Over Spring Break while visiting my home town of Columbia, Maryland, I visited someplace I had never experienced in my twenty plus years of residence: the Columbia Archives. As a student of history, former resident, and Graduate Assistant in an archives on Loyola University Chicago’s campus, I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that the Columbia Archives existed, let alone the valuable collections they house in their repository. My visit happened as a consequence of a project I am working on this semester with both the Columbia Archives and an organization called Preservation Maryland, a preservation organization that works to advocate for the policies required to make the historic preservation of historical places possible as well as perform direct engagement with audiences concerning the importance of their work and the sites they endeavor to save. This semester I have supported the creation of a history tour narrating the founding and impact of Columbia, Maryland, a planned city of over 100,000 that sits between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Developed by James Rouse in the 1960s, the vision for Columbia was for it to serve as an example of religious, economic, and racial tolerance to the rest of the country.
As I began the process of researching the history of Columbia’s founding, I crossed paths with Jeannette Lichtenwalner, the Assistant Archivist and Director of Digital Initiatives at the Columbia Archives. As the Assistant Archivist, Jeannette aids researchers that come into the archives and directs them to materials of interest; however, her role as the Director of Digital Initiatives occupies a good amount of her time. At the moment, the Columbia Archives has no digitized collections on their website. Jeannette, with the help of a bare bones staff of herself, the archivist, the director, and some volunteers are tasked with formulating strategies to pick which collections should be digitized, acquire funding to hire someone to upload the materials and buy the expensive equipment needed, and decide what format the digitization project will take. Basically, they have to start from scratch.
The struggles of the Columbia Archives to modernize and remain relevant in our current digital age brings the realities of understaffed community-based organizations into stark relief with the large, well-funded, state of the art websites and digital projects available on the History Web today. As we have discussed in class various times, smaller institutions that lack the revenue find it difficult to evolve when technologies change so quickly, and funding is not so readily available. By the time the grant has been written, the technology necessary for the project’s completion has already been made outdated by newer innovations. Talking with Jeannette about the problems with digitization the Columbia Archives faces makes me further appreciate the hard work of putting history online for public consumption.