On the Inside, Looking Out
This is my first post here, so I’ll briefly introduce myself. Since November 2009, I’ve been the Digital Projects Liaison at the State Library of North Carolina. I get to work on a spectrum of things, including preservation, web site archiving, and digital collection building.
Recently, I’ve been mulling over a collection we’re in the process of digitizing through our ASGII grant. It’s a group of 1960s urban development reports from our state publications collection. Partially funded through a federal urban planning grant under the Housing Act of 1954, these reports were the product of efforts by the Division of Community Planning under the North Carolina Department of Conservation (now the Department of Environment and Natural Resources). These reports deal with local areas – counties, towns, and even lakes or neighborhoods. They have titles like “Land use plan, Goldsboro, North Carolina” and “Population and economy of Forest City, N.C.”
Have your eyes glazed over yet? Here’s the issue – these reports are great! Urban planners went out and scrutinized a community, reporting back with demographics, maps, photographs, personal interviews, and projections for the future that included jaunty stick figures walking down updated main streets. The reports talk about areas of urban blight, have high level surveys of historic buildings, and even include soil and traffic maps. If you want to see what downtown Graham was like in 1967 (someone does, right?) and what they predicted for that area at that point in time, these reports are a valuable resource. The materials inside could really be of interest to genealogists, archaeologists, historians, local leaders – all user groups whose eyes will probably slide right over the words “land use plan.”
So what have I been mulling over? How do we draw people into a collection like this? More specifically: with mass digitization, or even moderately-large-scale digitization, how do we leverage information inside of digital objects when the usual amount of metadata won’t cut it? In some ways, this is the traditional archival processing conundrum of item-level vs. folder-level vs. collection-level description. But I’m not trying to justify item-level description here, I’m trying to bend my brain to think of ways we can draw the inside information out.
My first thoughts centered on doing some TLD (tender loving description) on the maps, which represent a pretty significant and useful subset of pages within these reports. But that sort of care isn’t something I believe should be part of our priorities here. Then I thought “What I really need is more progressive OCR and presentation of digitized statistics.” This sort of technology development is pretty well beyond my current capabilities and resources. Finally, I pondered the current go-to idea for digital librarians: tagging and other social phenomena that shift some of the description burden to the users. While interesting in many respects, it wouldn’t get me the high quality, across-the-board coverage I’m after (assuming our users would even help us out).
As you can see, my first reaction is to throw more words at this challenge. I think we sometimes try to tack on as much metadata as we can, as quickly as we can, all in the hopes of vying for fickle user attention. I’m not sure throwing words at the items or the users is truly the most effective way to make inroads into our digital collections, but I certainly haven’t figured out what the most effective way is. I’m still negotiating the line between a level of curatorial care that I don’t believe we can or should maintain, and the library equivalent of those web pages that simply load their white space with words to catch the search engines. I’m sure these urban development reports won’t be the last things I see that make me think “There’s great stuff in here!” I’m sure some librarian standing in front of a stack of scrolls thought the same thing. What I’m not sure about, but am still working on, is how to get that inside information out.