Digitizing the Past, Archiving the Future

Digitizing the Past, Archiving the Future

January 18, 2016

Technology has become an integral part of research in the humanities. If in the past technology and humanistic studies were perceived as belonging to two different domains of campus, this is no longer the case. Digitizing old literary and historical documents and sharing them online has allowed scholars easy access to resources that were not easily available to them before.

“The systematic digitization of texts has truly revolutionized the way research is done in the humanities,” says Serenity Sutherland, doctoral student in the Department of History and a 2014-2016 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities. “In the past, a scholar who was interested in working on a set of letters or diaries had to physically travel to the place where those documents were kept,” she says. “But now, thanks to digitization, those documents could be potentially available on any computer with an internet connection.”

Sutherland, who has been involved in the digitization of the Seward Family Papers as part of the Seward Family Papers Project, is very familiar with the process and with its scholarly implications. “Ultimately, digitization results in a more rigorous research across the board,” she says. “Both undergraduate students and seasoned scholars will benefit greatly from access to texts that were much harder to access before.” In Sutherland’s mind, the ability to share texts and documents in this way has proven to be truly revolutionary and is reshaping the way people think about research.

But while the way in which we conduct research has changed, some things have not. “We need to remember,” Sutherland says, “that even though we deal now with digital objects, these objects were originally physical objects.” Turning physical documents into digital documents can be a complex process that requires the skills of archivists and librarians.

One of the main challenges associated specifically with the digitization of letters is figuring out the chronological order in which they were composed. As Alison Reynolds, William Henry Seward Project Archivist at Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation (RBSCP) notes, “Sometimes the handwriting makes it difficult to decipher the date, or there are different dates written on the front and back of the letter, or the date written doesn’t match the day of the week for that year.” Such instances require a close examination of the actual letters by an archivist who may be able to find further hints about the date in which they were composed. “Had it not been for Alison,” says Sutherland, “it would have been impossible for me to date and upload some of the Seward family letters in the correct order, which is crucial when historical documents are concerned.”

“I’m glad River Campus Libraries and the staff at Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation have the resources and skills required for a successful digitization of old texts,” says Sutherland. In her view, the role of librarians will become more significant as digital humanities keeps growing: “Yes, digital humanities requires individuals who specialize in coding, programming, and web editing, but these are librarians who really understand physical documents, who know how to handle them, and who are most qualified to make important decisions about them.” 

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