Reaction from reading Gerencser’s article for my Digital Media class conjoined with opinions developed from my Reference and Online Services class.
Customer service in libraries and archives for a Web 2.0 audience is vastly different from how librarians see themselves. Librarians see themselves as information interpreters beyond technical service catalogers. It is also different from how the public may see them as well. That impression would be “shushers,” and people who used to be applicable and are unfriendly bastions of the old guard, unfortunately less knowledgeable about the resources and needs of the student or faculty member than preferred.
The stereotypes of Marian the Librarian sans Dr. Harold Hill are alive and well. If repositories were always open when a user needed it, archivists would never sleep. However, pure customer service is about the needs of the patron beyond the needs of the archivist. I do not know of any archivist who goes into the field thinking that they will be staying up until 3AM to help a patron, but I have never asked about this question and will do so. Digitizing collections allows the patron to be up until 3AM and allows the archivist a family life and sleep. It is best customer service practice to help their patrons by increasing accessibility to collections and hence, digitizing.
Paper lasts a long time. Pardon the vagueness of that statement. Paper content varies from papyrus to rice paper to parchment and sheepskin through acidic based cheap 20 lb. weight copy paper to acid free preservation quality and vellum with other possibilities. With few exceptions, paper lasts longer than digital content pertaining to the evolution of the hardware involved. It seems a contradiction in terms, then, to want to digitize items to “save them from extinction.” Digital content lasts maybe five years if a person is lucky.
The idea is that customer service in archives for the 21st century is about increasing access in whatever way allows the archives to be useful, fresh, and brings collections to the people- the balance between preservation and open shelving. I am not an expert on Mendel’s genetic theories, but I heard that he sent copies of his work to other scholars. He did not wait for celebrity status or for publication. Instead, he spread his work out beyond his monastery. Succeeding abbot burned his work, and if there was only one copy, no one would know that he was the first to write about how two peas in a pod literally can change the world.
Although digitization does not necessarily achieve true preservation, spreading the ideas or documentary notes and giving people the ability to know more and to use what is available is the best way to allow for material access without destruction. Highlighting such access is the marketing trend. Making documents keyword OCR and metadata searchable is crucial, and allowing for the material to have annotative qualities at the same time. Having a simple, friendly, stream-lined user interface where patrons or users find their content without extreme issues in searching is most important.
If a library, archive, or similar repository (or historical society) does not have a web presence with some sort of interesting local content or a good database with family surname index searches available, then their existence is in jeopardy. The point of a historical society is not preserving old ephemera, but interpretation of such collections or documents by the populace.
I will admit that not everyone is interested in history or wants to think. There are famous quotes about those who are not interested in history being doomed to repeat it, but what if the history is good? Scandal is the thing that usually interests people, but having a good name is equally as important. In the end, it what is learned from the life experiences of the person or people in question that matter. Material culture helps people remember and assists with making events more real than simple stories.
When your collection does not matter to people, you may as well not have it. How does it matter, or better yet, how can interpreters and directors make it matter when no one knows about it? Advertise. Social media is the simplest and cheapest way of getting word out and it directly hits the hardest demographic to reach for historians: the 18-35 demographic.
Collections should contribute to stories. There needs to be back up documentation, but the stories and their reality is what makes the object important in the first place. Contextual learning and handling is also important. History is old and dreary unless it contains elements of connective realism staring people in the face.