What’s the value of specialist historical archives – and why should we digitize them?

Image representing a digital archive

Back in December I had the pleasure of meeting up with Discover Roxbury (http://www.discoverroxbury.org )at an event at the historic Dillaway-Thomas House (http://roxbury.wikia.com/wiki/Dillaway_Thomas_House/Roxbury_Heritage_State_Park ) in the heart of Roxbury’s Historical District.

My sister had told me the month beofre that Discover Roxbury had an interesting archive. Naturally, I was quite interested in looking at it. And I’m pleased to say it looks like that will happen at the end of this month.

During the course of my chat, I explained that archives like this were important and should be digitized for a number of reasons. Top of my list, which should come as no surprise, documents with names have an incredible value to family historian and genealogical communities. These old snippets provide a glimpse into our ancestors and distant relations. These documents take us past ‘dry’ data like census returns, birth certificates, death certificates and marriage certificates. They provide glimpses into their lives. Old documents beyond the usual give us invaluable snatches, little glimpses, into the lives of those who came before us. This is the true value of such archives, both large and small. The truth of the matter is an archive like this is entirely unique, a complete ‘one off’. It will have information that can literally be found nowhere else. That has a powerful value in and of itself. In marketing terms, its very uniqueness is its unique selling point. 

As a collection, archives like these will have value to historians at the local level – and possibly national and international levels. And they will certainly have value to educators who are always hungry in the search for addition information and documents that further their understanding of the past.

Image showing audiences for digital archives

There is also the real possibility for creating a revenue stream through commercial and educational licensing options…but more on this in the next post.

As I increase my consultancy work in this particular are, turning archives and collections into digital resources, I am increasing thankful for my ‘out of the box’ thinking. And my enthusiasm and passion for family history and genealogy. Too many organizations under-value the importance of their collections or don’t see how their specialist collections could be of interest to a much wider audience. Names will always have a value- more so now than ever before. Information about communities will also always have a value.

For instance, a significant number of my Sheffey and Roane kin were missionaries and others were men of the cloth. I’d love to read their sermons and see their parish records. Such documents would provide an invaluable insight into how they viewed the world, their concerns, their passions, their interests and the day-to-day life of the communities they lived in. Much of this information probably still exists….somewhere. What a great legacy it would be, and tribute, to make these documents publicly available. These too have a value.

Most public services – orphanages, schools, fire stations, heritage organizations, historic homes, ethnic organizations and more – all have their own specialist archives that feature information for family historians, genealogists, historians and educators.

What an incredible thing it would be to see these precious archives digitized and available…and adding an additional source of income for them too to make the cost of digitizing them sustainable.

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