RootsTech 2018 Access and Preservation Day: Digital Asset Management

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Curt Witcher, manager of the Allen County Public Library (ACPL) Genealogy Center, spoke at the Access and Preservation Day at RootsTech 2018. His presentation was titled “An Uncommon Look at the D.A.M. Things (Digital Asset Management).” Curt said we are facing some really serious issues. He remarked, “I hope to generate some conversation, and maybe we can find some answers.”

With all the technology being developed and deployed in the genealogy space, and with all the information and big data being created through collaborative digitizing and discovery projects, Curt believes that in the not-too-distant future, through these digitized documents and online data, he will be able to talk with his paternal grandfather, who died before he was born. This cannot happen, though, if we lose the documents that evidence our history and heritage. We are losing an amazing number of documents—hundreds of cubic feet of documents every day.

The Allen County Public Library is a large library system in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a tier three city. They are committed to the community in every “21st century library service way.” The Genealogy Center houses one of the country’s premier family history collections, with more than 1.2 million physical items available for researchers to use, along with a large collection of online databases and tremendous staff expertise. The center has a commitment to story and a commitment to remain relevant.

The Genealogy Center shares their digital assets using a variety of systems. They use OCLC’s CONTENTdm to post some of their images. They have 3.5 million records and images online using their own system, built on MySQL. They have published more than 91,000 items on the Internet Archive. They have published 36,000 books on FamilySearch’s collection of books. Each of these systems have different things to offer, Curt said.

The Allen County Public Library has a number of digital collections that engage their community. The library’s Allen County Community Album has 113,000 digital entities. The Fort Wayne Area Artist collection showcases the talents of over 200 area artists. The Abraham Lincoln collection provides an awesome experience and contains thousands of photographs, books, and documents.

Curt observed that below the big genealogy websites, there are nearly innumerable unique entities that are too small for the big aggregators to bother with. ACPL accepts a lot of small collections, almost like a safety net under a high-wire act. Once scanned, “we try to catalog the heck out of these things, so they can be easily found,” he said.

Curt recommended we take a different look at the “D.A.M. thing.” Libraries and archives can be difficult to work with, he said. We are often stuck on perfection rather than progress. “I’m not opposed to standards,” he said, “but sometimes we won’t change the way we’ve always done things.” Curt said you can’t let perfection stand in the way of progress. As an example, they published 6,600 pages of World War II records, and people used them. Some would say the collection shouldn’t go up online until all documents were transcribed, “but that isn’t going to happen until the 12th of never,” Curt mused.

“I think we’ve reached a tipping point,” he said. “Documents aren’t waiting to be scanned. They are waiting to be thrown away.” In these documents are amazing pieces of information that will complete our family stories. The ACPL has people who “dump and ditch” records they don’t want. Obituary clipping scrapbooks are going away at hundreds a day. Family associations are going out of business, so now the ACPL is the repository for some family associations, he said.

Curt said we can’t let records perish while we are waiting for perfection. “As librarians and archivists, we are curating the stories of our lives.” He asked, “What are our grandchildren’s grandchildren going to have? We hold this in the palm of our hands. We need to get serious.”

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