Is it digitised?

In archives, we are often asked if items or collections are available to view as digital files, or when they will be digitised. Although there are great benefits in having some items digitised, there are many considerations before undertaking a project to ensure it is done correctly and that files are managed well and will be of benefit to the repository and for researchers.

Archives have sometimes been able to reach wider audiences and allowed material to be used in a variety of different ways through scanning and photography - in some cases the quality of images can mean handwriting can be read more easily or hidden details can be seen. 'Spectral imaging' can reveal things which have been covered by an image, and metadata can be added to files so staff and researchers can use them effectively. 

Digitising items can bring material which is scattered across different collections together to be used in creative as well as academic ways. Exhibitions can be created which promote archive collections. Projects such as the  Penn /Cambridge Genizah Fragment Project

have been able to match up small pieces of documents held in different places using AI to browse the fragments, which would take a person years and years fo study.

Another benefit of digitising is to make material available that is difficult to access due to the format it has been produced on or how fragile it is, especially if these items are requested often. Producing these items for people to use in a reading room may cause further damage and so a surrogate copy is created. Newspapers are notoriously fragile due to the high acid content and this was a reason to digitise the first 10 years of the Co-op News which allows increased access whilst still preserving the original bound copies. 

Co-op News first issue front page - September 2nd 1871

The item may be on a format that needs specialised equipment to view and this may not always be available at all repositories. The Tameside Local Studies and Archives 'Smile' Project received funding to digitise the glass plates that were in the photograph collection of the local Reporter newspaper as they were unable to be viewed without a lightbox and the glass plates are extremely fragile. Lower resolution copies were then added to Flickr (an open source platform), and volunteers and community groups are able to add details and comments to the images.

Copies of 'Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life' (George Jacob Holyoake)

Text heavy items may be searched using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) which helps enormously in archive research by allowing specific words to be searched across documents.  This can be seen, for example, on the digitized version of George Holyoake’s Sixty years of an Agitator's Life which was made available by the University of Michigan. 

Do it once, do it properly.

Undertaking a successful project at any level requires planning, a workflow development and long term management of the digital assets. the files created have to be checked regularly to ensure they have not been corrupted and the format does not become obsolete. Setting up equipment, the cost of staff training and time to manage digital collections are all things to consider and not all materials benefit in the same way from the process. Archivists have learned important lessons from the past; one famous example being the BBC 'Doomsday Project' of 1986. The technology to store the information became obsolete after just 15 years. The resulted in the  CAMiLEON 

project which highlighted the need for managing digital archives  and toolkits were produced to support more sustainable projects.

Most repositories have a huge amount of material are always receiving new materials, not all of which can be digitised or will be useful for researchers and so decisions have to made to prioritise items to digitise. Items recorded without proper descriptions can be lost over time if the original materials cannot be located easily. Digitisation creates a surrogate. The original is always kept.

The Co-operative Heritage Trust will not hold copyright to all the items in the archive and permissions need to be sought in order to make things digitally available. Within one collection, there may be some items where copyright is also held by different parties. In correspondence collections, it is the writer of the letter, or their descendants who hold copyright and unpublished letters, no matter how old they are,  unpublished letters are currently under copyright legislation until 2039. Legislations needs to be adhered to and this is subject to change - it means some material cannot be digitised or shared. 

Crumpsall Biscuit Factory artwork, (CWS) 1920

Images should be taken at a high resolution to future proof the files - from these, lower quality copies can be made and it is best to have more than one version saved - offline in case one is damaged there is a 'back up'. This is especially true for 'born digital' files such as emails or digital photographs. The environmental cost of keeping records, the cost of insurance and IT provisions to prevent data loss and cyber attacks are also things to consider.

Even if files are digital, there may be restrictions on their use - Creative Commons licenses can allow images to be used in particular ways and users should always check the image licenses carefully.

Propaganda cartoon - Co-operative News 1930s

The images are from our collections unless otherwise stated, we have undertaken some digitisation projects to share images which can be viewed on Flickr such as the image above.

We work with partners in the sector and share best practice - some funding can be available for this work but we rely heavily on charitable funds and donations can offset the costs. To support our work, go to Donate on this website here.

The National Archives guidance for digitisation projects can be found on their pages here

The Digital Preservation Coalition has produced a Digital Preservation Handbook.

The Community Archives and Heritage Group (CAHG) has developed guidelines for community archives

TownsWeb Archiving have a number of blogs which provide advice on planning and workflows for digitisation projects which can be found on their webpages.