PA Digital is, at its core, a partnership, and we are fortunate to collaborate with many amazing individuals and institutions all over Pennsylvania. We would like to spotlight these partners in a new serial feature, Meet Our Contributors; in it, our partners will tell you about their amazing work and provide some insight and experience as contributors to PA Digital and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). We begin with Michael Foight, Special Collections and Digital Library Coordinator at Villanova University’s Falvey Library. Check out some of Villanova’s digital collections in the DPLA portal!
Anastasia Chiu, PA Digital Metadata Team (AC): Can you tell our readers a little about yourself and your role/association with Villanova’s digital collections?
Michael Foight, Villanova University (MF): Thank you Anastasia for the opportunity to talk with you about digitization and digital libraries. I coordinate the Special Collections and Digital Library team at Villanova University. While I’ve been a librarian at the University since 1995 and have served in a number of positions, I have managed the digital library since it went live in 2005. I’m very passionate about connecting researchers and the public with rare heritage materials. Print heritage collections have long been mediated by a class catering almost exclusively to patrons with privileged access – the full time student or faculty researcher. High quality digital surrogates can provide 24 hour a day access to rare materials to a global community thus opening up Special Collections to new users and new uses. Few can travel to distant locations to use physical materials, materials that at best may only be offered for use a few hours a day. But for most users and most uses, digital imaging provides a superior overall experience. Very high resolution close up views enable textual comparison with other items, and the extent of exposure to the material is limited only by the attention of the researcher.
Traditionally heritage professionals often limited or denied access to materials, claiming a prioritizing of preservation over access for the sake of the materials. In an environment of scarce access to rare materials, the economy of prestige grants research access to the elite and the connected, limiting access to everyone else – the non-traditional student or adjunct faculty member who cannot get to a Special Collections or Archives which is open only 3 hours during the business day – the international scholar – the working public with limited time for research. I deeply believe in the transformative nature of digitization, and the resultant curation and maintenance of this digital content. It is one of the essential duties of a heritage professional – and must be made a part of the regular operational routine of every archive, museum and special collection. Digitization – collaboration – the open and free access to content, open source collaboratively developed software – these are ideas that can transform the prestige economy from status being given to those who limit access to those who share the most. To my mind, this is just what DPLA is all about.
AC: Do you have any favorite collections or items that you’re particularly excited about contributing to PA Digital and the DPLA? (It’s ok, we all have favorites!)
MF: One of the more interesting things to examine is the usage that is being made of materials. As a way to document usage and provide transparency we maintain a Zotero database of citing references which shows a wide variety of usage – well beyond what might be predicted. As a recent example citing a number of materials digitized by a number of institutions, let me call attention to “Meet the Donald Trump of the 1840s” demonstrating the collaborative effect of digitization on the writing and design process – authors of even popular news can draw on a wealth of materials to illustrate and provide citations for a thesis.
Beyond the materials in Villanova University’s Special Collections, Villanova’s Digital Library acts as a digitization agent for a number of other heritage organizations through a “Digital Partnership” program, as well as providing digitization to individual “Digital Donors” and have been providing access to this kind of partner content for over 10 years. Of course I do have some favorites – through partnership with the Historical Society of Montgomery County we are digitizing the early newspaper, “National Defender” – the newspaper of the American Party. Filled with vitriol and bias – it is quite like the news of today. I would call out one small item from “National Defender” – an advertisement for the visit of Dan Rice to Buck’s County. Rice was the role model for “Uncle Sam” – highlighted in a blog article. The digitization of materials is only a first step; newly available digital content must also be actively curated with exhibits – highlighted in social media – knowledge creation efforts and Digital Humanities initiatives.
AC: How did you and your colleagues at Villanova decide to become part of the PA Digital partnership and the DPLA? What goals or purpose do you hope being part of PA Digital can achieve?
MF: We pro-actively reached out to DPLA prior to their initial public launch, however even with 30,000 items – Villanova’s Digital LIbrary was considered too small for the scope of DPLA. With the deployment of state hubs for metadata aggregation, it was possible to join with other institutions to reach the critical mass needed for consideration. With the forward thinking leadership – and kudos must be acknowledged to Temple University under the leadership of Joe Lucia for hosting and providing support for the Pennsylvania Hub of DPLA – and the assistance of David Lacy – then the Technology Development Team Leader at Villanova, we were able to move forward and get the Villanova content as well as the content of our “Digital Partners” into DPLA. The goal – to provide enhanced access to these rare materials to an even wider community!
AC: Are there any digitization or preservation projects for your collections, past, present or planned, that you’d like to tell our readers about?
MF: Beyond the initiatives that I have referenced, I am eager to show off and talk about two important digitization and knowledge creation projects. The first is related to popular culture and fiction. In addition to actively digitizing a growing collection of Dime Novel and Popular Culture materials, we are working on a vast knowledge creation project to document the copious collections of content that were created and circulated. The Edward T. LeBlanc Memorial Dime Novel Bibliography is the collaborative effort to create a sustainable database of this content and to then link to extant digitized content. This content – which may have been in wide circulation – is now rare to the point of almost extinction. A recently digitized non-fiction work on marriage advice was only known a large number of advertisements. Picked up almost immediately and cited, this is a great example of how digitization can work to rapidly move a text or image from anonymity to ubiquity within days.
Demand driven digitization – based on a wide variety of needs – is a requirement for the agile Special Collections, Archive, or Museum. The second project, “Home Before the Leaves Fall: a Great War Centennial Exposition” highlights one such need – to commemorate, memorialize, and also to digitize materials based on the increased research needs related to an anniversary – here the important centennial anniversary of World War I. At the website are commemorative projects, news and events, and of course newly digitized materials, which can be shared with the public with dedicated social media channels. And shows off yet another way collaborative efforts can provide benefits for all. Trying to showcase WWI content to a – largely unaware in the United States – public demands new forms of experimentation, from outreach efforts using cutout paper dolls, to new forms of expression. As a showcase for the remixing of cultural objects into new forms, I would call attention to the experimental “Lausejagd” video- showing off digitized content as well as providing a sing-along experience.
AC: How has your experience with PA Digital and the DPLA been? Is there anything that you know now about the process of bringing collections into the DPLA that you wish you had known beforehand?
MF: The process is smooth and easy – the staff on this project are wonderful – so knowledgeable and passionate about providing access!
AC: As an experienced collaborator with us, what advice do you have for those who are considering bringing their collections to PA Digital and the DPLA?
MF: Don’t wait – just reach out and start collaborating by contacting the staff at the PA-Hub. You will be adding a megaphone to the reach and impact of your content and the process couldn’t be simpler.
AC: Thanks so much for your time and your insight, Michael!