BY FRANCIE HELM
As someone who worked for a historical society during the time of its initial transition into digital formatting, I have first-hand knowledge of the complexities involved. When this major change first began, we were in a small building where almost all of our records were cataloged and accessioned in the old fashioned way. That meant card catalog indices housed in wooden cases with drawers full of hard copy records. It seems hard to imagine that little over a decade ago we were working in such a, retrospectively speaking, primitive environment. Since then, so much has changed it seems like I have been a character in a science fiction novel. My experience is something being felt throughout the world of historical archives.
All you need to do is plug in a few keywords on a search engine to see how widespread this movement is becoming. People not only want, but now demand, that they can sit down at their computer and access records, pictures and documents of all kinds; not to be a part of the virtual world is to become obsolete. Of course, when an institution first considers such an undertaking it is like a corn maze of many curves and dead ends. It is a multilevel process involving scanning, preservation, web display, search engine interfaces and database programming to name several of the required tasks, but the positives very much outweigh the difficulties involved.
There are plenty of positives that are achieved through adopting software and platform services to accomplish historical digitization projects in a cost efficient way that allows web site customization and access to your materials, but a gap in the process is the need for a consultant/trainer to help an institution make it safely through all the stages. Not only are there information systems hurdles to face, but also preservation considerations regarding the collections of photographs, manuscripts, index records, newspapers, etc.
My hope is that smaller institutions and businesses that may lack a fully staffed Information Systems Department will not be so intimidated by the choices, planning and complexities of implementing a digitization process that they find themselves paralyzed and therefore quickly becoming obsolete in the ever changing electronic landscape. For this not to happen they would greatly profit from acquiring an Information Consultant to make it a possible and even pleasant experience