Last, but not least, ideas for opening up digitization at NARA

Yes, those of you who don’t care about improving the services of our National Archives will be happy to hear that this is the last post in this series (remember, comments are due tomorrow). However, most of the ideas for improving interactivity and openness are applicable to almost any kind of archival organization, so these issues should really be of interest to any archivist.

As has been discussed here previously, currently NARA relies on partnerships with commercial sites (such as Ancestry and Footnote) for much of the digitization of their holdings. While this is no doubt a necessary part of NARA’s digitization strategy, that strategy (written in 2008) is in need of some updating. I am not suggesting that NARA abandon all commercial partnerships, but certainly they need to explore options for expanding the ways that records can be digitized and made available to users at no cost–either via NARA’s own site or on the sites of non-profit partners.

This could be accomplished in many ways, but the ones that seem most obvious to me are to follow the scanning model provided by the Amsterdam City Archives, and to establish policies that encourage non-profit organizations, scholarly collaboratives, historians, and any researcher to become scanning contributors. First, the Amsterdam model charges researchers for the initial scanning and access to digital copies of documents, and then continues to make those scans available to all researchers for a fee. (See the earlier post and presentations for more details.) A NARA model could operate in a similar fashion, but perhaps identify a point at which the costs of scanning have been recovered and at that point the scans would be made available at no cost. In my opinion, the goal should be to provide access to the digitized documents for free, although it seems fair to charge for the initial digitization, if the per unit cost can be made reasonable. (Note that the National Archives of Australia has also implemented “scan on demand.”)

Second, while a more complicated and risky option, creating policies that allow organizations and individuals to contribute the scans they create would harness the power of potentially all NARA’s researcher community to crowdsource the digitization of collections. This could be accomplished by capturing scans created when researchers duplicate materials in the reading room, allowing users to contribute the scans they have created, and setting up dedicated areas for researcher scanning, whether for their own benefit and NARA’s or strictly as volunteer scanners. While, of course, processes would have to be established for ensuring proper metadata is created and that minimal quality control is in place, opening the process up in this manner would capture the results of digitization that is already being done. It would also promote the digitization of records that people are interested in–or records that at least one researcher is interested in. I haven no idea if models such as these have been tried or implemented in any archival setting, but I see no reason why NARA could not explore some of them on at least a pilot basis.

As always, I’m interested in hearing your reactions to these ideas and your own suggestions for how NARA can broaden and increase the number of digitized records they make freely available to the public.

Note that the topic of digitization is on the agenda for tomorrow’s NARA-sponsored Researcher Meeting. I’m sorry that I won’t be able to attend, but the minutes of that meeting will be posted (and I will, of course, let you know the results here also). I’ve been told that we can also expect to see a new FAQ from NARA on its digitization efforts in the near future. I will be interested to see if in either tomorrow’s meeting or the FAQ a timeline is provided for the migration of the digitized documents created by NARA’s commercial partners to open access on NARA’s own web site.

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