While the benefits of digital resources are clear, particularly for researchers for whom physical access of sources is difficult, questions remain. Will the digitization of archives and its cost result in reduced physical access to archives? What will be the cost to the researcher to use digitized sources? Will online databases provide a satisfactory replacement for reading room research?
In part, the recent decision of the National Archives (United Kingdom) to close the reading room on Mondays was justified by the fact that this closure will not impact those who use the National Archives website. The National Archives will remain open Tuesdays through Saturdays.
According to a press release from 30 June 2009, the National Archives estimates that ninety percent of their use comes from “online customers.” Chief Executive, Natalie Ceeney, quoted in the press release, noted that more than 170 documents are downloaded from the website for each document requested in the reading room. However, the group Action 4 Archives, opposed to the changes, have argued in their campaign statement that such statistics do not compare “like with like” as documents downloaded are usually no more than a few pages, whereas those ordered on site are often many hundreds and occasionally thousands of pages long. Also, the group argues such statistics are misleading because they merely reflect the fact that online documents, which are more accessible are therefore used more frequently. Furthermore, Action 4 Archives argues, many of those counted as “online customers” use the website in preparation for and in conjunction to visiting the reading rooms at Kew and that while online usage has increased, so have requests for documents in the reading room, 540,000 documents requested in 2001-02 to 640,000 in 2008-09.
The National Archives has undertaken cost savings in part to fund digitization. According to Mel Hide, spokesman for the National Archives (as quoted in The Independent,) the closure on Mondays and other cuts including voluntary redundancies have been made to pay for further digitization of records. This is in line with the focus on digitization in HM Government draft archival policy, “Archives for the 21st century.” While such projects as the digitization of the 1911 census are to be lauded, the census, as well as other online databases such as Ancestors on Board require users to pay to access records online. Understandably, digitization projects are costly and many online databases operate on a cost per use basis. Traveling to archives can also be expensive and many researchers may decide that the convenience of online access is worth the cost. However, it is often unclear how useful sources will be without actually seeing them, which could make a pay-per-view model extremely expensive for those conducting academic research, which by necessity casts a wide net.
While the potential benefits of digitized archival sources are clear, the changes they may bring to the nature of historical research should also be considered. Are these concerns about digitization as expressed by Action 4 Archives and others valid? Or is it an overblown reaction to slightly reduced hours in reading room access at the National Archives? More fundamentally, will the expense of digitizing archives in an already underfunded sector necessitate reduced physical access to archival records? What might this mean for historical research?