Uncovering (literally) digital information

Often, following a proposal to digitize a collection of materials, one of the first questions to be raised is “What is this going to cost?” If the digitization is to be outsourced to a corporation, what will be the cost per page (or image)? How much more will it cost for the OCR of text and cleanup of images? If the digitization is to be done in-house, what will this cost in terms of staff time and equipment? What will it cost to add value with robust metadata and broad searchabiltiy? What will it cost to backup this valuable information once it is digitized?

Undoubtedly, these are all valid questions and cost should be examined carefully, but nowhere is the importance of this last question more evident than in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Last week, the DLS staff returned from the American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans where time was spent listening to and conversing with librarians from all over the nation.

One of the most interesting things that I heard was from John C. Kelly, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the University of New Orleans. He described that following Hurricane Katrina, when he returned to his library, materials were submerged in several feet of mud for weeks. Much of their digital library’s content had been archived on CDs, and when they began pulling discs out, washing them off, and testing them, only a few were ruined to the point that information was lost!

Certainly it is tragic that so many important books, documents and other paper items were lost to the aftermath of the hurricane, but in this case, digital information showed its resilience in the face of harsh environmental conditions. This is no reason to overlook the importance of offsite storage and backup, and should only be looked upon as an interesting anecdote, but it’s worth remembering that any kind of digitization and backup may in some cases be the only reason some information will survive a disaster.

–Mark Anderson
Digital Initiatives Librarian, Digital Library Services