About once a week I’m asked if everything we have at the Archives is available online. In the digital age, this is a fair question. There are many positive outcomes when digitizing certain archival records including increased user access, keyword searching, as well as the potential preservation advantages. There is no doubt that digitization does, and will, continue to play an important role in the archival community. However, digitization is not as simple as scanning every document and publishing it online. Careful thought with regards to resource allocation, security, and record management needs to be considered before an archivist or institution makes the decision to digitize.Digitizing is extremely expensive. According to the United States National Historical Publications and Records Commission, “a total cost of $1 – $3 [$1.33 – $4 CAD] per scan is reasonable for homogenous textual collections in good condition.” Considering that an average bankers box contains approximately 2500 sheets of paper, the average cost per bankers box is roughly $3,325 to $10,000 CAD. What’s more, as a community archives many of the records donated to the Chilliwack Museum and Archives come in various sizes, media types, and conditions. As a result, the total cost to scan one bankers box of records is significantly higher.
In addition to the financial costs, scanning can be very time intensive. While digitizing the Hubert H. Humphrey Papers the Minnesota Historical Society found that the average time spent per sheet of paper equaled 1.38 minutes. Furthermore, the process of digitizing includes more than scanning. In general, scanning is only about one-third of the time spent digitizing a record. By comparison, Yale University estimates that processing one bankers box—or roughly 2500 pages of paper using standard traditional methods—takes from 1.1 days for government records to 3.5 days for personal papers. By prioritizing digitization, limited staff and volunteer time is taken away from other areas of the institution’s need.One of the advantages of digital records is that it allows users greater ability to access and share information. Therefore, greater security measures and precautions are needed to guarantee the authenticity of a digital record. Before scanning, the material needs to be vetted to ensure the absence of personal or sensitive information. When capturing and migrating records to new digital formats, the archivist needs to be aware of the potential loss of content, context, and arrangement. Digital preservation requires expensive servers and records need to be periodically checked to ensure that the files have not been corrupted. Finally, the Archivist needs to ensure the future ability to read and access an electronic record as software programs and storage formats are updated and replaced.
In short, everything we have at the Archives is not available online. However, that is not to say that digitization should not be attempted or considered. Despite the many challenges to digitizing records, the benefits often outweigh the costs. At the Chilliwack Museum and Archives there are approximately 12,423 photographic images available from our website, 471 other archival records digitized to some degree, and the entire Chilliwack Progress Newspaper digitized and keyword searchable from 1891 to 2007.