Digital Windfall

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Minnesota Local History Blog.

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The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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Digital Windfall

By: grabitsdm | July 28, 2008
The transition from analog photography to digital has produced a windfall for local historical organizations. Many newspapers across Minnesota have donated their file photos to their local historical organization when switching to digital formats.

One result is that an invaluable source of historical data is now, potentially, available to the public in any number of research libraries. Alexander Ramsey, in his first address to the Territorial Legislature in 1849, called newspapers the "daybooks of history." Editors of local newspapers are often among the most mindful of historical significance in recording events as they happen, and now are looking at the long term preservation of their meticulously recorded photograph files.

However, these donations do not come without a number of issues. First, these files can be extensive. Time spent, most often by volunteers, is a cost as whoever is tasked with processing the collection could have spent time on any number of equally important projects. The temptation can be to just let the photographs sit, but the longer the collection goes unprocessed the longer it remains unaccessible to public. The volume of these files can also cost the organization in terms of storage materials it needs to house them properly. And, for those thinking of digitization, volume will play a role in the cost for that as well.

Second, in file photos there are often variations on images of the same event and only one of those photos actually made it into print. While it might be ideal to save them all, storage space at local history museums is often at a premium. Considerations sometimes have to be made for weeding out less useful iterations that the newspaper originally retained.

Third, hopefully when the newspaper paid for its photos, it also received copyright, which it then transferred to the historical organization. Without copyright, local historical organizations may become custodians for a collection it cannot really use. That too may weigh on the decision to catalog it, but then either an unusable collection or an uncataloged collection will only consume space without further the mission of the repository.

Last, while the contents of the photo may be described in the newspaper, often times only small clues are included on the physical photograph. This too is a barrier, though not insurmountable, to effective cataloging.

There are probably a number of other issues, but these four seem to be among the more common currently experienced by Minnesota's local historical organizations.

If your organization has large newspaper photo files, what is your experience? How have you addressed these issues?