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Chronicle of Higher Education Article: Access to Digital Repositories

An interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about access to digital repositories at small universities and colleges....

Struggling to Keep Up By Martha H. Patterson

For the past 10 years I have been working on and off on one project: an analysis of the imagery and the rhetoric of the “New Woman� -- a phrase often used to describe suffragists, progressive reformers, clubwomen, or bloomer-wearing bicyclists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A fair amount of the research I’ve done has been a painstaking process of examining hard copy or microfilm of ethnically and regionally diverse American newspapers, periodicals, and fiction from 1894 until 1930. I have paged through bound volumes of popular magazines, such as Life or McClure’s, until my eyes watered and my index finger ached. The most popular black newspaper of the period, the Chicago Defender, I scanned via microfilm, searching hour after hour for references to the New Woman in editorials about women’s suffrage or gender roles.

Only later, on a trip to the Schomburg Center in New York, did I discover that all of those periodicals have been digitized.

As I scrolled through the New York Public Library’s digital database riches, I tried not to groan audibly, feeling like someone who has dragged her luggage up five flights of stairs without noticing the elevator around the corner. The digital ProQuest collections -- including the American Periodicals Series Online, the Gerritsen Collection, and especially the expanding Historical Newspapers products -- would have made my task considerably easier had I known about them earlier, or had I had ready access to the libraries that could afford all of them.

As it was, I scurried about, trekking to major research libraries on family trips, appealing to my home institution for additional travel money, relying on the kindness of librarians around the country to perform digital searches for me, and doing without.

While the interlibrary loan service has leveled the scholarly playing field for many reseachers at smaller institutions, the digitization of primary sources presents new challenges. Currently there is no way for an individual to purchase access to databases owned by ProQuest, which accurately proclaims itself “the leading provider of microform and electronic information to school, academic, public, and government libraries.�

Resources such as NewspaperArchive.com, which individuals can purchase for $16.50 a month, help, but their search engines lack many important features that are available with the ProQuest Historical Newspapers products. And while a number of states and the Library of Congress have embarked on newspaper-digitization programs, they haven’t begun to rival ProQuest in their scope.

Many small and medium-size academic libraries can’t afford the databases, which, despite a sliding fee scale, still cost thousands of dollars. Most medium-size college or university libraries will carry the major secondary-source online index to a particular discipline, so that one can at least know that an article exists even if one doesn’t have immediate access to it via the expensive JSTOR, which offers full-text articles from a wide range of disciplines. But comprehensive citations from historic journalistic sources generally aren’t available unless a library purchases the full-text database.

The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, owned by most institutions, regardless of their size, doesn’t index many popular magazines—such as the National Police Gazette, a 19th-century tabloid—that are available digitally and in full text through the American Periodical Series Online.

To gain access to the information we need, scholars at small or medium-size institutions must grapple with the extra expense and time of travel to get to a major research library -- even those who are fortunate enough to live relatively close to one. Some academics have resorted to secretly using the accounts of friends at larger and better-supported institutions. Some spend needless hours plowing through microfilm that has been digitized. Many others simply restrict their studies to the information at hand.

As a friend reminded me, however, archives have always been a place to which one must travel. But digital archives, I countered, are different, in part because they could theoretically be made available to all scholars. The information held within is often unindexed primary-source material, the searching possibilities enable far more comprehensive research, and the potential time saved is so great.

Unlike a physical repository, the searching variations of a digital archive are so many that one visit is almost always inadequate. One key word search often opens up a chain of new search possibilities into unimaginably vast amounts of data. At the same time, obtaining biographical information about relatively obscure writers or tracking long-range cultural trends with key-word searches in multiple periodicals can now be done in a matter of hours, as opposed to weeks or even years.

As the digital revolution continues, reviewers of book manuscripts in the humanities will increasingly expect those tools to be used. Access to them will materially affect not only the scope of the final scholarly product and the time it takes to produce, but the expectations for the product, and its author, in the academic marketplace.

Scholars from tuition-driven institutions already contend with heavy teaching loads and little time for research. A lack of access to the best digital archives presents yet another hurdle.

Even midsize institutions enjoy only limited digital offerings. Campus database holdings tend to be region specific -- so if you want to search a historical database of The Atlanta Constitution, you have to visit a university library in the South.

No library that I know of owns all of ProQuest’s products. If you’re looking at a national cultural trend or the myriad responses to a specific event, you will have to travel to multiple libraries with little hope for the external grant support that traditional archives provide.

It’s not that I begrudge entirely my time spent examining the hard copy and microfilm of now-digitized collections. Digital searches often won’t pull up political cartoons, advertising, and comic strips that are important resources in cultural studies. And in key word searches, even with full-page view options, you often lose the context of newspaper or magazine articles.

Nonetheless, the digital divide between the ivory-tower haves and have-nots will be a defining one for our generation of scholars. It exacerbates inequalities already present and makes it that much harder for scholars hoping to enter the larger intellectual debate on an equal footing.

Martha H. Patterson is an associate professor of English at McKendree University.

Posted by kkowatch at November 5, 2007 09:49 AM


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