E-JASL: The Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship


Date of this Version

Winter 2003

Document Type



Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship (Winter 2003) 4(1). Also available at http://southernlibrarianship.icaap.org/content/v04n01/Mckay_s01.htm.


Copyright 2003, the author. Used by permission.



Cultural institutions such as museums, libraries, archives, and historical societies house remarkable collections of cultural artifacts. It is the responsibility of the staff working for those institutions to preserve, protect and provide responsible stewardship for the materials, and to the best of their ability, provide continued long-term access (Russell, 2000).

Advances in technology allow institutions to provide expanded access and education; however, there are important priorities that must be addressed prior to embarking on a digital conversion project.

Digitization in an archival environment includes taking a physical object or analog item, such as an art object, a tape recording, a map, or correspondence, from a collection that is rare or unique, often extremely fragile, and taking photographs of the item, and transferring the photographs to a digital medium. The negatives or prints are scanned into digital format such as a JPEG (1,400 pixels) and even larger, TIFF (Tagged Image File Format, 2000 pixels) files (Library of Congress, 2000). Digital files are imported into, and managed with the use of software programs. Digital files may be read, compressed, transferred and retrieved over computer networks then made accessible and viewed on computer monitors. The end product is determined by how well these functions are performed (Beamsley, 1999, p. 364).

Governmental agencies, institutions of higher learning, and the commercial and entertainment industries are fast developing technological infrastructures to accommodate the needed access on the Internet. Kenney and Rieger (2000) state, “the Internet will become the agora for research, teaching, expression, publication, and communication” (p. 1). Many, especially the younger generation, consult libraries and archives as a last resort. This must change if libraries and archives want to continue as primary information providers (Kenney & Rieger, p. 1). Copyright 2003, the author. Used by permission.

Cultural institutions are investing in digital projects for several reasons including; to provide access, to reduce over-handling of material in order to preserve it, and “public relations” to assist in promoting the collections and the institution. By creating digital surrogates of their collections, institutions continue to support the notion that there is value in the materials they house (Kenney & Rieger, 2000, p. 1).

Most digital conversion projects are driven in part by the institutions strategic goals. Unfortunately institutional goals are often in conflict with the necessary structure of an ideal digital conversion project (Smith, 2000, p. 3). Resources are useless unless they are accessible. Therefore, if an institution is to embark on a digital conversion project, sufficient thought, planning, risk management, and correct infrastructure, both professionally and technologically, must go into the process or the project will fall short of the intended goals (Kenney & Rieger, 2000, p. 3).


Cultural institutions house rare and unique artifacts recording the history of humankind. Providing greater access to collections may bring together vast, disparate collections and may inspire new scholarly work. By prioritizing digital projects, allocating funds, and working together, cultural institutions provide added utility to collections.

Advances in technology create new challenges and workloads, for staff and institutions, not present before. Part of the problem lies in the fact that currently there is no consensus regarding digital conversion or preservation of digital material.

Professionals must work together to address the problems stemming from the fact that there are no set standards for preservation of digital material.

Even after one has addressed the legal, ethical, technical, and professional issues surrounding digital conversion projects, what still needs to be addressed are the needs of the end-users. Providing access to digital collections in an unmediated environment creates continued challenges.