Why digitization is a core library service


This is part one of our series on digitization and digital collections

Every library has a mouth story

Every night before bedtime, my 4-year old son mandates I tell him a “mouth story”, i.e., a purportedly hair-raising, nail-biting story that I’m required to make up out of nowhere after an exhausting day of work and pleading with him to please try not to stab, kick, punch, or otherwise maim the world around him.

Usually the mouth story turns out like some kind of weird dream in which a bunch of loosely connected characters and scenes weave themselves together using the common thread of whatever the two of us have been thinking about that day. Often that includes a hodgepodge of ancient scholars, new-fangled technology, and some sort of insect or reptile bite.

Yesterday, we found our ancient scholars searching in Argentina for a family who was rumored to know an important secret about a magic crown; and of course their search eventually led them to the back room of the city library where they leafed through hundreds of dusty manuscripts to find out more. I couldn’t help but think of Gandolf’s trip to Minas Tirith: [one_third]At this point in the mouth story, I paused silently and thought about how intuitively the heart is drawn to the solemnity and enigmatic mystique that is so particular to the library. The distinctive histories of every community are waiting there to reveal themselves to those who seek them out. What kind of world is it when Gandolf can sit down at his computer and look up digitized copies of the Account of Isildore?

This line of thought reminded me that one of the most unique and difficult challenges of the library profession today is to ignite our public’s dormant love of libraries using the 21st century frame of the web, and to bring our hidden collections and the stories they contain to light in a meaningful way for our communities.

Digitization is a core service

It’s with this in mind that I suggest that digitizing and making our special/hidden collections web-accessible can no longer be thought of as a peripheral service. Digital libraries and repositories are now truly coming into their own as a core service provision of libraries and an essential component of serving our communities—not just for large well-funded academic institutions but increasingly for many smaller academic and public libraries.

In every community, the librarians and the public they serve are witnessing with digital collections that which they witnessed during the wave of retrospective conversions of the 1990s: a “new normal” in which genealogy and historical data is being digitized and searched/retrieved chiefly online. Moreover, many smaller library collections are not only being digitized, but they are also being ingested via OAI-PMH into larger projects like the Digital Public Library of America and Canadiana.

Librarians that leave digitization out of their service plan risk insulating themselves and depriving the world at large of their community’s unique heritage, historical value, and even worse, perhaps chart a path to irrelevancy and lack of funding. As Gwen Glazer put it in her article Digitizing Collections in Public Libraries, “Without taking the vital step of increasing users’ access to public libraries’ hidden collections, we risk losing our own history” (pg. 2).  We need to shift our priorities to include digitization alongside other library services such as cataloging, circulation and acquisitions.

Of course, this is easier said than done, so in our upcoming posts, we’ll talk more about how any library—no matter how big or small—can create a successful digitization service using its existing resources. Until then, how important is digitization to your library? What, if any, obstacles are standing in your way to digitizing your hidden collections?

Featured image By DRs Kulturarvsprojekt from Copenhagen, Danmark (16mm magnetic tape Uploaded by palnatoke) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. We are a small rural public library in Soldiers Grove Wisconsin, America’s First Solar Village. We’ve just expanded the library, restored the pioneer solar system and now have a budding local history room in the mezzanine. We’d like to begin digitizing but it’s a daunting prospect…

    • Hi Cele, glad to hear you’re expanding the library, congratulations! Yes, digitization can definitely be a daunting prospect, especially for smaller libraries, but also exhilarating when it comes to fruition :).

      It turns out that in the next 2 posts in this series, I’ll be talking about approaches to digitization that mitigate some of the difficulties, such as digitizing for access first (not preservation) as well as how to apply agile methods from software development to digitization planning. Stay tuned!

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