GLOBAL: Digitised archives key to universities' future

UK universities, and indeed many universities around the world, are often home to special collections - treasure troves of rare books, archives, unpublished manuscripts and other material of significant historic and scholarly worth.

But as universities need to make tough economic choices, choices which can often pit economic realities squarely against cultural niceties, the role of special collections becomes more fragile. Their purpose, often related to the faculty of arts and humanities, is increasingly pressurised as educational institutions rationalise their purpose and goals.

Costs for collection care and conservation, let alone the economics of physical presentation and access to visitors, are high and require dedicated professional expertise, as well as sophisticated storage mechanisms. Cutting back on special collections seems like an easy option for university managers looking to make some quick savings.

In order to fend off such thinking, special collections are therefore charged with finding new ways of engaging people, and better demonstrating their intrinsic value. Without sustained access and usage, the argument for keeping special collections is severely weakened.

Creating digitised surrogates of archival holdings is one way of doing this.

Online resources supported by the UK funding body JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) include resources such as the University of Cambridge's Freeze Frame collection of polar photographs or the British Cartoon Archive, made available via the University of Kent. These create whole new audiences for material that had been previously restricted to the small numbers who could physically visit the collections.

Plenty of other examples from around the world stand out, such as the University of Miami's Special Collections or the electronic collections made available at the University of Melbourne.

Traditionally, such digital archives are not only useful for researchers interested in specific disciplines, but can also be deployed in teaching scenarios as well, introducing undergraduates in a variety of subject fields to new types of primary sources.

The University of East London's Theatre Archive holds a valuable collection of posters, playbills and other material relating to theatrical history in the East End of London and has been embedded in theatre history classes in several universities.

But as universities increasingly look to develop their identity, other reasons for digitising and representing special collections become apparent.

This is particularly true for UK universities, where the move toward student tuition fees as the main source of university income means that those institutions need to pay added attention to the way their universities are perceived, both at home and abroad.

Digitised collections can not only be useful for teachers and researchers, but also demonstrate a university's long and distinguished educational legacy to potential students and their families, its donors and supporters, and to a broader public.

The University of Birmingham is one example of a university with rich, copious collections that describe not only its history as a university, but how it taught various disciplines as it grew as an educational institution. Its University Heritage Collection contains many of the objects you expect to find in the seminar rooms, chancellors' offices and ceremonial spaces of established universities, such as robes, portraits and sometimes personal collections of staff and students.

What is more, the University of Birmingham's Research Collections demonstrate its long and continued engagement with a number of subjects. So, for example, its collections of instruments related to the study of physics show how pedagogy reflected new discoveries in the field, while its medical school collections demonstrate the evolution of teaching practice in a number of specialities such as anatomy, dentistry and ophthalmology.

Digitising such collections is a key part of making them more widely accessible and understood. Indeed, Birmingham has already made a start on this, digitising Egyptian treasures from its collections in conjunction with Eton College in an exploration of the possibilities of 3D digitisation.

More broadly, it has established a Heritage Learning Hub as a place to bring together its cultural assets in digital form, present them using innovative touch screen and 3D technologies, and create a venue where the general public and also local and national businesses, enterprises and cultural institutions, can interact and share ideas.

It is this approach from Birmingham that offers new opportunities for the special collections held within universities.

Developing digital versions of these holdings will become not just a way of saving a researcher a trip to the library, or presenting new material to undergraduates, but allow universities to illustrate their rich and broad histories to a much broader audience, including alumni, new students and lifelong learners - an audience that the successful university of the future will engage with on a regular and committed basis.

* Alastair Dunning is Digitisation Programme Manager of the UK's Joint Information Systems Committee.