The Digitization of Primary Sources

Digitization of a Dunhuang manuscript in the IDP UK studio (CC Image by the International Dunhuang Project)
Digitization of a Dunhuang manuscript in the IDP UK studio (CC Image by the International Dunhuang Project)

The humanities have been particularly affected in a positive way by the digital revolution. Unique and previously unpublished primary archival manuscripts, letters, autobiographies, and other source materials are being digitized at an accelerating rate, increasing access and allowing students as well as scholars a unique opportunity to make original contributions. With online and often open access to newly digitized materials, people have the chance to look directly at primary materials rather than relying on secondary sources, and make novel observations and analyses, contributing to the scholarly discourse.  At the Lander College for Women, for example, students have taken advantage of a variety of Jewish archival repositories and autobiographical resources for course papers and projects. During library visits, students learn how to properly cite archival documents by noting box, folder, or manuscript numbers, date of access, and URL. They learn how to locate, navigate, and cite diverse sources such as letters, memoirs, diaries, and more. Primary sources are valuable beyond the humanities however. Students in the sciences are encouraged to cite lab manuals and “gray literature,” or unpublished scientific reports and data. Students in business and accounting are encouraged to use deeds, sales receipts, and stock market statistics. Students in the arts look at photos from Google images, music and sound clips, works of art, blog posts, tweets, other social media records.

Preservation and recording of magnetic tapes at Fonoteca Nacional in Mexico (CC image by ProtoplasmaKid)
Preservation and recording of magnetic tapes at Fonoteca Nacional in Mexico (CC image by ProtoplasmaKid)

Digitization of primary sources opens up new avenues for research and building knowledge. Secondary sources are helpful and necessary, but as Nietzsche once noted, “there are no facts, only interpretation.” Going straight to the original source allows students and scholars to shape their own interpretations, unmediated by a third party. Before digitization, consultation with unpublished archival sources was often only possible for post-doc students who received a grant to camp out near a manuscript archive. They were required to handle the documents carefully with gloves and could not use pens in order to prevent damaging these rare items. Nowadays one does not need to be affiliated with an Institution of higher learning to have access to many of these texts. For example portions of the Cairo GenizaDead Sea Scrolls and many other valuable documents are freely available online, leveling the playing field economically, socially, and culturally, bringing the historical record to those outside of elite Universities. Contributed by: David Levy, Librarian, Lander College for Women

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