Words & Photography by Benjamin Languay

In libraries across North America, the sounds of silence that used to fill the dusty, humidity-controlled air have been replaced with the gentle clicks of computer keyboards. The experience of wandering through the shelves of a library in search of a book is waning as libraries begin the process of digitization. More often, libraries are simply purchasing digital copies of books for students and researchers to view online, while librarians are employed solely to scan existing paper resources to online databases with the goal of making information more accessible. Library and Archives Canada has digitized more than 30 million digital images since 2015.

John Richan, a digital archivist in Concordia’s Records Management Department, sees the shift to digitization as a welcome change. “Until a couple of years ago, we were only collecting paper records, so if someone wanted to reference a file from ten years ago, we would have to find the box in the vault, bring it out for them, photocopy it for them, send it to their office mail,” he says. “From that point of view, this really moves us forward. Digitization has increased consumption to the point that there’s an expectation from the public that if something is not digitally available, it really throws people for a loop.”

A scanner used by Concordia’s Records Management Department, which focuses primarily on archiving any records involving administrative activities.

However, several critiques of digitization efforts stem from accusations of bias. What is often overlooked in these situations is the need for a group of people to make the final decision on what goes online and what doesn’t. Tim Walsh, a digital preservation librarian at Concordia, emphasizes a need for more diverse archives, especially in university libraries.

“If you look in the special collections archives in any major North American university, they are overwhelmingly white and male,” he says. “That reflects the bias of the curators and the archivists and the librarians that were working on these collections and deciding whose voices and stories mattered. Because the collections are predominantly that, what ends up being digitized and put online is predominantly that too.”

If you’re not careful, you can really quickly end up building a surveillance database…

Walsh believes this is changing quickly, but asserts that policies around digitization must reflect the society that benefits from the archive. “Labour around this is subjective, it’s political; as librarians or archivists we are not neutral. Under this guise of neutrality, 20th century librarians were reproducing power structures and inequalities through their work because they thought their work was just conveying information, but there’s no real neutral position in this.”

With the digitization of texts that were printed before the concept of digital virality, potential ethical issues arise. A relevant example is the lesbian pornographic magazine On Our Backs, which published in San Francisco from 1984 to 2006, and was recently digitized in its entirety, leading to backlash from those who posed for the publication.

“A lot of people volunteered to be in this magazine, sometimes nude, definitely being out about their sexuality, in a context where what they were consenting to was small-run printing of a zine that was only going to circulate in their communities,” Walsh says. “If you digitize that and put it online, freely available, where everyone’s name is suddenly a Google search away from the stuff they did in a very different context, you can end up outing people, and doing a lot of real harm.”

BAnQ’s La Grande Bibliothèque has invested heavily in its digitization program, allowing library card holders make requests for digitized archival texts.

However, as day-to-day life increasingly takes places online, with no paper trail, the question of what to preserve in online archives becomes more pertinent. Social media platforms, especially Twitter, force archivists to question the value of a single Tweet, and its place in cultural history. “A lot of what happens on there doesn’t need to be preserved forever,” Richan says, “but there are some really interesting discussions that go on, and they often involve people that don’t have voices in traditional areas.”

For modern libraries, the issue is no longer simply about creating a collection, but one that accurately reflects a rapidly changing world without over-documenting private information. Looking to the future, this is a line that librarians will need to tread lightly. Documenting acts of rebellion online is a slippery slope. Libraries are forced to balance the desire to preserve important cultural moments, and the possibility of permanently tying people to their actions.

“If we look at Twitter, we see things like incidents of police brutality, or political movements,” Walsh says. “If you’re not careful, you can really quickly end up building a surveillance database, even if you had the opposite intention.”