Why Digitizing Primary Sources Is Critical to Research

November 1, 2017 Morgan Kubelka

RAI Ethnographic Photographic Collection.pngDigitization efforts over the last decade or so have made scholarly content more accessible than ever before. From current journal articles to historic back files, from academic books to reference works, researchers today are able to leverage a massive amount of resources to accelerate their own scientific discoveries.

So what’s missing?

Primary sources by their very nature are physical artifacts; maps, manuscripts, periodicals, correspondence and other physical relics often predate the proliferation of digital media. Because they’re one of a kind, these primary sources are typically kept under lock and key, available only to select scholars, and even then, with tight restrictions. Hidden away in file drawers, boxes and other antiquated storage units, the ability to find what you’re looking for is severely compromised. So is any attempt to draw significance or deduce enlightening connections between contextually-like sources.

And even these issues are relatively benign compared to the most endangered types of primary source materials—ones that have been left behind without care, stuck on a shelf in some obscure location, or exposed to the elements. Just last month, The Guardian published an article on “a cache of decaying notebooks found in a crumbling Congo research station,” even as it would later prove to “help solve a crucial puzzle – predicting how vegetation will respond to climate change.”

But locating these significant artifacts is just one part of the challenge. Restoring and digitizing these documents are critical steps in order to make them widely accessible and to enable preservation for future generations of researchers to come.

Seeing science through a humanistic lens

In order to effectively understand and respond to the current challenges we face as a modern society, it’s critical that researchers have access to the holistic scholarly record—one that goes beyond an article or its conclusions--encouraging deeper understanding or even reinterpretation of findings through the lens of historical context. Only by placing the sciences within history and cultures can researchers truly understand the interdisciplinary nature of the subjects they strive to advance, ultimately yielding positive research and educational outcomes.

Professional societies are home to some of the most robust archives of our collective history. Not only do they reflect a comprehensive institutional perspective, but they illuminate the personal values, ideas, disagreements, breakthroughs and aspirations that helped scientists organize and fund their ideas in the pursuit of their scientific goals. Documents like internal correspondence, meeting notes and internal memos offer a dimension of the scholarly record that has yet to be fully explored and capitalized on in the quest for continued discovery.

Expanding partnerships to improve research

As a 210-year-old publisher, Wiley is fortunate enough to partner with some of the most prestigious societies around the world. Through these partnerships, we’ve been able to explore the massive trove of primary source content accessible only on-site, and develop a solution that will not only make this content available for use in everyday research, but also restore and preserve it for generations to come.

Wiley Digital Archives will launch in 2018 as an ongoing program that will tell the stories behind the more contemporary content Wiley publishes. From manuscripts, maps, periodicals and photographs to illustrations, proceedings, pamphlets, personal papers and grey literature, Wiley Digital Archives will expand access to historic primary artifacts that have been largely untapped to date.

Working with societies, archivists, curators, librarians, conservators, scholarly, subject matter experts and technology partners, Wiley Digital Archives will conserve and restore physical documents, scan hi-res images, perform Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on printed works, add searchable terms to handwritten content, and enhance or create new metadata, cataloging records and subject indexing to ensure the highest level of discoverability.

Inaugural Partners

The archival content of The New York Academy of Science (NYAS) and the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI) will mark the inaugural collections to be made accessible on the Wiley Digital Archives platform. Through careful restoration and skilled digitization, millions of pages of archival content will finally be accessible to researchers as an integral everyday resource, whether they’re logging-in from their home laptops, a library’s desktop or their mobile devices. By mitigating the difficulty associated with accessing and using physical archive materials, researchers will finally be able to spend more of their time with these critical resources and less time trying to find them.

To learn more about Wiley Digital Archives, visit www.wileydigitalarchives.com

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

Image Credit: Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

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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