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A Long-Term Endeavor: Digitizing Veterans History Project Collections

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The following is a guest blog post by Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz, VHP Archivist.


One of the most common questions that the Veterans History Project (VHP) receives relating to our collections is “Why can’t I view my collection online yet?” While the answer to this question varies by individual collection, there are several cross-cutting issues that impact the timeframe and likelihood of a collection being digitized and added to the VHP website. This post seeks to illustrate some of the many factors that influence our processing time, as well as to describe some of our future goals related to processing and digitizing collections.

Color photo of sepia toned boxes sitting on shelves.
Incoming VHP Collections, 2014. Photo by Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz.

First and foremost, VHP is charged with the dual responsibility of preserving existing collection materials while simultaneously making those same collections available to the public. These two tasks sometimes go hand-in-hand and sometimes they can be at odds with each other. For example, we often encounter situations where we have to enforce certain access restrictions due to the condition of a requested collection. These restrictions are necessary to ensure that collections entrusted to VHP’s care will be available to current and future researchers alike in the same state in which they were received. However, this usually entails having a VHP staff member on hand to oversee the use of fragile material, rather than restricting all access to a specific collection.

We would like to make all of VHP’s collection materials available online for researchers and families, but with over 92,000 collections in our archive, it is difficult for our staff to provide time estimates or promises of when specific collections will be posted online.  As VHP’s Archivist, I continually seek to make more collections available online through our website, while, at the same time, satisfying the mandate to preserve existing collections by following recommended archival best practices.

VHP receives approximately 300 to 400 collections monthly and each collection needs to be inventoried, processed, preserved, and made accessible upon request. This can include a wide variety of material types such as cassettes, correspondence, diaries and journals, discs, photographs, tapes, and other manuscript material. Each collection VHP receives is evaluated and depending on format and other factors some are entered into a continually changing list of materials to be digitized for online access.

Currently, VHP prioritizes collections that are most at risk of damage or other deterioration, as well as curated presentations, for digitization. These priorities were established to ensure that collections held by VHP will be accessible for future generations regardless of when they arrived or in what format  and that VHP will be able to continue contributing to the Library’s ongoing historical scholarship in areas involving veterans and their service.

One of our goals is for VHP to be able to provide online access to additional content in the future, but due to these specific priorities and the volume of collections we receive each month, we cannot provide a timeframe for the completion of specific requests or make promises regarding specific collections.

Color photo of machine that reads "Ripstation" with DVD discs to the right.
VHP’s Ripstation, 2014. Photo by Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz.

Digitizing materials held by VHP is an ongoing, long-term endeavor that takes into consideration current preservation priorities, upcoming online exhibitions and presentations, as well as recent technological advances in digitizing content. To take advantage of one of these recent advances, VHP recently began using a Ripstation device, an automated CD and DVD ripping platform, which lets us extract the data off of roughly 100 to 125 optical discs in a single process.  While the Ripstation has significantly decreased the amount of time required to extract the data from a single CD or DVD, there is still room for improvement. For example, the current process requires that each disc is manually reviewed prior to being ripped to ensure that the metadata associated with the disc is accurate. Automation of this task could help us improve digitization time even further. Despite these and other limitations, we hope at some point in the near future to begin making this content available on VHP’s website.

VHP continually strives to make as much of our content as possible accessible on our website for families and researchers both across the United States and around the world. We welcome comments and feedback from anyone interested in accessing our collections online as we develop and test new workflows to speed up the digitization process. We are committed to our mandate to collect, preserve, and make accessible the stories and experiences of America’s veterans and we will continue to work toward making those stories as widely accessible as possible.

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