9. Digitisation

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(c) Mike Rogers
Points to consider in the planning phase
General advice

Digitisation, the act of making a digital image of a document, photograph or object, can have huge benefits in terms of access (particularly remote access), promotion and preservation of your collections. However, large-scale digitisation is sometimes seen as an end in itself or an easy option. In practice it can be difficult, time-consuming, resource-hungry, lacking clear aims, and a legal minefield. If you are embarking on a digitisation project, there is a lot of preparatory work needed beforehand, and you need to have very clear aims and objectives. Get the planning stage right, and the operation and outcomes of your project should match expectations.

Points to consider in the planning phase

  • Why are you digitising?
    • Directive from senior management.
    • Part of a wider heritage/administrative project (external partners?).
    • Specific project.
    • Website/app development.
    • Preservation surrogates.
    • Widening access.
    • Digitisation doesn’t mean you can throw the originals away to save storage space – what if you miss a bit, what if you lose the digital copies, what if better technology comes along?
  • What are you digitising?
    • Whole collection?
    • Specific Series?
    • Highlights of Collection?
    • “On demand” copying?
    • Items temporarily borrowed from external bodies or individuals [keep a record of ownership, permissions etc]?
    • Items in poor condition for preservation purposes?
  • Are you choosing the right material to digitise?
    • Will the digital versions actually be used? Ask potential users.
    • Can you use the digital versions (copyright/IPR issues)?
    • Has something identical or similar already been digitised?
    • Are your priorities in the right order?
  • In what format or formats will the digital images be produced?
    • Permanent storage version – TIFF?, JPEG 2000?
    • Working copy – JPEG?
  • What image resolution to use?
    • 35mm slides need considerably higher ppi than photographs and documents.
    • May need to balance legibility against file size.
    • B/W photographs in greyscale or colour?  [Not in B/W!]
  • Filenames
    • Make them meaningful, consistent, and relating to catalogue references of originals.
    • Think about how they look on screen, e.g. insert zeros to make filenames align  [001, 054, 238]
    • If catalogues use  /    , replace with _ in the filename.
    • Some equipment auto-generates running numbers. Decide whether to reset manually or incorporate.
  • Storage and backups
    • Network (inform whoever is responsible for IT in your organisation in advance of a big project, as additional storage may have to be purchased and configured, which takes time and resources)?
    • Cloud Storage?
    • Hard Drives?
    • Removable media such as DVDs?
    • External provider?
    • Work out a suitable file structure [e.g. folder per document/series]. The more complex your collection, the more complex the structure will need to be. Too many files in one folder can be confusing, especially if poorly named].
    • Long-term issues – format migration, quality will need to be periodically checked, completeness will need to be checked [emerging CHECKSUMS techniques]. Who will do this/pay for the upkeep?
  • How will the images be accessed?
    • Website/App?  [have the development and ongoing costs been budgeted for?]
    • Internet?
    • Removable media?
    • Email/Cloud transfer?
  • The Process of Digitisation
    • Equipment [flatbed scanner, negative scanner, overhead camera, overhead scanner]. Does purchase and maintenance need to be budgeted for?
    • Training – draw up a step-by-step manual to ensure consistency.
    • Handling of originals (e.g. nitrile gloves for handling photographs, don’t copy volumes and oversize items on flatbed scanners).
    • Who is doing it – staff, agency, intern, volunteers – is the paperwork appropriate?
    • Some formats, particularly moving images, may be best processed by experts.
    • Checking is vital:
      • Correct images copied?
      • File names correct?
      • File format correct?
      • Scanning resolution correct?
      • Images legible?
      • Images complete?
      • De-skewing and/or cropping needed?
      • Re-scanning needed?
      • Finished files placed in appropriate storage and file structure?
  • Copyright and Intellectual Property Rights
    • Do you own the copyright for the items you want to copy?
      • Just because you own the item doesn’t mean you own the copyright. e.g. the copyright of a letter will usually lie with the writer or their heirs, not the recipient.
      • Is the copyright owner known (e.g. Stamp on the back of a photograph), and can they be contacted for permission? If you cannot obtain permission, do not make the digital images accessible [there may be some justifications for making a preservation copy, but that is different].
      • Orphan works. You must take “reasonable steps” to trace the copyright owner, and document those steps.
      • Managed risk – have a suitable “Take Down Notice” on your website and act on it quickly if anyone complains about the use of an image.

General Advice

If you are digitising unlisted material, it is imperative that catalogues or other finding aids are created as part of the digitisation process. Digitising uncatalogued items can cause a lot of problems subsequently – e.g. needing to rename and move files. Catalogued items already have a structure and references that you can use as the basis for file structures and file names of the digital versions, allowing image and catalogue entry to be linked together easily, and for metadata about the image to be incorporated. It may, therefore, be worth concentrating first on creating digital versions of your existing handwritten, typescript and word-processed catalogues, and carrying out cataloguing work on key collections or series of records.

Don’t Photoshop preservation copies. Tidying up images may have some merits (e.g. marketing), but should be a different project and the images stored separately.

The National Archives has a set of Specifications aimed primarily at Government departments. These show how TNA does things, but also contains some useful ideas for external organisations. Later sections are highly technical, and of less transferrable use. See https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/information-management/digitisation-at-the-national-archives.pdf

  • Use JPEG 2000 as a standard for preservation [though many other organisations use TIFF as preservation copies].
  • Use 24 bit colour using the Enumerated sRGB colourspace profile.
  • Use lossless compression.
  • Use 300 PPI [Pixels Per Inch] for ordinary documents.
  • Photographs should be at 600 PPI.
  • Photographic transparencies should be at 4000 PPI.

Other national institutions have their own standards e.g.

See what best suits your budget and aims, or if specific standards are demanded by an external funder for your project.

Pilot things

  • Try out equipment, resolutions, filenames etc to see what works BEFORE embarking on the full project.
  • Draw up a manual and training materials based on the experiences of this phase.

Be realistic about timescales. 

  • It takes time to train new staff/volunteers, particularly if there is turnover. 
  • What if the Project Officer leaves part way through the project?
  • What if equipment breaks? 
  • It takes a long time to check scans and move files, particularly if you have old computers or a slow network.

Do talk to people who are, or have been, involved in other digitisation projects to find out what worked for them, and what lessons they have learned from things that have not gone so well. Your Sector Development Manager or Museums Development Officer may be able to suggest someone with a similar project or collections.

This guidance links to Sections 3.3 (Access Information, Procedures and Activities) of the Archive Service Accreditation Standard.

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