Why Digitization Work Is So Much More Than Scanning

Every so often, when some disaster destroys special collections and archives, people seem to take to the internet to chide librarians, archivists, curators, and other cultural heritage professionals to ask, “Why aren’t these collections digitized?” This same phenomena happened when a wildfire destroyed much of the University of Cape Town’s library and special collections this past April in 2021.

While this response is perhaps well-intended, it’s a bit misinformed about the nature of digitization work, because it’s a lot more than just scanning. Even if it were that easy, the sheer size of many libraries, archives, museums, and historical society’s collections makes it practically impossible to have their entire collections digitized.

This semester, I’ve been lucky to work on a digitization project at a local historical society, where I’ve gotten a first-hand look at all of the work that goes into beginning digitization projects. Especially for smaller cultural heritage institutions, it’s not easy. Here’s a run down of some of the many steps that may be involved in digitization projects from my own experience. Whether you want to work on digital library projects in the future or not, it’s useful to be able to articulate all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making these collections accessible online.

  1. Determining what to digitize

Again, not everything in an institutions’ collections can be digitized. Even if that’s the long-term end goal, you need to start somewhere and develop a plan to prioritize certain collections. Having an inventory of what you want to digitize based on user needs is an important first step before you can move on to getting funding and selecting the right equipment for the project. Some documents may even need conservation treatments before they’re ready to be digitized, such as humidity treatments to loosen fragile, folded documents, for instance.

  1. Accessing funding

For a lot of small institutions with minimal resources, they need to fundraise or apply for grant-funding to pay for staff and equipment, which can be a long process. Outsourcing the digitization work is also a good option for a lot of institutions, but that also will require funding and research into what companies they trust with their collections.

  1. Selecting digitization equipment

Not just any flatbed scanner will do for a lot of collections. Digitizing books often requires overhead planetary book scanners; larger documents might need expensive, oversized flatbed scanners; fragile documents and museum objects may be better off with a copystand and camera setup. The more diverse the collections, the more difficult it may be to determine digitization equipment that will work for all objects. At my historical society, for instance, we went with a copystand and camera setup because we already had a quality camera, and the copystand was more flexible for working with larger and more fragile documents than a flatbed scanner would be.

Another consideration here is where your digitization station will be the setup. Much of this equipment is best used in a dark room with lights off and windows closed, which might be difficult to find a dedicated space for in many institutions.

  1. Digitizing documents

As you can tell, actual digitization comes at more of the midway point in the whole process, and it’s more time intensive than just scanning personal documents in a flatbed scanner. You’ll have to download and learn scanning and editing software to rotate, crop, deskew, and perhaps conduct more edits on your digital images. Calibrating scanners and maintaining settings that adhere to best practices (like FADGI’s digitization guidelines) can also be a time consuming process.

  1. Metadata and cataloging

Perhaps the most important step in this process, in my opinion, is ensuring you have detailed metadata to go along with your new digital images. While archival documents may have only been described at the serial-level before, creating digital images of individual objects often requires creating more detailed metadata at the item-level to ensure those images are discoverable. If you want your digitized collection to be harvested through a service like the DPLA, for instance, you also have to make sure you’re creating metadata according to their standards and guidelines.

  1. Providing online access

Digitization work also requires information professionals to practically be web designers of their own digital libraries. While there are digital collection management tools like Omeka, CONTENTdm, DSpace, and others to help, creating websites to host your digitized collections and ensure they’re discoverable to your users can be very challenging and costly.

  1. Digital preservation

A common misconception about digitization work is that once you have digital images, those objects are now preserved, but just because something is on the internet doesn’t mean it’s safe forever. In reality, digitization just creates separate digital objects that must be preserved by backing up copies on servers and maintained over time to ensure file types don’t become obsolete.

  1. Outreach & awareness

Maintaining digital collections certainly doesn’t end with getting all your resources online. We also need to constantly be doing outreach work to raise awareness of our digitized resources, so that researchers know that it exists. After all, why put the time and effort necessary into all the previous steps if the digitized collections won’t be used?

Paige Szmodis is an online, second-year MLIS student at Simmons University in the Cultural Heritage Informatics concentration. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Featured image courtesy of Dvortygirl on Wikipedia.

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