The University of Arizona

UA Team Has Ideas to Improve Museum, Library Information Digitization

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications | October 16, 2012
Digital library and archival collections are becoming increasingly popular given the Internet's emergence. Yet uniform standards for how to launch and manage such digitial collections, especially those that are small-scale, are hard to come by. A UA School of Information Resources and Library Science team has some ideas for information professionals.
Digital library and archival collections are becoming increasingly popular given the Internet's emergence. Yet uniform standards for how to launch and manage such digitial collections, especially those that are small-scale, are hard to come by. A UA School of Information Resources and Library Science team has some ideas for information professionals.

UA School of Information Resources and Library Science researchers who have been studying best practices for small-scale digital projects presented their work at a UNESCO conference held at the end of September. The researchers will present their work again Oct. 31 the UA.

Peter Botticelli, an assistant professor of practice at the UA's School of Information Resources and Library Science, teaches courses on digital curation, scholarly communication and digital preservation, and has published research in history and archival studies. (Photo credit: Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)
Peter Botticelli, an assistant professor of practice at the UA's School of Information Resources and Library Science, teaches courses on digital curation, scholarly communication and digital preservation, and has published research in history and archival studies. (Photo credit: Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)

The worldwide expansion in the number of small-scale digital projects like Arizona State Museum's collection of Tohono O'odham woven materials and heritage photographs signal an emerging trend in heritage preservation efforts. 

Over the last 10 years, museums, galleries, libraries and other institutions have initiated such digitization initiatives. Often, such efforts are designed to expand Web-based access to cultural heritage information, according to a University of Arizona team studying such projects. 

"We're doing the best we can with limited resources at a time when there is great demand for access. It's really a balancing act for institutions," said Peter Botticelli, an assistant professor of practice at the UA's School of Information Resources and Library Science, or SIRLS

Botticelli has been working with other UA researchers, Patricia Montiel-Overall and Ann Clark, to investigate the various challenges institutions face when implementing these small-scale projects. Clark earned her master's degree from SIRLS earlier this year and was involved in the research a graduate assistant, investigating cultural and heritage collections in digital formats throughout Arizona.

The team members, whose work was funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, presented "Building Sustainable Digital Cultural Heritage Collections: Towards Best Practices for Small-scale Digital Projects" during a UNESCO's Memory of the World conference held at the end of September in Vancouver.

Botticelli and Montiel-Overall will present their work again, this time at the UA. The Oct. 31 lecture will be held noon to 1 p.m. in the SIRLS multi-purpose room, 1515 E. First St. The event is free and open to the public.

"There isn't really a clear set of guidelines, so we have to work them out as we go in a world in which digital information is exploding and all of these tools are exploding," Botticelli said, who directs the UA's Digital Information Management, or DigIn, and Archival Studies certificate programs. "We're kind of overwhelmed."

The team members presented their research and suggestions toward developing best practices to help ensure that such small-scale digital collections are produced in ways that are designed to be sustainable. 

One suggestion relates to information provided in digital collections.

"Professionals in the field understand the need to present at least a minimal amount of contextual metadata describing items in digital collections, including the source, photographer, artist, location or other identifying information. However, in the rush to digitize, and with very limited institutional resources, repositories often are forced to include less contextual information than would be ideal for users." 

Not only does providing an adequate amount of information in digital collections pose a challenge for researchers, but this challenge leads to questions about access and what social responsibility professionals hold.

"The more context we can provide, the more we might enable users to make sense of these things and to engage more fully," Botticelli added.

That gets to yet another major factor the team is trying to advance, which is that materials be preserved in ways that are culturally sensitive – an area of emphasis for Montiel-Overall, who has done pivotal work applying cultural competence to the work of librarians. 

"Cultural competence is a well-established concept in human services, such as nursing and social work. In these fields, cultures are most commonly understood as patterns of behavior, or as routine social activities that can be observed in a local institution or community setting," according to the report co-authored by Montiel-Overall, an associate professor at SIRLS, drafted with the team.

Montiel-Overall has emphasized the information professionals must have cultural competence, and that while the demand has become more visible, it has always existed.

Also, the team noted that it is important that professionals engage in competency building and self-education; also professionals must also build cultural appreciation and develop an "ethic of caring," which the team noted requires that individual build mutual respect with different social and cultural groups.

In fact, the UA's interdisciplinary DigIn graduate program provides students with intensive, hands-on education and training around ways to manage digital collections. Focusing on the preservation of digital collections, students learn about much of what the team presented in Vancouver, especially around the importance of ensuring that collections are well-preserved and authentic.

"By pursuing cultural competence through professional development programs, the goal is to help professionals interact more effectively with people of different backgrounds, partly by acquiring greater knowledge of the cultures they’re serving, but also by giving professionals a deeper understanding of their own cultural background, especially as reflected in the decisions and activities distinct to professions," the team noted in the report.

The team studied the Arizona State Museum, where staff members have been digitizing images of photographs, woven materials and other pieces as part of the Arizona Memory Project, a Web-based repository maintained by the Arizona State Library's Archives and Public Records.

Botticelli provided other strong examples elsewhere, including the Mukurtu Archive out of Washington State University.

Botticelli emphasized the importance in advancing best practices in the field. Some exists for specific areas, such as the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, which stemmed from an initiative in Arizona that launched in the last decade.

The challenge in figuring out how to best produce and manage small-scale digital projects, he said, will only become ever-more difficult.

"For the archivist, there is the traditional view that what we do is to collect official records of what goes on," Botticelli said. "But there is a also a sense in the greater community that in the last 10-15 years that has become concerned with cultural and social memory outside of government records."

For example, a researcher need not travel to Germany to study issues about the country, and individuals now have tremendous access to genealogical information and records by merely have access to the Internet, Botticelli said. Also, potential records are being generated at any moment, thanks to the proliferation of social media sites and other Web-based exchanges.

"There is information being collected and created all over the place and in sort of an uncontrolled way. In a sense, we're all becoming archivists, but where there is no professional judgment or control over the formal process of collecting," Botticelli said.

"The literature on social memory addresses this issue: We make practical decisions about what we keep and what we throw away, and that in turn shapes what students and scholars have access to," he added. "In the past, we've tended to ignore the problem, but we are really now getting into these theoretical questions."