Against Cultural Heritage Wastelands

This is a version of remarks I prepared for The Future of Early Modern Marginalia roundtable at the 2023 Renaissance Society of America conference.

I want to use my 10 minutes today to discuss digital collections, an activity that is rapidly growing in academic libraries. Over the course of the pandemic especially, many of you will have encountered digital collections from major libraries — these include the Folger’s LUNA database, the Clark Library’s digital holdings, the Digital Bodleian – but also from sources like HathiTrust in the US or vendor-provided databases like Adam Matthews, ProQuest, and Gale. These were lifelines in a scary time, providing access to tons of content we couldn’t otherwise access from our desks at home. The Collections as Data movement has been a major player in encouraging the rise of such collections with duplicitous uses beyond the reading room; university libraries in particular have undergone major digitization projects with hopes of serving a variety of needs in response to their initial funding cycles.

For university-driven digital collections, we are especially eager to provide access to materials that will reach key stakeholders, such as student researchers. Moreover, locally-focused collections are more able to serve local needs, again putting us back into the realm of accessibility: not everyone can get to the library or want to be in the rare books room, but we can serve this content up on the web and more people can use it. Or, you don’t have to go miles away to see one or two items. One of libraries’ major interests is to provide researchers access to materials, so this presents a good outcome However, this is also especially desirable for folks at teaching-focused institutions, including small liberal arts colleges and regional-serving institutions (such as post-92s in the UK system), that might not have the resources available at their campus to really support a robust Special Collections experience for their students. Someone in Australia can go to Digital Bodleian and encounter important aspects of print history without stepping on a plane.

Digitization creates facsimiles of our holdings; this is also a process of preservation, ultimately. So, on the one hand, we want to prioritize materials that will get a lot of use, maximizing their access; on the other hand, performing high-quality digital preservation is expensive and computationally-heavy. This means we have to be strategic about gets digitized, how, when, and why. These digital collections need champions or else these collections slip into a condition I would like to describe as “cultural heritage wasteland” – a circumstance where we have digitized tons of things that nobody wants to use, or is otherwise unable to use. Or that the vendors will be able to hoover up huge collections of materials and sell them back to us at tremendous markup.

There is, however, a world of fragility inherent here: the internet turns over (at minimum) every 5-7 years. Huge swaths of internet history is gone, and we haven’t come up with a meaningful sustainable strategy for that beyond the WayBack Machine, which requires a lot of human intervention and incredible volumes of server space.[1] NISO and the National Digital Stewardship Alliance have discussed best practices in a variety of formats but nothing will ever match the sustaining power of “book time”, where  the book is published, it sits there, and it persists.

Investment in longer-term digital preservation becomes a question of vulnerability: we want to maximize our uses of our collections as per the Santa Barbara statement and the many use case scenarios Collections as Data has produced, but also we are at a loss if all these collections turn over to never be used again. In conclusion, then, libraries need champions who can provide value – people who will create stories and afterlives of projects to prevent them from falling prey to cultural heritage wasteland, never to be seen again.

[1] There isn’t a good answer here, as Ben Goldman helpfully summarizes: “ideally, sustainability would promote a balance between environmental protection, economic development, and social equity. Solutions that disproportionately benefit one community at the expense of another would not be considered sustainable” (p. 275)


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