The staff want to see the CLA become a leader when it comes to bridging the access gap between marginalized groups and information providers.