Why does it take so long to digitize everything?

Let’s take a trip down memory lane to, oh, let’s say, seven months ago.

On the night of Sept. 2, 2018, the National Museum of Brazil was engulfed in flames.  Several historical an irreplaceable artifacts that called the museum home were lost forever.  The world mourned such a massive loss of our civilization’s rich history.  The tragedy sparked concern for other historical artifacts and ways to make sure that something like this never happened again.

Right after the devastation, the idea of preserving historical artifacts through digitization was brought up.  It certainly didn’t go unnoticed by our students here at UMD especially with all of the artifacts and collections stored in our very own Special Collections at Hornbake.

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Our Digitization Services room located in Hornbake. (Photo courtesy of http://www.lib.umd.edu/dss/services/digitization.)

Here’s the thing: the university has been very active in trying to preserve the histories of both the school and the state of Maryland for many years.  After all, the university suffered a similar fate 107 years ago.

So why aren’t we trying to digitize our archival materials faster?  We don’t know what will happen at any given time.  So… what’s the hold-up?  

It’s not like anyone at Special Collections wants there to be a hold-up.  If there was a quicker, easier way to digitize artifacts it would be a total time saver.

University Archivist Coordinator Kendall Aughenbaugh, who specializes in intercollegiate athletics and University of Maryland history, explained that moving forward on many current digitization projects has been a prerogative but that digitization isn’t a simple task.

“There’s a lot of factors that go into digitization,” said Aughenbaugh. “[For example] we go by which items are frequently requested, like issues of ‘The Diamondback,’ and items we feel need to be made public that would be most useful for researchers.”

“The Diamondback” is one of the most commonly requested items to come through Special Collections at Hornbake Library.  This observation led to digitizing the entire collection (so far) from its first issue published in 1910 when it was originally called “The Triangle” to issues published in 2008 (fun fact: an article about the 1912 fire from “The Triangle” was digitized and transcribed).

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One example of the machines, albeit an older one, used to digitize film.

Prioritizing more fragile historical items to be digitized is also considered when starting a digitization project.  The items in desperate need of digitizing are film and video due to the delicate conditions of these materials.  Aughenbaugh recalled watching one of Maryland’s football games on video and being taken aback when she realized there was no sound.

“I can see everything that’s happening,” she said, “but there’s no audio.  I can’t hear the referee’s calls. I can’t hear the coaches. I can’t hear anything.”

Well, that’s… not good.

This poses a major problem when trying to preserve video and film.  Sound is needed so that, when the video or film is distributed to the public on the library’s server, it’s easy for the person digitizing the video to know every piece of information shown or spoken.  This makes it easier for researchers or students to search for specific players, coaches or any other specific information about the game. If the video or film is corrupted in any way, all hope is lost for digitization plans on that item.

The reason this happens is because film strips can deteriorate within 50 years and video in 30 years.  With those years rapidly approaching, it’s understandable why working on digitizing the films and videos on Maryland men’s basketball is considered a top priority.

But for a project as big as the Maryland men’s basketball history (there are 100 years of it after all) cost is key.  Big digitization projects often require large amounts of funding that the annual budget or donor contributions can scarcely afford.

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Just a select few of the videos stored at Special Collections that get, or need to be, digitized.

For the Maryland men’s basketball film and video collection, a fundraising campaign was launched on Nov. 6, 2018, with aspirations of reaching $500,000 for the project.  Aughenbaugh and others hope this will be the first and only time they will need to hold a fundraiser for this project.

While money is essential for the majority – if not, all – digitization projects, time is also a matter of concern.  For smaller projects like Ashleigh Coren’s oral history project, time and the right material are the major concerns.

Coren, librarian for teaching and learning in Special Collections, was working on an audio project focused on the LGBTQ community at UMD in the 1960s.  The audio Coren had found included voices of the community talking about the difficulties they experienced on campus during that time.

“I have to make sure I have the right audio,” said Coren, “and we want permission from the people [who are on those audio reels] to use their voice.”

She also said that this oral history project is on her time and that it’s “very time consuming” working with Adobe Audition.  Even with the help of volunteers, student assistants and curators, Coren’s project passed her initial completion goal of spring 2018, proving how time consuming digitization really is.

During digitization projects, the original historical artifacts still need to be preserved as well.  Many measures are taken to protect the artifacts including acid-free paper, folders and boxes in order to prevent chemical imbalances that could contribute to physical deterioration.

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An example of the boxes used to preserve materials.

Additionally, artifacts must also be protected from intense climate conditions.  Ever wonder why you feel like you’re in Winterfell about to battle White Walkers and wights the minute you enter Hornbake?  Or why you somehow catch a cold while working on your summer coursework in the middle of the scorching June weather in College Park?

The answer is simple: the library has a humidity and temperature control system, a feature that was included when many of the artifacts moved from McKeldin to Hornbake in 2001 to preserve books and periodical collections.  We apologize for past, present and future summer colds.  But this is the only way we can preserve our artifacts with limited damage so… bear with us.

As you can see, a lot of work goes into digitization that we may not be aware of.  It is important to digitize our historical artifacts but because some materials are so fragile anything can go wrong in a split second during the process.

These are just a few key factors that go into digitization.  There’s many more and if this post were to name every single one it would go on and on.

To make a long story short, digitization is a very demanding and, oftentimes, expensive task.  There will always be contributing factors or detrimental complications when digitizing historical artifacts.  It’s not impossible but it’s not always a simple as one thinks it is.


Post by Elena Macias, graduate student studying journalism, student assistant for Instruction and Outreach for Special Collections.

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