Valuing Our Scans: Assessing the Value and Impact of Digitizing Ethnographic Collections for Access


Ricardo Punzalan, University of Maryland College of Information Studies, USA , Brian Butler, University of Maryland, iSchool, USA

Over the years, the heritage field has made great strides at making ethnographic and anthropological collections available in their digitized formats. Through digitization, institutions are finding creative ways to make these materials more discoverable and accessible. Access to ethnographic collections is increasingly mediated through digital avenues. Yet, despite these advances in digitization, no clear criteria have been proposed for assessing the impact and use of online digitized collections. Moreover, there is scant understanding of the initial selection criteria used by heritage professionals and administrators for digitizing particular collections. What are the goals of digitizing ethnographic collections? How are these goals set? And how are these goals assessed?

This paper highlights the approaches and perspectives employed in a collaborative project between the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Maryland College of Information Studies. Our project aims to identify important considerations in assessing the value and impact of digitization of ethnographic collections. This paper presents preparatory work for this project and is organized in three parts. The first describes the profound changes happening within the LAM sector. In particular, we look at the effects brought about by the expanding role of digitization and online access as fundamental institutional functions of heritage repositories. The second provides an overview of the current literature on impact and assessment that address the issue of valuing digitized collections. Third, we outline our ongoing collaborative research project that examines cases of ethnographic digitization projects in seven cultural heritage institutions. Finally, conclude by offering “five considerations” that we propose to frame efforts for assessing the impact of value of digitized ethnographic collections.

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