A Digitisation Scandal That Isn’t

book lying on a box cut in half with a lamp and camera (and tripod) overlooking the book

The equipment that the State Library of New South Wales uses for their digitisation program is a lot more sophisticated than that used in my budget digitisation studio.

A few days ago I woke to some startling news, “NSW state library to turn $3bn collection over to private sector: In exchange for free digitisation” the headline from ITNews screamed. I started huffing with indignation about this scandal but I read the article which followed very carefully, then downloaded and read the tender documents as well as the Library’s most recent Annual Report. Often things are not what they seem.

And so it was with this article. The Library is not selling any of its collections or giving them away in exchange for digitisation. It turns out that the Library is merely offering private operators “access” to historical items so they can digitise the items then return the items promptly. The headline is clearly misleading. From what I can see, the article is about a fairly typical digitisation project that many of Australia’s cultural institutions have been undertaking for a number of years now.

There were problems in the article itself. The Library’s ‘Digital Excellence Program’is a major multi-million dollar digitisation program funded by the state government which commenced in July 2012. Thus the Library is not even half way through this program, yet the ITNews article claimed that the Library was near the end of this project with the implied criticism that the Library had failed to digitise many items during this project. The article linked to an ITNews article published earlier this year about the State Library’s program which said that the Library “nearing completion” of the first phase of this significant project. This has been an essential overhaul of the Library’s “infrastructure and systems”. That would seem to be a wise move. It makes sense to upgrade systems before a massive increase in data generated by digitisation.

The ITNews article has sparked discussion online. Another issue with the article was its emphasis on preservation being the reason for the Library’s digitisation project. Dr Lise Summers, lecturer at Curtin University and a senior archivist with the State Records Office of Western Australia observed on Twitter:

Access as well as preservation are key drivers for digitisation programs around the world. The Library’s tender documents, website and annual report as well as the earlier ITNews article all make it clear that preservation is just one of the reasons for the digitisation program. “We aim to create and preserve digital material on a scale never before seen in Australia”, the Library says on its website, thereby, ” substantially increasing global access to the Library’s collections”. The Library sees significant benefits to people living in regional areas as well as for “the creative industries” which the Library hopes will make new things with the digital items made available by the Library. The Library’s ‘Digital Preservation Policy‘ also talks about digitisation helping the Library achieve the twin objectives of preservation and access.

There were claims in the ITNews article I could not substantiate one way or another. I have not managed to check the claim that the State Library of NSW has only digitised “less than 1 percent of its total collection”, but I am not unduly concerned about this because the Library has first concentrated on making sure they have the computing infrastructure in place before embarking on the large-scale digitisation of material.

I had initially misread the ITNews article and thought that it said that the State Library had 6.3 million items in its collection. On a more careful reading I am sure that figure was referring to the number of items that the Library has digitised, not the number of items in its collection. I found on p. 9 of the Annual Report that the Library digitised 6.7 million items by 30th June 2015. I could not find the total number of items held by the State Library, but I probably could come to a figure by adding the total number of items in the State Reference, Mitchell and Dixson collections which are disclosed on p. 29 of the Annual Report. However, I think that would be like adding cars, apples and acres of grass to provide a meaningless figure.I would be equating one postage stamp to a book, an architectural plan, a computer file and a drawing. This makes determining what percentage of the Library’s collection has been digitised a difficult and possibly meaningless task.

Journalists do not have to disclose their sources, which is understandable in the case of sensitive information that may have serious consequences for people associated with a news story. However, I wish that the media would make better use of hyperlinks to substantiate non-sensitive claims in articles. This would signal to the reader that the media outlet is committed to rigorous fact checking, a commitment many news organisations still uphold. It would also help readers delve further into the story if they wished. I find myself that the practice of careful referencing claims in my posts via hyperlinks ensures that I maintain high standards of reliability and accuracy.

You may have noticed that while I have said I have read the tender documents I have not directly referred to them in this post. There is a reason for this.

The Request for Proposal (RFP) documents stipulate the conditions set by the State Library of New South Wales for any organisation which wishes to bid for the digitisation project. Part A of the Library’s (RFP) documents has this confidentiality clause:

This RFP, including any attachments, is made available on a commercial in confidence basis. Any person in receipt of this document must ensure that all information whether written or verbal concerning this document is kept confidential, except any information which is in the public domain (other than as a consequence of a breach of this confidentiality obligation).

Copies of this document or related documents must not be distributed except with the prior written consent of the State Library.

So, that seems to close the discussion about this prospective digitisation project. I cannot talk about particular clauses in the Library’s Request for Proposal (RFP). However, you can download the documents and read them yourself from the NSW government eTendering website, but don’t expect any juicy reading.

I suspect that this confidentiality clause is a standard clause in any RFP issued by the NSW government, but I don’t understand why the public cannot discuss the terms under which their historical documents are being digitised. Why prevent public discussion about this?

I don’t see anything particularly controversial in the State Library’s RFP but it includes broader issues which are present in nearly all digitisation projects by public cultural institutions. I have touched on digitisation issues in a number of my posts.

In the background of this story, but an important contributor, is the news feed provided by Australian Society of Archivists on their Archives Live website. I found out about the ITNews article through this service. Anyone can subscribe to this site and receive a good feed of interesting articles about important issues affecting historians and archives. You do not have to be a member of the Australian Society of Archivists to join.

So thanks to a great service by the Australian Society of Archivists and a misleading article in the IT press, this tender process initiated by the State Library of New South Wales has received more attention that it would normally have received.


I have added a hyperlink to the mention of discussion online – linking to a discussion thread on the Google Group, ‘Archives and records Australia’.

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