To scan or not to scan. That is some question.

Information wants to be free.” – Stewart Brand (1984)

Why not just scan everything in the archive? Look what Google did for more than 40 million books forlornly sitting on library shelves throughout the world, unloved, unknown and worst of all, unread. Google started scanning them.

After enlisting the cooperation of librarians and trundling some high-octane scanning tools into the stacks, Google made all those otherwise orphaned books accessible. They OCR’d everything from rare titles to historical materials to … well, whatever it is that is represented by those 40 million books. Once scanned, the contents of these works can now be surfaced almost effortlessly at the end of a specialized Google search. It is a brand of magic that would make Merlin throw out his wand and pointy hat and quit sorcery to enroll in a computer science class.

Someone’s got to man the scan.

The benefits of scanning text collections, as we know now from G-Books, are very clear. What’s stopping archivists? Why don’t archivists roll in the scanners, digitize the fonds, upload the results to their Web site and Presto! Change-o! Instant full-text search, easier finding without all that record profiling and best of all, protection of rare, fragile or popular materials from the abuses of mishandling.

Would that it were that easy.

Start with the very simple fact that no archive in the world has a fraction of the money that Google does. Scanning costs money. It’s laborious. It’s expensive to do on a large scale; even such archival behemoths as the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress haven’t burrowed very deeply into their own collections and those guys are working with jillionaire budgets.

When it comes to the “scan/no scan” question, see what the archivists at the Peel Archives and Museum (serving the region of Peel in and around Brompton, Ontario) have to say on the subject in this interesting post. It is not a simple issue.

In the same vein, this video covers much of the same turf. It comes courtesy of the Australian Mutuals History. In short, scan where you can or scan where you must, but understand that finding aids and archivists are still the best way for archives to help their patrons get their (gloved and protected) hands on an archival record.

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