ARL's Call for National Support for Large Scale Digitization Initiatives

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) issued a call for President Obama’s administration to support large-scale digitization initiatives. The brief call from the ARL Newsletter is online as is the full letter.

As an addendum to to ARL’s call for “a large-scale initiative to digitize public domain collections,” let’s also make sure these initiatives include all holdings that are in the public domain in however many selected US institutions, including the millions upon millions of pages published in other countries and collected by the US. The US has so many collections that would benefit the US and so many collections that, if shared openly, would benefit the world and international relations overall. Presenting and sharing these materials, especially in a way that makes sure they’re sustainable, will create new national resources and new sources for global collaboration.

My personal dream would be to see the public domain documents acquired through foreign cooperative acquisitions plans digitized as part of the larger US institution holdings where they can be found. In the Farmington Plan different US institutions collected materials by area or country so that the materials would be accessible in the US and preserved. The Farmington plan was formulated with the fear of data loss (paper data loss) from war and the first official Farmington meeting was in the 1940s in Farmington Connecticut. The Farmington Plan was official in 1948, but it’s official operations didn’t come with the necessary official funding so it only formalized work that had already been going on.

The cooperative collection plans formalized in the Farmington Plan date back far earlier. The reason I know any of this history is because the University of Florida, for instance, had been collecting Caribbean material for decades prior to the Farmington Plan (see this article) and continues to do so today. UF became the official institution responsible for the Caribbean in 1952 when a “modification of the subject basis for assignment was suggested when it was recommended that libraries accept total responsibility for publications issued by a given country or area not presently covered by the Plan. Thus, the Caribbean area was accepted by the University of Florida” (source). According to all of the documentation I’ve found (and this is still new research for me), the University of Florida had been collecting Caribbean materials and so UF was simply asked and added to the Farmington Plan for what it was already doing. Because of the existing relationships in the Caribbean, UF was able to acquire copies of documents–in print and in microfilm through “mobile microfilming units” (meaning barges with microfilm cameras that traveled the Caribbean and made microfilm copies of important documents and books)–and in at least one case, UF’s microfilm was the last copy in the world (hurricanes and tropical weather are a constant danger to archives now and were much more so before air conditioning). In the last copy instance, UF was able to digitize the materials through the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) and return the cultural materials to their rightful owners while also sharing the materials with the world. The last copy became one of many copies and became inaccessible to easily accessible.

The Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) is a wonderful and downright amazing project in terms of technology, history, and significance. It’s successful because it took the cooperative collection plan and made it work digitally. Yet there are so many other existing projects that are or could also build on parts of earlier cooperative collection plans. Funding is needed though and these materials are needed and are not otherwise accessible. The purpose of cooperative collection plans was to ensure that someone would have a copy in the US and to avoid purchasing multiple copies and possibly overspending on always underfunded budgets (and this is going back past the 1940s discussions and earlier). The majority of materials in research libraries are unique because libraries couldn’t afford to get extra copies. Digitizing full collections is wonderful, but we need to digitize everything in all of them or very nearly. The uniqueness means that each library collection only has a tiny portion of the whole. Google scanning entire university libraries is only beginning to hint at scratching the surface and we need so much more.

ARL’s call for a large-scale digitization initiative is so right because the need is so huge, the benefits so great, and the possibilities so enormous. As ARL states, the initiative “will lay a foundation for innovation and national competitiveness in the decades ahead.” To that I would add “and a spirit of international cooperation and collaboration” to ensure that past brilliance and innovation are included. While the Farmington Plan wasn’t funded as it needed to be, it’s hard to imagine how much funding would be needed to support essentially an Internet of data made of microfilm, so many copies, mailed to institutions for all to access. The costs remain high, but are much lower and the potential rewards so much greater.


  1. Amen. I just posted a piece on my own blog calling for a New Federal Writer’s Project that would include large-scale digitization. Let’s not waste this crisis!

  2. Heartily agreed!
    For the Federal Writers Project, not all of the materials have made it online yet and many of those that are online are hard to find or lack context. Let’s get them all up and usable and then let’s build on that history! Public institutions (education, museums, libraries) are chronically underfunded and have been for decades, so let’s work to build them again and to have funding for jobs where people learn skills and where people can be passionate about their work and be part of something bigger.
    It all ties together, even the issues of urban decline and suburban sprawl. When people feel disconnected from where they are (home and community) and from what they do (jobs, community), they become less involved.If we build jobs that matter to people and that reconnect them to their communities, then they become involved and the communities benefit in general from their work and from their involvement. Today is a day of service and I’m happy to be at work making sure more materials go online for everyone’s access and benefit–including my own by being part of the process–and that’s not something I’d be able to say if I worked in many other fields. Let’s build our communities through projects that make people part of those communities again and that allow them to contribute. Times of crisis are times to bond together and rebuild stronger and smarter, so let’s do it and let’s make sure it helps people now while building toward the bigger, better future for all. It’s thrilling to know that I have hope that can be realized. I’m willing to do the necessary work and so many others are as well and we have an administration that’s open to doing things the smart way, to invest now for a better future!
    Also, congrats on your 2008 Cliopatra Award for the Best Individual History Blog!

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