As a Classicist, I completed my B.A. and M.Phil with the luxury of having any primary text that I ever needed to consult published online somewhere. Often these texts were displayed with tools which made them easier to translate like words that linked directly to dictionary entries, tools to parse words, and links to notes and grammar pages which explained a particular construction. I only began to appreciate all the accessibility and ease of use of these tools when I started to become interested in early modern history.
My partner is an historian of the early modern period, and like many of his colleagues he has struggled with a variety of practical problems to find the sources he needs for his research, such as the difficulty of gaining access to certain archives, the expense involved in travelling somewhere for an extended to conduct research, and the poor state of preservation of much historical material owing to a lack of adequate funding or expertise. Digitisation has been making a huge difference in many parts of the world, by making material more accessible, reducing the need for research trips, and preserving a copy of a document in digital form if anything were to happen to the original. But digitisation is also fraught with its own problems.
Often, digitisation doesn’t make historical material much more accessible to many researchers or the interested public. For example, in the UK, there was recently much media fanfare around the fact that a new database has been put online allowing anyone to consult millions of wills granted probate in England and Wales since 1858 — as long as they could pay a fee. Other websites offer databases of census records and other information to genealogists — for a fee. And in the academic world, great efforts to digitise early printed books and manuscripts, such as EEBO, much of the the Hathi Trust Digital Library, and others are ringed by paywalls that a well-off university can easily pay, but which exclude poorer institutions and the general public, widening the gap in resources available to students and putting people at a disadvantage on grounds of wealth.
There are, of course, many exceptions, and wonderful work is carried out every day to make documents freely accessible, such as by the Polonsky foundation in Oxford, the British National Archives, and the British Library (who also run the amazing Endangered Archives Programme, to help others to do the same). In Spain, the Portal de Archivos Españoles has made available vast numbers of documents held in state archives, and even in Colombia the Archivo General de la Nación has been publishing scans of microfilmed material on its ArchiDoc Web platform. These tend to be efforts by wealthy institutions or national governments, and beyond the possibilities of smaller and poorer institutions, especially in the developing world.
The main reason is the cost. Digitising historical manuscripts and early printed books is expensive, and is often our of the reach of many archives and institutions. Commercial book scanners cost tens of thousands of dollars to buy, they have to be operated by trained operators, the material has to be read and described by experts, the images stored on large servers with a dedicated technical team, and sophisticated platforms have to be purchased or developed to publish them. The costs do just keep adding up, and it is entirely understandable that there are huge price tags on this sort of work: it costs a lot of money. Someone has to pay for it, and it is usually either the archive or whoever is interested in accessing the material. This is a big factor in why only more high profile and well-funded collections are able to have their collections digitised. This is something we want to change.
Digitising historical archives in Colombia systematically and in a large scale is a dream that my partner has long held, and one that I picked up with great enthusiasm. We have been thinking that there must be a better way of doing this for a long time, a way that would actually make this material more accessible, and not just to academics but to everyone. The first suggestion came from a website started by Daniel Reetz called DIY Book Scanner, a wonderful community of hackers, designers, and enthusiasts who have developed low-cost scanners to digitise books. We soon started thinking about modifying these these machines to scan archival material.
The next prompt came when staying with a friend who was working with an archive that had been developing a system to display and manage digitised early-modern manuscripts, which remains the most advanced of its kind. ‘You should come up with a project to use the platform in Colombia’, he said, and the idea of digitising Colombian archives started to become more concrete.
A few months later, in Tunja, we had the final prompt we needed. We were at the Archivo Regional de Boyacá conducting research, and at the end of our stay the director and her close associates spoke to us about digitisation, and asked whether we knew of anyone who might be able to help them digitise their archive. Without a moment’s hesitation, we said that we could do it. With our closest friends and colleagues, and with a growing number of volunteers and supporters, we have been working hard to achieve it ever since. Over the next few weeks I would like to tell you about our progress so far.
The Colombian Archives Initiative
This post is also available in: Spanish