Archives & Society
The impact of digitisation and its implications for the future direction of archives and special collections
Richard Ovenden (Bodleian Library, Oxford)
24 January 2012 

Until recently Richard Ovenden was keeper of special collections at the Bodleian and it is with that hat on, that he talks about the rise and impact of digitisation at Oxford.  Ovenden believes that the Bodleian might well have been the first (or at least one of the first) libraries to own a website which has helped to put them into a position at the forefront of digitisation.  Admittedly, a large portion of that success also relates to the fact that the Bodleian has a large and unique collection upon which companies, including Google, wish to digitalise.  Digitalisation attempts began at the Bodleian in the 1990s with what at the time seemed liked large digital project, but which now look relatively small.  Expectations have changed and this brings with it changes in scholarly trends and some major implications for special collections and archives.  It is these subjects that Ovenden talks about in this session of the Archives and Society seminar.

Working with Google the Bodleian collections, alongside an initial 4 other libraries have had large portions of their collections digitalised and made freely available online.  These have all been books that are in the public domain and out of copyright.  It would seem that after the initial approach by Google that caused outrage from authors, their lawyers proved more cautious in identifying out of copyright material, than Bodleian’s own librarians.  Other projects have involved Proquest amongst others, plus of course EEBO and ECHO, from which the Bodleian has a large representation.  They are now also part of the EEBO Text Partnership project that is trying to semantically mark-up these early published texts using accurate encoding techniques.  Another in-house project for the Bodleian is to try and draw together various digitalisation projects that they have undertaken in the past and now look quite tired, under one updated interface.

When Ovenden moves on to look at changes in scholarly trends he looks at expectation, and of how digital copies of journals are now always expected, and monographs, other books and even original MSS are not that far behind.  Nevertheless, the Bodleian’s physical collection is still well utilised.  The library floors are still busy.  Digital has not yet taken away from the physical.

Ovenden also discusses born-digital archiving and the changes in technical knowledge and expertise that is required to be successful in this regard.  There is also a warning here over the use of commercial social media and cloud computing services – the licences may well one day lead to issues over the ownership of data.  This is certainly something that we should be careful about.

To conclude Ovenden notes the following about what digital archiving needs to consider:

  • How do you add value to the research process?
  • What purpose is there for digitalising?
  • Should scholars be involved at an early stage (i.e. should archives be approaching successful academics for their digital and traditional archives before they have finished using them)?
  • Issues of costs and funding
  • Marketing – justifying existence of archives


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