History is only saved if future generations can access the resources that contain information about the past. In addition to preserving our physical archival collections, it is imperative that we digitize our history in a way that allows generations to come to find and draw meaning from the items in our archives.
Saving history means more than scanning low resolution images that you can email to a colleague or that get lost on a server somewhere. Saving history means transforming records of the past, in whatever their current state, into a digital format that can evolve into future formats and tagging those materials in ways that allow people to find and understand them.
When initiating or reevaluating any archival digitization initiative, focus effort in the three fundamental aspects of effective and sustainable digital history: digital preservation imaging, strategic tagging, and engaging audiences.
Digital preservation imaging involves more than simply scanning or photographing an item. It requires applying top standards to the imaging process and thereby producing digital images that will last as technology changes over time. Maintaining the highest digitization standards will mitigate the potential need to re-digitize materials at a future date, should the evolution of web technology render a particular format obsolete. During the digitization process, an archival preservation copy of each digital image is created. This high-resolution TIFF file must meet current digital imaging preservation standards by ensuring that the longest edge of any type of item is 6,000 pixels. These large digital files must be stored in a secure environment that maintains a connection between the file and any related files or catalog information.
Low-resolution versions of those items, referred to as web derivative files, must then be created. In 2019, the most common examples of these are JPGs or PDFs. The purpose of these files is to allow web browsers or computers to load them quickly for easy viewing.
Producing these two levels of files – archival master TIFFs for longterm digital preservation and lower resolution web derivatives for easy viewing – is only the first step of saving our history. If these files are simply stored on a computer, server, or cloud storage, but cannot be located without opening and viewing each individual file, they are doomed to disappear into the digital dumping ground of the future.
Digital preservation files must be organized in such a way that people can easily find them. Metadata creation is the magic sauce that makes an entire digital collection searchable. At its most basic level, it is cataloging and indexing. For modern digital collections, though, it is much more. In order for the average person to find information of interest using the normal language they employ for online searching is to write descriptive information and, most importantly, to apply tags that make a specific item discoverable.
Note two key aspects of what’s mentioned above:
- EVERY ITEM must be tagged. Cataloging a collection – say a box or folder – of items forces an online visitor to page through file by file looking for something specific. Only the most dedicated researcher would do this. All others will abandon the effort. The history is not saved for these people. Perhaps more importantly, the vast majority of those who are simply curious about a topic, rather than looking for something specific, will never discover an item that might affect their understanding of a topic.
- Tags must be used strategically. Different people use different vocabularies in everyday life, including online searching. Also, people approach digital history collections or use digital archives for different purposes. A specific strategy must be developed that identifies different groups of online visitors and employs a methodology for tagging all items to meet those visitors where they are.
Once all digital assets and metadata records are ingested into a secure digital preservation and collection management system, public-facing online presentations provide a variety of portals through which the public may interact with the content. In addition to general searching, such portals often include timelines, interactive exhibits and other storytelling presentations, and biographies.
Saving history means keeping people engaged in its meaning and use. Creating an accessible digital archive is only the first step in saving history. It provides a framework for storytelling, educating, and engaging different audiences.