“There’s an illusion being created that all the world’s knowledge is on the Web, but we haven’t begun to glimpse what is out there in local archives and libraries,” said Edward L. Ayers, a historian and dean of the college and graduate school of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia. “Material that is not digitized risks being neglected as it would not have been in the past, virtually lost to the great majority of potential users.”
To be sure, digitization efforts over the last 10 years have been ambitious and far-reaching. For many institutions, putting collections online, for both preservation and accessibility, is a priority. Yet for every letter from Abraham Lincoln to William Seward that can be found online, millions of documents bearing fine-grained witness to the Civil War will never be digitized. And for every CD re-release of Bessie Smith singing “Gimme a Pigfoot,” the work of hundreds of lesser-known musicians from the early 20th century are unlikely to be converted to digital form. Money, technology and copyright complications are huge impediments.
It is not for a lack of trying.
[...] The ultimate fate of information relating to potentially valuable but obscure people, places, events or things like the Silenus highlights one of the paradoxes of the digital era. While the Internet boom has made information more accessible and widespread than ever, that very ubiquity also threatens records and artifacts that do not easily lend themselves to digitization â€” because of cost, but also because Web surfers and more devoted data hounds simply find it easier to go online than to travel far and wide to see tangible artifacts.
“This is the great problem right now, and it’s a scary thing,” said the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. “The dots are only connected by a few of us who are willing to go to the places to make those connections.”
[...] “At this point, online materials are best for authors no longer under copyright,” said Susan Shillinglaw, a professor of English at San Jose State University and scholar in residence at the Steinbeck Center.
When Leonard Bernstein’s family donated the composer’s papers to the Library of Congress in 1993, it was with the goal of digitizing portions of the collection and making them broadly accessible. Although more than a thousand items from the collection have been digitized and placed on the library’s Web site, there is still an enormous quantity of material that, because of sheer volume and copyright concerns, is still accessible only to researchers who travel to the library.
For instance, the collection includes a seven-page letter that Jacqueline Kennedy wrote by hand to Bernstein at 4 a.m. on June 8, 1968, the day after the funeral for Robert F. Kennedy, thanking him for conducting Mahler’s Requiem during the ceremony. The letter is an extraordinary window into her grief: “Your music was everything in my heart, of peace and pain and such drowning beauty,” she wrote. But the library would need permission from the estate of Mrs. Onassis to digitize it.