Digitising archives

The life and usefulness of teaching resources is extended by digitizing them, but expert IT advice and a long-term strategy are needed before you begin.

January 25, 2008

Technology may be moving fast, but before digitising your resources you still need to take time to consider practical matters.

“People often launch into digitisation without thinking about what they are doing,” says Karla Youngs, director of the Technical Advisory Service for Images, a service helping people in further and higher education to create and deliver digital images. “They get excited about having a new digital camera or scanner and don’t think about the style, format or how they are going to store and describe the resources.”

She suggests using a file management system. Training in issues such as imaging theory will help make sure you are getting the most out of your computer and that you are preserving resources responsibly. It should also help ensure that the equipment you have is the right kind for the job.

Alastair Dunning, communications manager at the Arts and Humanities Data Service, notes that how you describe and organise your digitised resources is more complicated than the technicalities of getting them online.

You also need to take a long-term view, according to Nigel Callaghan, an independent IT consultant who has been working with academics at the University of Wales, Lampeter, on placing Welsh Bible images online.

He says that although it is easy to do a rudimentary scan on the cheap because you are not interested in the detail, in ten years another scholar may want to explore your materials in depth, so it is worth going for the finest reproduction possible. You will need to plan for the fact that the resultant files will be very large.

You will also need to ensure you have a strategy for managing the material so that it will continue to be usable even when technology has moved on. You will need to record details about the image or text; to note how, when and by whom it was copied; and think about how and when you will need to update it.

Stuart Dempster, digitisation programs master for Jisc, notes that you should consider whether the material will be open access or whether you will want to charge for it.

You must be careful not to get over-ambitious, warns Tim Hitchcock, who is completing digitisation of Old Bailey court proceedings between 1834 and 1913.

“The bottom line is, does it add value and shelf life?” he suggests. “There are all sorts of things that in five years’ time would be done completely differently. Just wait.”

He says digitisation of images in particular is changing so rapidly that you need to think hard about whether it is worth spending time making low-quality copies just to get them online.

It is vital, Dempster notes, to make sure your project fits into the wider strategy of the department and university and is not duplicating work being done elsewhere.

A common pitfall, according to Youngs, is to create digital resources for use in teaching without finding out whether the technology needed to use them will be available in the classroom.

She says that even if you are not using your digitised texts and images for teaching, you will need the support of your institution. This is because the digital files you create will quickly grow so much that you may be unable to manage them effectively. Library and information services can offer help in organising and preserving materials.

Your library should also help you with issues of copyright. Dunning says that even if copyright owners waive their rights because you want to use the material for educational purposes rather than financial gain, you will still need to clear it with them. His experience is that it takes time and effort to get a signed agreement.

Finally, you need to be aware that digitisation is not all about flashy equipment. Dunning notes that you will need to introduce variety to the process, especially if you are getting other people to help you with it.

He issues this warning: “Digitisation can be quite boring.”

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