A Call to Share Researchers’ Personal Digital Archives

Erstwhile contributing editor Graeme Pente reflects on a summer of research and how researchers are amassing personal digital archives with thousands of photographs in each one. He believes we have an obligation to share them.

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New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Photo by author.

Like many graduate students, I spent a good part of my summer rapidly snapping pictures of archival documents. I only had two or three days at each of my stops between Colorado and the East Coast. I photographed letters, meeting minutes, and financial records in Champaign, Syracuse, Boston, New York, and Freehold, New Jersey. As I transferred thousands of images from my camera to my computer, I thought of friends and colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder who had gone through the same process in the last few years. Then I considered how many researchers in thousands of other history programs across the country were having similar experiences. Each history researcher—and more in other departments besides—is amassing a personal digital archive for their projects. It was not always this way. In my understanding, greater funding and a lack of adequate technology meant that researchers used to have the opportunity to settle into an archive and really get to know it, taking research notes by hand. Now, pressed for time and armed with light but high-quality cameras, researchers cast a wider net and capture as much relevant information as possible—as quickly as possible. They sift through it later from the comfort of their own offices. This process is even more true for our colleagues who conduct their research overseas, as they might have only one chance to get all the material they will need for a whole dissertation. The practice is so widespread that the American Historical Association recently promoted a new application called Tropy for organizing images.

As I thought of the millions of images in private hands, my mind turned to the potential benefit of sharing those images with the libraries and archives that house the original hard copies. Many of these archives are minimally staffed, and their workers have enough to do fielding questions, retrieving documents for researchers, cataloguing collections, and developing exhibits. Often, digitization projects are only possible with the assistance of major grants that free up staff, allow archives to hire temporary workers, or create courses in which the students learn skills through their labor, such as my former institution’s Seward Family Digital Archive. In this case, the grant agencies decide which individual’s papers are worthy of widespread accessibility and thereby might reify a “Great Man” approach to history. By contrast, the tens of thousands of researchers with their own private photograph collections have varied and diffuse interests that cover records and subjects of diverse types. If they are already going to put in the time and energy to photograph records, organize and label photographs, and in some cases transcribe the records’ contents, then why should researchers refuse to contribute to our collective knowledge-seeking enterprise? In my view, a mass of aggregate labor is being lost in keeping its products solely for each individual. By sharing this processing work with libraries, we can ensure that those labors reach the greatest benefit for the greatest number. This work is even more pressing in cases where documents are under threat of being permanently damaged or lost, whether due to age or the conditions of their storage. Archives do not necessarily have the resources to identify and prioritize for digitization those records under severest threat. Through our joint labors, we might preserve a good deal of information otherwise lost.

Archives may not want all of the images I took: some are at odd angles, and I suspect that scanning documents is their preferred mode of digitization. But the decision to accept or reject images lies with the individual archive. Researchers need to make the first offer. The portions of a collection that researchers have photographed might serve as starting points for complete digitization. I took pictures of probably 60 to 90 percent of the documents in some of the collections I consulted. With that kind of head start, a library might prioritize those collections for further scanning. By creating digital back-ups in a sort of crowdsourcing project, we can lengthen the life of millions of documents for future generations of researchers.

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The Schwarzman building’s Rose Main Reading Room, NYPL. Photo by author.

One area of resistance may come from archives themselves. I am not entirely familiar with their funding structures, but I imagine they might run the risk of losing revenue from their research and copy fees if large portions of their collections are available online. The most pressing concern would be storing digital materials, as libraries would need the money and infrastructure for server space. I hope the impetus of preservation would be enough to convince archives of the necessity of finding the means—though I have few illusions about the ease of acquiring those funds. A related concern is whether organizations would use the noble impulse of data-sharing to leverage access to grants: would they make sharing personal digital archives a condition of receiving a grant, or even of using libraries’ materials? I admit to having few prescriptive ideas on how to prevent organizations from taking advantage of scholarly generosity. I can only say that a key principle of the democratizing effect of information-sharing must be its voluntarism.

I anticipate that most opposition to sharing our research in this way will stem from a perceived exclusive proprietary right to the fruits of one’s own labor. “Why should I provide a library with work if they aren’t going to pay me?” Given the vast amount of uncompensated labor that goes on in the academy and the way in which most universities take advantage of their workers’ passion for their subjects, especially in the Humanities, I take this objection seriously. My perspective is that the work is already done; it only takes one more step—sharing those files with the archive—to make it widely available to other researchers. We should all be the beneficiaries of the social brain and the social hand. If researchers are concerned about others using their documents, they could choose to release their photos only after publishing or completing their work. And there is a reciprocal effect: researchers who share their materials will surely benefit in turn from the generosity of others later. While scholarship often appears as a lone endeavor, the ongoing conversations and arguments involved in the disciplinary pursuit of truth mark it as a collective enterprise. Think how much more quickly our topics or subfields would advance if we socialized this element of our labor, rather than each scholar repeating certain steps. Someone studying a similar topic might save themselves some time at the archive to look at other documents or collections, or they might save themselves a trip entirely and use that time and money for a visit elsewhere. In some measure, this entire idea reflects a hopeful vision of the way the world should be, which can be dangerous to hold in a world that takes advantage of generous impulses. Another way to think about it is the way that mutual aid societies have operated in systems hostile to the socializing impulse. Under conditions of scarcity, pooling resources most often produces greater results than the sum of individual efforts.

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2 thoughts on “A Call to Share Researchers’ Personal Digital Archives

  1. Good post, Graeme. This is timely given the destruction of Brazil’s National Library. The sharing of researchers’ personal photo archives could restore some of the knowledge housed there. The importance of backing up files in multiple formats (e.g., perhaps printing paper copies of these photos in Brazil) is true as always.

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