The Dividends of Digitization Investments—A Reflection

By Judy Ruttenberg
Program Director, Association of Research Libraries

Today the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit research and consulting group, released Searching for Sustainability: Strategies from Eight Digitized Special Collections. The report was funded by an IMLS National Leadership Grant, and many of the cases, a diverse set of library and cultural heritage institutions, were IMLS grantees. Like IMLS, and often in partnership with IMLS, ARL libraries have invested deeply in digitizing the rare and unique materials from their collections, bringing the content out of protected archival repositories and into the light of the open web. As an association, ARL has embraced the principle of making the digitized materials of our cultural heritage available to the widest possible user base.

The case studies, authored by experts in the sustainability of digital resources in the higher education and cultural sectors, reflect a range of experiences within the institutions studied. From major research universities and national museums to small historical societies and colleges, the cases show the enormous and transformative contribution of digitized special collections to research, teaching, community building, and new ways of learning about and interpreting our past. By using the case study approach, the authors were able to go inside the organizations to paint vivid pictures of the potentially transformative roles these collections can also have on the organizations themselves.

The cases in the report include the following:

  • American Antiquarian Society Digital Collections
  • Biodiversity Heritage Library (Smithsonian Institution)
  • Florida Folklife Collection (Florida Department of State, Division of Library & Information Services)
  • Grateful Dead Archive Online (University of California, Santa Cruz)
  • Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, and History (Cornell University)
  • Maine Memory Network (Maine Historical Society)
  • Quakers and Slavery (Haverford College)
  • Vanderbilt Television News Archive (Vanderbilt University)

The cases were selected for their demonstrated longevity, public benefit, and ability to serve as reliable and recurring funding models to ensure their continuation for future scholars and citizens. In telling the stories of these cases, the report provides insights and strategies that others can emulate in planning new digitization projects at institutions of all sizes. The report also contributes to ongoing dialogue with the library and archival professions about best practices and models for articulating the value of special collections to local, national, and even global stakeholders.

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