Digital Commonwealth Visit

Last week, a group of brave NDSR-ers trekked out during a snow storm to visit with staff from the Digital Commonwealth, which is based at the Boston Public Library.

As the blizzard raged outside, we met Tom Blake in the lobby of the library. Tom and his staff were kind enough to meet with us that morning – and they fought high winds and T  delays to get there!


Blizzarding outside the BPL. It was like a scene from The Revenant.

For those who are not familiar, here’s a short description of the Digital Commonwealth, taken from their website:

“Digital Commonwealth is a non-profit collaborative organization that provides resources and services to support the creation, management, and dissemination of cultural heritage materials held by Massachusetts libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives. Digital Commonwealth currently has over 130 member institutions from across the state.

This site provides access to thousands of images, documents, and sound recordings that have been digitized by member institutions so that they may be available to researchers, students, and the general public.”

The Digital Commonwealth both hosts and harvests materials. That is, they may store digitized or digital material on their own servers (hosting), or they include material hosted elsewhere (such as on DSpace, ContentDM, etc) as part of their collections and then link out to its original location.

They will also digitize materials for organizations, which I think is a pretty amazing service to provide! This means that organizations can get their materials digitized without having to buy expensive equipment or allocate staff to digitizing – which, I’m sure many of you know, can be a time-consuming task.  They will also help organizations to create and clean up metadata. They use a MODS metadata schema. You can read more about their metadata requirements here.

During our visit, Tom and his staff emphasized that the Digital Commonwealth is very access-driven, and this is reflected in their collecting. He said that if an organization comes to them with materials and makes a case for why users would want to access those materials, they will almost always take those materials in. In fact, I believe one of the Digital Commonwealth staff members at our meeting said that the phrase “But someone will want to use this!” is kind of like their kryptonite. (Hope I’m not giving away a big secret by saying that.) I thought this commitment to access and their focus on users was really admirable!


I was initially interested in visiting the Digital Commonwealth because, over the course of the residency, I’ve begun to wonder about how smaller organizations with limited resources can participate in digital preservation. To me, digital preservation seems like a resource-demanding endeavor. You’ve got to pay for storage, pay for staff to process and preserve digital materials, pay for digitizing or technologies to manage born-digital materials – plus you need to have the expertise in your staff and the support from your administration. I was concerned that small organizations, such as local historical societies, wouldn’t be able to participate in digital preservation because their limited resources. But it’s not as though they could just ignore digital preservation – they probably want to digitize materials, or they might have a donor with born-digital materials. So what are small organizations to do?

I think the Digital Commonwealth is a great example of a solution to this problem. It allows small organizations to benefit from the resources and expertise available at larger organizations. It also gives smaller organizations a wider audience – because their materials are available on the digital commonwealth website, alongside materials from a variety of other organizations.

At the meeting, we discussed examples of this kind of resource sharing in other places, such as the Connecticut Digital Archive. I would be curious to hear if you, reader, know of any others, or know of examples where many small organizations have come together to pool their resources. Also, are you also concerned about small organizations and digital preservation? Why or why not?

Thanks for reading!


Harvard Yard in the snow


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