Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Archival Digitization: Value or Availability?

In its June 11th issue, the New Yorker featured D.T. Max’s lengthy essay on the renowned University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center and its current director, Tom Staley. While the essay is primarily notable for its analysis of how Stanley’s win-at-all-cost acquisition practices have contributed to the Center’s status as a world-class destination for literary research, it also includes a fascinating bit about his approach towards archival digitization:

“Staley’s conservatism extends beyond his literary taste. He does not want to place the Ransom’s archives online. He believes, quoting Matthew Arnold, that ‘the object as in itself it really is’ can never be replaced by a digital reproduction…
“The same month that Staley bought Norman Mailer’s archive, U.T. announced that the school would remove nearly a hundred thousand books from the undergraduate library to make way for ‘an information commons’ of computer clusters. ‘That’s not us,’ Staley said. I once asked Staley what role he saw the Ransom Center fulfilling fifty years from now, with its boxes of yellowing rough drafts typed out on manual typewriters and piles of letters written with fountain pens by candlelight. ‘There will be these bastions, whether the ruins of Athens or these archives, and they will be all the more valuable,’ he said.”

It is important to note that despite this policy, the Center offers free access to the general public as well as scholars and students. Nevertheless, the New Yorker’s July 9th and 16th issue included a response from reader Jon Jeffryes (unfortunately not available online) that highlights a valid and obvious counterargument to Staley: “Right now, the archives are a symbol of information elitism…Digitization [of archival material] democratizes that information by making it viewable to anyone who can find an open Internet connection. The process is meant to make as much information as easy as possible to obtain…”

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