Digital Preservation and the Future of Scholarship

Projects like Google Scholar and Google Books have gotten a lot of attention for their efforts to bring the world's cultural and academic knowledge to the Web. But Google isn't the only group seeking to digitize information. Libraries and not-for-profit organizations like the United Kingdom's JISC are undertaking massive projects to update their document collections for the digital age.

digital library

The Public-ization of Information

In his recent book The Googlization of Everything, Dr. Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia expresses concern that the Google mindset is dumbing down academic scholarship. He fears that people are learning bad habits when it comes to seeking and verifying information that could have serious consequences for our acquisition of knowledge as a species.

One solution that Dr. Vaidhyanathan proposes is a public response to the privatization of knowledge - a large scale effort by public institutions to create an online information database that could rival that of Google. He calls it 'The Human Knowledge Project.'

No such centralized effort exists (yet). But public and not-for-profit organizations around the globe have quietly started to digitize their document collections in an effort to better preserve them. In turn, these digitized databases could offer unprecedented access to the documents and the information they contain to students and scholars anywhere in the world.

digitized books

A Digital Library

One such effort is the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) from the U.S. Library of Congress. Like the main Library, the Digital Preservation Program's fundamental mission is to 'collect, preserve and make available' important documents and content. But this project is designed to modernize that effort by focusing primarily on preserving digital content, and secondarily on digitizing existing 'regular' content.

Users can already access documents, images, video and other materials collected by both the Library and its 130+ nationwide partners on the NDIIPP website. These collections are incredibly important for the preservation of 'at risk' information and cultural records for future generations. But they're also opening up a whole new world of research opportunities, available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.

digital information

e-Collections

The United Kingdom is also working hard to increase access to information through digital collections. The JISC (formerly the Joint Information Systems Committee) is, essentially, a not-for-profit advisory committee that supports higher education and research in the U.K. Among its 43 programs and over 200 projects is the Digitization and e-Content initiative, which is dedicated to 'bringing collections out of the dark.'

Because the JISC is structured around the higher education system in the U.K., it's designed primarily to help universities digitally preserve physical collections and make them available electronically. However, the program also has its eye on the private sector. The JISC hopes to develop effective business models for digitizing content that can be used both to stimulate the economy through commercial efforts and promote the public good. The organization points out that digitization serves the public in two major ways: Increased access to information and reduced environmental impact.

And there's another part of this project that may help alleviate Dr. Vaidhyanathan's Google problem: Crowdsourcing. The JISC aims to make digitization efforts worldwide more effective by harnessing social inclusion and Web 2.0 tools while still preserving information quality. If successful, the JISC may be able to offer a model that teaches people strong research and information-gathering skills without ever having to walk into a classroom.

The Library of Congress and the JISC aren't the only groups working to increase access to their collections. Hebrew University recently launched an initiative to digitize the Albert Einstein Archive.

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