I have been involved in a number of digitisation initiatives since the late 1980s all dealing with special collections. In each case, preservation was a key objective. Appropriately then, we would identify the highest quality standards feasible at the time and adhere to them, assuming that we were only going to get one chance to digitise, so we’d better get it right.
Since then, I have come to think that digitising special collections for preservation no longer makes sense.
The careful, high-quality capture projects that I and others worked on over the last twenty years resulted in some delightful digital collections. But collectively, our efforts were not making an impact. Innovative at the time, our gorgeous, expensive, hand-crafted websites attracted very few users. Times are changing and we need to keep up.
Google has completely changed the way we think about digitisation of books. We considered books the hardest part of library digitisation (with their sequence and hierarchy, hundreds of images, illustrations, and text conversion) — we did not imagine we would ever digitise all the books. But by focusing on quantity over quality, Google has made the seemingly impossible appear quite doable. And users are swarming. Google supplied — and changed demand.
Now, with millions of books flying off the shelves and ‘into the flow’, we need to change the way we think about digitisation of special collections. Soon students will only search online — what is not there, will not be considered.