Top ten for heritage digitisation projects

Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.
Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.

Originally written and published in 2010 on Past Thinking. Republished here for archival purposes.

Digitisation usually refers to making collections data, including images and other media, available online. But it may also refer to making any quantitative (e.g. historical datasets) or qualitative information (exhibition and learning resources) available and discoverable via the web.

A digital collection usually comprises an object record describing the object, its composition or makeup and other descriptive elements. It may have an associated image, video, audio or document with it. Sophisticated digital collections will display links to related objects and information. Some are aggregated into larger digital repositories which allow you to search across several collections such as Culture Grid or Europeana.

The digitisation movement in the UK heritage sector started in earnest under the New Opportunities Fund Digitisation (NOF-digi) programme, funded by the National Lottery between 2001-3/4. One of my previous projects, Hantsphere, was part of this. NOF-digi projects taught heritage and cultural technologists a lot about good and bad practice, and most importantly about sustainability. A significant amount of data remains undiscoverable and in some cases has been lost altogether through lack of onward funding and resources within the organisations that ran these projects.

Many heritage organisations have now absorbed digital projects as part of their core functions as the benefits of increasing access and reaching new audiences online has been realised as being of paramount importance in a digital age.

Digitisation projects are now well-supported in an advisory capacity by in-house expertise and external specialists and consultants. Digital heritage and humanities are also a growing establishing themselves as fields of study and research in their own right in universities. Some useful resources are provided below.

This is an ideas-list I drew up a couple of years ago when I was working for Swansea University on the ESRC Copper Project prior to scoping archive, historic environment and museum collections for digitisation. In the end the project morphed into something different but the principles outlined below remain current for anyone considering how to approach digitisation.

Top 10

1. What already exists in digital format and can it be reused?

What resources or data has already been digitised and what may be reused, e.g. data and media from older projects? Can records from collections management systems and archive and library catalogues be exported to an online content management system? Think about how data from internal systems can be mapped to an online database suitable for public use.

2. What should be digitised in-house and what should be outsourced?

Horses for courses. Dependent on existing equipment and skills. Time is the most costly resource in-house. Large numbers of regular items like photographs, slides and transparencies may be more efficiently scanned or captured by a specialist company experienced in handling historical items.

High-quality digital cameras used with good lighting and a copy-stand can now capture images of documents just as well, if not in some cases, better than flat-bed scanners.

3. Where should resources be hosted and stored?

Always host your own material. Third-party services (e.g. Flickr and Youtube) are excellent vehicles for getting content in and out of the resource but can be unreliable in the long-term (they can go bust or change their terms of service unfavourably, e.g. use of Facebook data).

4. How should content be retrieved and delivered?

The right choice of content management system (CMS); priority should be made for data to be open, accessible and machine-readable. Data should be easy to link internally (e.g. you might also be interested in…) and exposed to web searches, e.g. Google.

Apply metadata using recognised standards to map and share, e.g. using Dublin Core or other recognised standard (you might hear a lot about RDF or Resource Description Framework–a standard model for data interchange on the web). See if the system you use will provide an API (Application Programming Interface) which will allow you and others to reuse your data in interesting ways (increasing exposure and interest in your content). Systems like Omeka have these features built in, enabling you to concentrate on the content itself.

Allow users to share your information, e.g. through social media (blogging via WordPress or Blogger, Twitter, Google Plus, Delicious…). Good design and web accessibility will aid resource discovery. Go and surf the web and see what stands out for you.

5. How should digitised material be described?

As well as being machine readable, digitised information needs to be human readable. Records relating to a digitised object should be clearly written and composed, taking a lead from best practice in museum labelling. Think about the narratives that will support interpretation, following guidelines on writing for the web and using features like timelines, galleries and exhibit builders.

Professional taxonomies such as museum word lists and object thesauri which describes your ‘analogue’ material may be useful to aid identification and discovery but think about including ‘folksonomies’ or free tagging such as you see on sites like Flickr.

6. What formats should be used?

Use commonly used standard media formats that do not require bespoke software which your users may not have (e.g. JPEG, MPEG) or use open file formats. Sustainability and ‘migratability’ are fundamental considerations; choose formats which cannot easily be ignored or mothballed when new ones come along.

7. What are the benefits of creating new digital objects?

New digital resources allow users to engage with content in more creative and flexible ways, e.g. 3D visualisations, video shorts, podcasts, screencasts and games. These will add a new dimension to online learning resources based on digitised collections.

8. Is there scope to repurpose and aggregate digital content?

Content can be repurposed for specific uses, e.g. through Virtual Learning Environments for elearning or via Apps (e.g. in historical trails to be used on a smartphone or tablet). Several projects aggregate cultural content (see above) – can you find other online projects similar in theme or subject to yours? Might increase exposure and create new, previously unknown, connections.

9. What happens after the period of digitisation is over?

All digitisation projects need a preservation policy and institutional financial commitment. Data migration or dissemination (e.g. to aggregating initiatives) or preservation in situ, where the resource may be accessed ‘as is’ through emulation in the future, e.g. CAMiLEON (Creative Archiving at Michigan and Leeds). “Once tied into institutional aims and objectives, digitisation should be viewed as an opportunity rather than a drain on resources” (JISC Digital Media). Read Sustaining Digital on Collections Link.

10. What standards and best practice should be followed?

Use the wisdom and experience of other projects to ascertain best practice. Ask questions in professional fora, e.g. Museum Computer Group. Consult standard setting bodies where appropriate, e.g. JISC Digital Media, Collections Trust (links below).

Further reading and resources

JISC Digital Media
UK Digital Projects Directory (Collections Link)
Sustaining Digital (Collections Link)
Digitisation and Content (JISC)
Museum Computer Group (MCG)