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Why digital collections matter

Craig W. Spotser, A.B., Iowa City, Iowa, 1927

On my drive to work this week the radio told of more soldiers dying in Iraq. Soon, an ambulance whizzed by me—off to save another life. Talk about work that really matters, I thought, as I tootled toward the University of Iowa Main Library for a day of helping lead the charge to digitize a bunch of cool stuff—old photographs, correspondence, maybe postcards or some scrapbooks from library archives. While my work as the new head of Digital Library Services hardly compares to the life-and-death heroics of soldiers or EMTs, I still like to hope it matters. I know it is a whole lot of fun—sure beats flipping pancakes for hire or writing a first-person dog column (“Hello, I’m Scruffy…”), gigs I’ll admit to having some experience with in the distant past.

When I arrive at work it’s not long before I am reminded—repeatedly—why creating these digital collections matters. A quick disclaimer: The bragging I’m about to do has next to nothing to do with me. I just got here. The credit goes to my predecessor Paul Soderdahl, metadata librarian Jen Wolfe, and digital initiatives librarian Mark Anderson in Digital Library Services. The UI Libraries online collection now has more than 75,000 digital objects thanks to their work and that of Nancy E. Kraft, who heads the Iowa Heritage Digital Collection (IHDC), plus the amazing contributions from a wide range of record holders. Impressive, especially if you consider they began this effort less than two years ago.

Online use statistics are the easiest way to see that digital collections are vastly expanding the library’s reach. Not surprisingly, on-campus use is high. More surprising are numbers like this: In April alone, Iowa Public Schools users approached our digital collections 4,834 times. As Mark aptly points out, that is a hit about every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day, during the entire month of April. We not only get hits from places like Iowa State University (more than 6,500 times in April) but from thousands of far-away places like Poland (2,400 hits) and Tuvalu (500), a Polynesian island nation halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Since I arrived I’ve heard a steady stream of stories about how online collections provide instant answers to questions that once took much, much longer. Questions like, where was the old Dresden china store located in Iowa City? Check out the Iowa City Town and Campus Scenes Collection to view a picture of the storefront.

But the most compelling evidence of the power of digital collections arises from stories of people like Craig D. Spotser of Texas. His email, forwarded to us by Susan Kuecker at the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa, started this way: “GOD…..This is a picture of my Grandfather. He passed away when my father was a small boy. I only had a small picture of him, far way, standing in front of his car and home in Iowa. My father, Craig W. Spotser, has never seen a picture of him that close up, but he passed away in February 2002. This is amazing. How can I obtain a copy of the photo of my Grandfather? I was surfing the web, and this is the first time that I have seen this picture. I almost started crying. I look almost identical to him, and so does my son.”

The spitting image looking back at Craig Spotser was C.W. Spotser, a professor at University of Iowa in the 1920s. The picture was found in a scrapbook kept by Althea “Bee” Moore,” an undergraduate student at UI from 1924-1928. Late last year, library assistant Christine Tade worked with the scrapbook owners at the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa to work out the logistics of sending it to UI Libraries for digitization and preservation work. Christine’s resulting digital project was the digitized scrapbook.

This discovery, along with additional help from University Archives archivist David McCartney and others, enabled the Spotser family to locate their grandfather’s grave. They plan to visit soon to make sure he has a headstone, said Chris Spotser, Craig’s brother. If he doesn’t, the family is going to make sure he gets one. I know all of this because Chris called today, out of the blue, to thank us for sending a copy of the photo. “You guys are doing some fantastic work! Even if it’s just helping one person, we’re extremely grateful.” This is why we librarians love what we do, and I’m just grateful to become a part of what’s happening with digital collections at Iowa.

–Nicki Saylor
Head, Digital Library Services