Elizabeth Skene 2017-03-09 11:04:57
Digitization of a library’s or cultural heritage organization’s holdings is by now routine work for many institutions. These efforts often begin as small scale and sometimes grant-funded initiatives. As these initiatives grow, they may raise questions as to which staff and unit are best suited to take responsibility for the work. Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library has been working on digitization projects since 2004. These stand-alone projects were initially grant-funded, but staff and resources were increasingly moved to permanent funds. In the summer of 2016, the head of the special collections unit, George Frizzell, retired after 34 years, and the library used the opportunity to restructure and repurpose staff and resources. The decision was made to bring two separate units on digital initiatives and special collections into one special and digital collections unit. The special and digital collections librarian, formerly the digital initiatives librarian, now oversees the new unit. In making this decision, the library was able to change the special collections librarian position from staff to tenure-track faculty, cross-train other staff to offer additional reference support, extend reading room hours, and improve communication and collaboration within the unit. Finding Sense in the Shuffle As universities expand digitization initiatives, this sort of internal shuffling is not uncommon. In April 2016, a survey was conducted to see if any patterns in this type of reorganization emerged. One hundred participants, recruited from SAA’s College and University Archives Section listserv, took the survey. This informal survey did not control for multiple respondents at a single organization, and, when looking at the results, it is clear that the available answers were too narrow. However, the results do show a general trend (or lack thereof) for the administration of digital and special collections. For the purpose of the survey, “digital collections” refers to the digitization and description of materials, as well making them available online, “archives and/or special collections” refers to a repository of primary materials within a university, and “unit” refers to the organizational structure—other universities may use the term department, team, etc. Fluid Management There are a number of takeaways from this preliminary data. The most noteworthy finding is that digital collections management is fluid; it is not uncommon for ownership of the efforts to change hands. Thirty-six percent of respondents reported that there has been some sort of change in the management of their digitization efforts. At one organization, digitization began in the preservation department, moved into the IT department, and even this “may change in the future.” Ownership of digital collections also varies. One respondent said, “The available survey options appear to be based on a pre-established assumption,” referring to how the survey did not take into account digitization based out of IT, metadata, or scholarly communications units. Other schools have distributed digital collections that “belong to the unit that creates them.” When asked if their special collections and digitization units were separate or together, 17% of respondents chose “other,” indicating that responsibilities lie in another library department. Overall, special collections and digitization efforts reside together in 57% of the institutions, and the majority of respondents thought this was the ideal situation. Eighty percent reported that staff benefit from cross-training on archival and digitization skills. One respondent elaborated, saying digital collections staff need to “understand how to handle archival materials and need to know about archival description” while “special collections staff need to be aware of the unique requirements of digital projects.” When asked if special collections and digital collections share the same mission, 72% of respondents reported they do “always” or “most of the time.” These survey results emphasize that it benefits us to think creatively about our management structures and partnerships. With quality digital content as the desired outcome, we should center our efforts where the expertise and resources are. In doing so, we can avoid unnecessarily siloing our services.
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