The Value of Institutional Repositories

By mmckale

When the value of a collection is undeniable, and we know it must be saved so that future generations may use and learn from it, the collection – ideally – becomes an archive. But how do we guarantee that the archive lasts?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the lecture “What’s on the Back? Updating the Definition of Complete for Digitization Projects,” which was given by conservator Alex Bero and archivist Maggie Schreiner at New York University. Together with a second archivist, they are conserving, digitizing, and describing three collections of downstate New York history with funds from a three-year grant from the Gardiner Foundation. At this event, they focused on two collections with very different needs for both conservation and digitization: the Richard Maass Collection and the Sylvester Manor Collection.

The Maass Collection is a small (so-described by Bero and Schreiner), high-value collection of mostly manuscripts dating from the American Revolution. The collection was partially digitized in the early 2000s for an online exhibition; it seems that a lack of both time and funding ended the project. The goals of the current project include conserving those pieces in need of attention, digitizing the documents that were not included in the first round, capturing “what’s on the back” in the digitization process, organizing the records so that they clearly define what is in each folder, and attaching finding aids to each item. Because the images captured in the first part of the project were high-quality, some items did not need to be rescanned. However, Bero and Schreiner found that starting over on any incomplete folder was the most efficient way to approach the material this time around (rather than having the person doing the imaging pick through each folder to select the items to be scanned). They felt that this would both save time and eliminate risk of human error. After considerable conservation work (both original and corrective – Bero laments the use of archival tape!) and digitization, over 600 pieces will be added to the Maass digital archive.

The other project discussed is significantly larger, and because of that, will not be digitized en masse. The Sylvester Manor Collection comes from a family of original settlers of Shelter Island, who amassed a tremendous amount of paper and ephemera chronicling the founding and history of the town. Bero and Schreiner immediately knew they would not be digitizing everything, and started by eliminating printed material, the majority of which had already been digitized under other auspices. Bero then reviewed the remaining material, and determined that about 25-30% will require conservation work before being digitized. Because the collection came to NYU folded, wrinkled, bundled, and generally dirty, cleaning, flattening, and mending will be essential in order to get clear images of the material. This work will commence in earnest in Spring 2017.

The most interesting snippet of this lecture, for me, came during the question and answer period at the end. A question came from someone working on a digitization project herself, who asked how Bero and Schreiner thought the technology they were using would stand the test of time. Digitization of archives is, of course, a relatively new phenomenon, but even in its brief history, the techniques used have evolved significantly. How do we know that the ways in which we are “saving” things now will last into the future? We don’t. In our reading for the “Memory, Archives, and Cultural Preservation” class, Michele Valerie Cloonan confirmed that “…we must confront the fact that the experience of using digital documents will be different with each new generation of use.” [1] But, interestingly, Schreiner did not seem overly concerned with this issue. Perhaps because, as she told us, this project will become a part of NYU’s institutional repository, and NYU is committed to bringing the files stored there into the future in whatever ways necessary.

Institutional repositories are “digital collections of the outputs created within a university or research institution.” [2] As Clifford Lynch notes in his article “Institutional Repositories: Essential Infrastructure for Scholarship in the Digital Age,” IRs came about in the early 2000s – around the same time as the original Maass project – in response to a need for access to and preservation of scholarly materials [3]. As he states:

“an institutional repository is a recognition that the intellectual life and scholarship of our universities will increasingly be represented, documented, and shared in digital form, and that a primary responsibility of our universities is to exercise stewardship over these riches: both to make them available and to preserve them.” [4]

Lynch hits on a key point here – not just that we are moving towards an age of digital preservation, but that the onus is on universities to lead the charge in collecting and preserving academic materials digitally. He further notes that “…a key part of the services that compromise an institutional repository is the management of technological changes, and the migration of digital content from one set of technologies to the next …” [5] As Maggie Schreiner pointed out, knowing that NYU is committed to bringing her work into the future as technologies change means that this is a burden she and her colleagues do not have to bear. Unfortunately, not every university is able to make this commitment; an institutional repository is an expense to develop and maintain. And while there are a number of Open Access repositories that are not affiliated with a particular institution, it seems that they tend to focus more on access than preservation. Perhaps there is a way, going forward, to work towards some kind of national repository, which could commit to both access and preservation in a widespread way.

“What’s on the Back?” was enlightening to me on many levels, and gave me an opportunity to think about what we save, the way we save it, who is responsible for saving it, and what that will mean for future generations.

[1] Cloonan, Michele Valerie. “W(H)ITHER Preservation?” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy. Vol. 71, No. 2 (Apr., 2001), pp. 231-242



[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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