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 also many considerations that need to be thought about before undertaking a project to ensure any digitisation is done correctly, files are then managed well and they will be of benefit to the repository and for researchers. 

Archives have sometimes been able to reach wider audiences online and allowed material to be used in a variety of different ways through scanning and photographing users can zoom in to see fine detail. In some cases, the quality of the images can mean handwriting can be read more easily or hidden details can be seen, such as writing underneath. 'Spectral imaging' can show up things which have been covered by an image. It is important when making digital copies to make sure that detailed descriptions are added (this is called metadata) so staff and researchers can use them effectively. 

Example Image from Mary Hamilton Papers, One of the digital collections at the University of Manchester. 
Dairy of Mary Hamilton HAM_2_6 University of Manchester 

The example above is from the digital collections held at John Rylands Research Institute and Library.  The collections of world renown are a result of many years of planning, developing with new technology, collaboration between academics, IT teams and archivists and there are teams working to deal with issues and ensure they are visible and accessible to users.

Digitising items can bring material together that might be scattered across different collections and repositories which can help them to be used in creative and academic ways. Exhibitions can be created which help 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 countries and is using AI to browse the thousands of fragments which would take an individual years and years of study in person.

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 digital project, at any level, whether it be a large institution or a one person archive, needs proper planning, a workflow developed, and long term management of the digital assets. The digital files created have to be checked regularly to ensure files have not been corrupted and the format they are on does not become obsolete.  

Setting up special equipment, paying for storage, the cost of staff training, time for digitising and management of digitised collections are all things to consider when thinking about digitising a collection, and not all materials benefit in the same way from the process. Archivists have learned important lessons from projects in the past; one famous example being the BBC 'Doomsday Project' published in 1986. The technology used to store the information became obsolete after 15 years and could not be accessed. This resulted in the CAMiLEON project which highlighted the need for managing digital archives and helped with the development of guidelines and toolkits 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. Current legislation needs to be adhered to and laws are subject change and this may mean some material cannot be digitised or shared. 

Crumpsall Biscuit Factory artwork, (CWS) 1920

Images should be taken at a hi-res level in order to future proof the digital files.  From these, lower res surrogates can be produced if needed. It is best to have more than one image saved, preferably three, one in offsite storage. This means that if one item is corrupted or damaged, then there will be a 'back up' to go to (especially for items which are called 'born digital' and never had a paper version such as emails and digital photographs.) Secure storage and the size of the files need to be considered, as does the environmental impact of having all these files, the cost of insurance and processes to prevent data breaches and 'cyber attacks'.

Even if the items are made available digitally, there may be restrictions on their end use. Creative Commons licenses can allow images to be used in particular ways and users should check licences carefully.


Propaganda cartoon - Co-operative News 1930s

All images are from the Co-op Archive Collections unless otherwise stated. We have undertaken some small digitisation projects to share images which can be viewed on Flickr such as the image above.

We are working with peers in the Archive Sector and hope to work collaboratively with other repositories to share best practice. Some funding is available for this work but we rely heavily on charitable donations to offset the costs. If you would like to support our work by donating, you can do so from our website here.

If you wish to visit the archive or find out about our collections, you can find more information on our webpages or you can email [email protected].

Links for further reading and advice:

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.