(Digital Collections) Mrs. Neff’s Portrait: Or, The Things We Scan That Aren’t Online

If you’re a regular reader of this blog,* you know we feature items in this space that are drawn from our digital collections that we believe are unique, interesting or otherwise worthy of added exposure. And for that purpose, we have more than 35,000 objects online to write about – more than enough to keep bloggers busy for years to come.

But what about the things we digitize at the Riley Digitization Center that don’t go online? What makes something worthy of occupying a spot in cyberspace and what makes something a candidate for relegation to a dark archive, securely stored and likely never to see the light of the Internet?

In general, there are four major reasons to digitize an item:

  • Rarity. The object in question is one-of-a-kind.
  • Fragility. The object is in a state of physical disrepair and digitization is a step on the way toward better storage, conservation or digital enhancement.
  • Access. The object will make a beneficial addition to an online environment.
  • Preservation. The object isn’t deemed an acceptable candidate for online presentation for any one of a number of reasons.

The reasons for keeping an item offline are numerous, including copyright concerns; lack of provenance information (source, date, authenticity, etc.); sensitive content; or potential for misuse.

Copyright Concerns
Some material we digitize in order to preserve the information on a physical medium (a 45 rpm disc, for example) before it can be lost. However, the copyright holder’s status for such an item may be unclear, as happens often with items from our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. In these cases, the files are preserved (but access is limited) until copyright claims are established and addressed.

Lack of Provenance
In some cases, there is very little background information on an item, and that uncertainty makes is usefulness as a digital object less clear. For an item to be truly considered useful, the more verifiable information we can gather about it, the better. Sometimes an item is scanned to preserve information but held offline until further research can reveal crucial information that would make it a useful online object.

Portrait of Mrs. Pat M. Neff, courtesy Baylor University

This portrait of Mrs. Neff is an example of an item scanned for preservation – as part of a 2010 project to digitize all 13 official portraits of Baylor’s past presidents – but is not online due to a dearth of information about it. Until further research is done to establish some basic information about the provenance of the portraits, they are being held offline; in the future, they may be added to an online collection.

Sensitive Content
Sensitive content generally takes the form of information that could be considered patentable or otherwise copyrightable. For instance, original research generated by a doctoral student as part of a dissertation – which is then commercialized in the form of a book or product – may be digitized for preservation but not placed online due to its potential marketability.

Potential for Misuse
Items in this category include things like the blueprints for extant buildings. The Digitization Projects Group worked with Baylor’s architect and his staff to digitize the original blueprints for many of the buildings on campus, including recognized landmarks like Pat Neff Hall, Armstrong Browning Library and Tidwell Bible Building.

Unfortunately, because these items could be used for nefarious ends by people intent on doing harm, we will not be releasing them online. This is a true shame, as the plans include amazing details, all of them hand-drafted in a era before computer assisted design (CAD) became the standard for draftsmen. Below is a small excerpt of the ornamentation of Waco Hall’s main entrance to illustrate the kind of material in this category.

Detail of main entrance to Waco Hall, courtesy Baylor University architect’s office

Doomed to Darkness?
That’s not to say that these items will never be included in our digital collections. Often, they are slated for addition to future collections, or they are queued up for further research that will make them valuable additions to existing collections. Regardless of whether they find themselves displayed in your browser window someday, the staff at the DPG is committed to keeping them safe, secure and functioning for decades to come, a commitment that extends to any object that finds its way through our doors and onto our equipment.

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