Digital, Digital, Digital: Content & Collections

Co-authored by HLS Contributing Writers, Carissa Hansen and Kendra Werst.

This post is meant to serve as a primer for beginners interested in digital collections work. There are three sections: one comprised of terms you should know, one on digital curation and collections work as a process, and one with resources, course suggestions, and job titles related to digital collections. We hope you enjoy it!

Terms To Know

Digital Collections

What is it? A holding of digitized versions of collection material by an institution. The digital collection can be comprised of digitized photographs, images, artworks, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, video, motion pictures, books, or born-digital materials.

In Real Life: New York Public Library & University Wisconsin-Madison

Digital Curation

What is it? The process of selection, preservation, maintenance, collection and archiving of digital assets. 

In Real Life: Digital Curation Centre & UK Data Archive

Digital Libraries

What is it? A special library with a focused collection of digital objects that can include text, visual material, audio material, video material, stored as electronic media formats along with means for organizing, storing, and retrieving the files and media contained in the library collection. Digital libraries can vary immensely in size and scope, and can be maintained by individuals, organizations, or affiliated with established physical library buildings or institutions, or with academic institutions. The digital content may be stored locally, or accessed remotely via computer networks.

In Real Life: Smithsonian Digital Library & HathiTrust Digital Library

Digital Preservation

What is it? In library and archival science, digital preservation is a formal endeavor to ensure that digital information of continuing value remains accessible and usable. It involves planning, resource allocation, and application of preservation methods and technologies, and it combines policies, strategies and actions to ensure access to reformatted and “born-digital” content, regardless of the challenges of media failure and technological change. The goal of digital preservation is the accurate rendering of authenticated content over time.

In Real Life: Digital Preservation Handbook, Harvard Library Digital Preservation & Internet Archive

Digital Humanities

What is it? An area of scholarly activity at the intersection of computing and the disciplines of humanities. The nature of this activity ranges broadly, from the practical, such as digitizing historical texts, to the philosophical, such as reflection on the nature of representation itself.

In Real Life: Art Institute of Chicago Online Scholarly Catalogues, Stanford Humanities Center & Digital Humanities at Berkeley

Digital Collections As a Process

Now that we’ve defined each of these terms or areas of work, it’s important to think about each of them as involved in a process. You could place each area into three broad process components: Selection, Management, and Access. Some areas, like Digital Curation, spill into all three parts of the process, and some are involved mainly in one or two components. There are some very high-level models that exist to describe work with digital material. The most well-known one is the OAIS (Open Archival Information System) Reference Model. The Digital Curation Centre provides a digital curation lifecycle model.


OAIS Reference Model. Retrieved from “Technology Watch Report: The Open Archival Information System Reference Model: Introductory Guide” by Brian F. Lavoie at the Office of Research, OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. and the Digital Preservation Coalition, 2004.

Selection. Before you can think about preserving digital objects and information, you’ve got to first decide what should be preserved over the long-term. You could be responsible for collecting anything from tweets to entire websites to a set of jpegs. One important thing to remember is that you can’t keep everything and you can’t digitize everything. Selection is about making those decisions and distinctions about what your collection priorities are and what is feasible. Usually this is where organizations lean on their collection mission and scope, just as they would for any type of material, but there are unique considerations for acquiring and preserving digital material.

Is the file format sustainable over time? Is it necessary for the digital material to maintain some sort of functionality to be useful? Is the digital version necessary or is it already replicated in paper elsewhere in the collection? Is there research demand for migration or preservation of the digital files? If you’re trying to decide to digitize material, there are similar questions you must ask. Is there already interest in the analog version of this item, series, or collection? Would this material become unusable if not digitized? Does the item’s historical significance warrant digitization? Can you provide good access to this item if digitized?

Management. Once you’ve identified what to keep for long-term preservation or digitize, you’ve got to make and implement a plan to preserve and store your material. This involves generating metadata that allows you to have intellectual control over your materials and make sure they’re being preserved properly. It also involves doing things like monitoring your files for corruption, documenting your procedures, policies, and plans, migrating material to new file types or formats, making sure you’ve got the technology you need, and ensuring you’ve stored your data properly in multiple locations.

Access. One of the most important questions you must ask yourself when working with digital content is – how will I provide access to this material? In the library and archives fields, there’s a lot of emphasis on preservation of digital materials, but if you’re preserving something with no means or intention of ever allowing anyone to see it, there’s almost no point. Remember: access is always at the heart of why we do what we do as information professionals.

Planning how you will provide access to material means figuring out how to adequately describe the material, where you’ll put the material and those descriptions online for others to view (or establishing a procedure for allowing a researcher to view it in-house), how to deal with legal or rights restrictions, how you’ll package or exhibit the material to enrich users’ understanding of it, and how you might promote it via social media or other means. Many organizations provide access to digital material through software such as CONTENTdm or Omeka. Organizations also frequently partner with each other to provide access to their digital content. Check out collaborative efforts such as Minnesota Reflections and Google Arts & Culture. You don’t have to go it alone!

(This section was written based on the DPOE Curriculum

Start Your Work with Digital Content

There’s a LOT of information and resources that exist for digital collections work. The field and potential projects are vast. Here is a selection of resources and jumping off points.

Relevant Course Titles in LIS Master’s Programs

  • Digital Curation
  • Digital Libraries
  • Digital Preservation
  • Metadata
  • Digital Humanities
  • Archival Appraisal or Collection Development
  • Introduction to Moving Image Preservation
  • Projects in Digital Archives
  • Digital Asset Management
  • Project Management

Job Titles

And the list goes on!


Resources & Organizations

Contact us!

Carissa Hansen, HLS Community Manager and Contributing Writer, is a second-year Master’s student in the UW-Madison’s School of Library and Information Science. She works full-time at Hennepin County Library Special Collections in Minneapolis, MN, where she does lots of work with digitization, metadata, CONTENTdm, and archival processing.

Kendra Werst, Contributing Writer, is a second-year Master of Library Science student at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Informatics and Computing. She works at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction Gender and Reproduction – Library, Archive, Art and Artifact Collections. She works with their Photo Cataloging Application to help manage their digitized images that appear on IU’s Online Image Collections. This past summer, she did a practicum at Northwestern University Library, working closely with the Metadata Team in the Digital Curation and Repository Department. In the spring, she will be interning at the Herron Art Library, focusing on the artist book collection and will be gaining experience with CONTENTdm.


Featured image by Ged Carroll via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on November 1, 2016.

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