The answer to the question about why we digitize materials from the collections of the Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program (BPRCAP) is actually quite simple – and that is, to let people know what we have. In case you are unaware, the Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program was created officially in 1990, after acquiring the Papers of Admiral Richard E. Byrd and Sir George Hubert Wilkins in the mid- 1980s. The first year that the Byrd and Wilkins collections were open to the public was 1994/95 – reference requests totaled 41 for the year. In 1999, the Polar Archives launched its first website, and the reference stats went to 198 for the year 1999/2000. We have seen a steady rise in reference activity every year since, with a leveling off at around 350-400 requests annually. In this time, we have continually added more and more information to our website.
All of this digitization has been well received by our patrons, though admittedly confusing to them at times. For example, “I found your finding aid online to the Byrd papers, but when I clicked on it, nothing happened.” And, that’s when we have to have a discussion about choices. The Byrd Papers alone are more than 500 boxes of materials; we will never digitize it all. But many times people do indeed find what they are seeking on our website – such as various museums who borrow artifacts to enhance their own exhibitions. They really love that they can see the artifacts online, rather than simply look at a list of what we have. I’ve also had family members tell me how excited they were to see documentation of their relative on our website, whether it be an oral history, or an image collection, or a reference to their family member in a finding aid. Just this week, we were contacted by an author who found us online, and will be coming for an extended visit to research our collection for a book she is writing. And the History Teaching Institutes uses one of our lesson plans on an ongoing basis in their hands-on workshop where they teach teachers how to incorporate primary resources in the classroom. The list goes on. Digitization does not in fact decrease the use of our collections – it increases it. After all, they can’t use it if they can’t find it. And isn’t that the whole point?
With each various project, we have used whatever tools were available to us at that given time. I like to say that the Polar Archives has stuff stored in every digital orifice on campus! But not to worry – we will help you find what you are seeking! Here is a rundown of a few of our many digitization projects, where they live, and in some cases, why they live where they do.