My Observation of the NYPL Digital Archives

By mgarci23

For my observation, I chose to spend three hours examining the New York Public Library Digital Archive. The reason I chose this specific topic is because I have a lot of mixed feelings when it comes to digital archives. Personally, I prefer to examine an object or document first hand. The sensory aspect of coming into contact with a historic document or object is something that can’t be replicated virtually. However, the availability of partial or complete collections is a new aspect of library, museum and archive culture that is something to be admired. Many people don’t even realize the scope of an institution’s resources until they stumble upon it.

Pros

The largest pro of the NYPL is the extent of its content. Many of their collections have been digitize. On the homepage is an interactive set of information. Scrolling over some of the stats and the viewer is able to compile comparisons. For example the total sq. footage of the archive is  the equivalent of forty-four Empire State Buildings. At the same time they provide the public with a working update of how many pages have been digitized. So far the NYPL archives have digitized 180,777 pages of their collections. While that isn’t much it is still Often researchers, students, or the general public have to make appointments in order to see a specific collection with supervision. With online archives patrons are able to browse collections unsupervised.

Another pro is the new beta linked data tool that creates connections between different aspects of various collections. This already is an invaluable tool not available at a physical archive. The only person able to make the connections is the archivist who has worked on the collection.

The comment section is really nice pro for the NYPL Digital Collections. Recently, I found out that the comments section was reviewed by staff members and what they found was extraordinary. One commenter stated that his grandfather was the man being lynched in a photo. The commenter wanted to donate other material of his grandfather to provide more depth about his grandfather’s life. Other comments provided supplemental information about other photos such as back story to stores or children in the photos (some of them were the children or lived in the subject places). Since the digital archive is relatively new, I hope that they will take this feature useful in a different department and incorporate it into their own.

The final pro I found particularly interesting is something that is shared between all archives. Online archives allows the public to access material that might be too fragile for physical access. A lot of the documents I examined where old and/ or in terrible condition. In this instance the New York Public Library archives created a sort of balance between the patron and the fragile thing.

Cons

The largest con I have against the NYPL archives is how they formatted the way you access the content. Often times I found myself circumvented to other areas I did not want to be in, such as the catalog. The developers assume patrons will be able to understand the layout and navigate it. That is extremely bothersome because online archives are a relatively new aspect and every archive designs their website differently. To assume that the patron will automatically understand places a great strain on the patron. If the patron becomes frustrated with the system, they won’t use it anymore.

Another con is the amount of control a patron has over what they see. With online archives patrons are only given access to what the archivist provides and how they provide them. With physical archives the patron has more access to different aspects of the document. Such as small marks that can not be clearly seen online because the resolution isn’t the best. Physical contact with an object allows the observer to notice details that might be obscured by pixelation. For example I wanted to look closer at some written note on a document on the NYPL archives and could barely read it because the image quality limited from seeing it. This is the example that I am referring too.

The last con I have against digital archives is the difference in experience a person feels when they come into contact with a historical document or object. This is particularly personal because as someone who deeply appreciates history, that experience of working with document or object that is part of a larger historical context has deep meaning for me. To not be able to feel the kind of paper, ridges or bumps or smell the ink, paper or whatever kind of material almost makes it hard for me to fully respect the object for document.

There a lot of aspects of digital archives that I enjoy and certainly the NYPL archives is an excellent example of a digital archive. However, there are certain aspects of traditional research that can’t be replicated in digital form. Throughout the entire observation, I kept in mind, Roy Rosenzweig’s, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” where he mentions the historian and their refusal to accept digital archives. While I have some reservations about digital archives and the authenticity of the archived object but I understand how important it is to make connections between works. That is one of the reason I appreciate NYPL archive’s linked data feature.

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