Digitization Projects

Digitization projects – of both primary and secondary sources – is an undeniably useful yet difficult to successfully recreate enterprise. Some of the more readily available resources come in the form of Google Books and the Open Content Alliance. Both of these resources have considerable collections but a presented very differently. Google Books is less efficiently managed with no efficient way to browse the collection other than searching, which limits researchers unless they know exactly what they are looking for. The Open Content Alliance’s arrangement is more conducive to exploration by providing a search function but also readily accessible tags, topics and collections to comb through.

The greatest threat and asset to digitization efforts is the oft-criticized pay wall.  Through the acquisition of funds, digitization efforts continue.  A project on this scale requires not just volunteer but paid and trained staff, as well as special tools and facilities. Donations alone cannot fund such an enterprise, and the most effective way to acquire funds on websites of these kinds is through a) advertisement and b) the pay wall for certain books. Google Books does not face this issue so much having come from such a large corporation, though notably most digitized books do have certain page-ranges missing that can only be acquired by purchasing the book. Despite this much of the collection remains useful to a wider audience. Same with the Open-Content Alliance, though their collections are also more niche and involves partnering with larger institutions to facilitate the display of their texts. These two projects were intentionally built with accessibility in mind however, but the third site I looked at and which many will be familiar with is JSTOR.

As libraries and archives go, JSTOR is an essential tool for tracking down what you need among “more than 12 million academic journal articles, books, and primary sources in 75 disciplines” (as per their website).  While primarily for secondary sources, it does provide journal articles and texts from pre-digital publications and therefore has to make many of the same considerations. JSTOR is as successful as it is because institutions and individuals alike rely on the service they provide, and pay for access to their articles. For many historians, both “amateur” and working outside of academic institutions (smaller museums, historic sites, and community organizations) are often barred from these resources due to significant fees.

I am not the first to call out JSTOR and similar service providers for the steep price of access to historical documents, but the larger conversation is much larger and more complicated. Just as historical institutions cannot exist without funding or visitation, so can digitization efforts not exist without funds to either digitize existing historical documents or pay third parties for access to such documents.

4 thoughts on “Digitization Projects”

  1. Your point about funding is very important. Money runs the world and it certainly explains some of the benefits and drawbacks of different digital archives. It saddens me that some resources, like JSTOR, are not openly available to everyone who wants to use them but then again, it is a business, and businesses need money.

  2. I wish it were possible to create a digital library that functioned the same way that physical libraries do, but copyright laws just wouldn’t allow it. Of course, there are plenty of less-than-legal sources for digital and digitized books, especially for students who can’t afford textbooks (some of those things are like $350) and for rare or out-of-print books (Seth Klarman’s Margin of Safety comes to mind), but those also don’t come with fancy metadata sorting and searching. I think these digital libraries work best for primary and public-domain sources; but of course, you still need to pay somebody to scan the books…

  3. It may be the case that I search for the materials I’m looking for in an amateurish way, but I never use databases like JSTOR. I use my university library’s search engine, and that usually get’s me where I need to go. Does anyone have better luck finding what the need by searching around in these databases?

  4. I also hate paywalls, and the way they restrict access to so many would-be researchers. However, I don’t completely agree with singling out JSTOR. I might be wrong, but it’s my impression that JSTOR keeps their prices for institutional access relatively affordable, because they focus on older publications. My public high school offered JSTOR access, as do most public libraries I’ve visited, which means that most non-university affiliated people would probably be able to access some of JSTOR’s content from their local library. JSTOR also offers all of its journal content in the public domain free to anyone, just like Google Books and the Global Content Alliance. (In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a big fan of JSTOR!)

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