Before and After: Perspectives on the Digitization of Primary Sources

November 17, 2017 Morgan Kubelka

Archival Content from the Royal College of Physicians (RCP).jpgWhat do scholars think they need with digital archives?

“The first thing I’d say is more, more, more.”

College of Charleston History Professor Jacob Steere-Williams wasn’t the only one to weigh in.

At this year’s Charleston Library Conference, we brought together members of the academic community to discuss their unique perspectives on the digitization of primary source content. From a professor, a society archivist, a chief scientific officer and a librarian, we learned more about the role that archives play in their professional lives and how digitization of these primary sources will impact their objectives.

“The digitization of archives makes my research much, much easier.”

Professor Steere-Williams was able to shed light on two critical perspectives—that of both an instructor and a researcher.

As a student, Steere-Williams shared familiar anecdotes of “trudging to the library to use the oversize green folios,” having to “visit the physical building and check out a box one at a time” to do his research with archival content.

He’s hardly alone in this sentiment, as recent discourse suggests the inconvenience and limitations of visiting traditional archives.  To safeguard these rare physical artifacts, the “one at a time” checkout method was--and still is, in many cases—a necessary evil.

So why bother at all?

“Scholars like myself have understood digital archives to have real, tangible benefits to scholarly research,” Steere-Williams explained, “they’ve led us to some new answers but more importantly, to new questions.”

“As an educator, digital archives are a game changer.”

As a History Professor, Steere-Williams has seen a tremendous impact on his day-to-day professional life. Over the last decade, instructors like him have relied on curated primary source anthologies and PDFs that “take primary sources out of their historical context.”

Why does historical context matter?

Steere-Williams explained that by placing the primary source back in its historical context, undergraduates benefit from “using archives in their entirety,” leading to more innovative research that goes beyond traditional textual analysis.

Adding to the discussion was Tim Bucknall, Assistant Dean of University Libraries and Head of Electronic Resources and Information Technologies at UNC Greensboro, who raised the importance of addressing audiences beyond just students and faculty. There’s an “external audience” for this rare content that needs to be addressed and a “responsibility to digitize resources and make them available to the world.”

“For us, it’s a reclamation of our history.”

For the New York Academy of Sciences’ (NYAS) Chief Scientific Officer Doug Braaten, it was NYAS’s 200th anniversary that prompted a renewed interest in its archives.

“Our Archives had ended up in boxes in Queens, sitting for years. No one knew what was in it.”

The re-discovery of these precious materials gave Braaten a moment of pause, reflecting on how “surprising” it was that the Academy hadn’t taken their rich history into account before.

Unsure of what to do with this newfound treasure trove, NYAS decided to partner with Wiley to get this archival material scanned, digitized, and catalogued in Wiley Digital Archives for use in everyday research.

Calling it a “reclamation of our history,” Braaten said that NYAS has since used the archival material they found to create the first timeline of the Academy they’ve ever had.

“Archives don’t stop when the hardcopy stops”

Archives Manager Pamela Forde of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) described the importance of digitization in relation to two strategic priorities: to “preserve and complete an honest record of who we are and what we do” and to “continue to be an authoritative source on the history of medicine.”

With 40,000 hard copy items in RCP’s archives and 35,000 rare books and special collections that are part of their research offering, the need to invest in digital solutions is critical to ensure access and provide a single source for their long-term history, present and future.  Forde also offered more environmental considerations for digitization, including the risks that fires, floods and other natural disasters pose to physical archives.

As RCP looks forward to their historic 500-year anniversary in 2018, Forde emphasized the importance of prioritizing digitization according to researcher needs and working with a commercial partner to execute a staged approach.

“Digitization, apart from helping us improve access, should also help us to provide context to our history.”

Interested in learning more about the digitization of primary source content? Visit Wiley Digital Archives at

Download the eBook, Making Historical Collections Accessible, to learn more about the digitization of primary sources.

Image Credit: Royal College of Physicians

About the Author

Morgan Kubelka

Library Services, Wiley // Morgan Kubelka is an Associate Marketing Manager on the Customer and Channel Marketing Team in Wiley's Global Research division.

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