Don't get buried in your archives

September 29, 2006

Digitising teaching resources might extend their life and usefulness. But before you switch on a scanner, says Harriet Swain, get expert IT advice, devise a long-term strategy and line up some diversions

So that's one pile of documents snapped, scanned and shoved online for whoever wants to read them. Now, what was the file name again? Technology may be moving fast, but before digitising your resources you still need to take time to consider practical matters such as how you are going to find them once you have done the job.

"People often launch into it 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 and preferably getting training in the digitisation process. 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. It is advisable to contact the Joint Information Systems Committee, which funds various services, such as the Technical Advisory Service for Images, specifically to advise academics in all these areas.

Alastair Dunning, communications manager at the Arts and Humanities Data Service, says how you describe and organise your digitised resources is much more complicated than the technicalities of getting them online. Key to the process is working out who your audience will be and tailoring your descriptions of the material to their needs. If you have a connected website, you will need to make this easy to use for the relevant market.

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 personally 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. Of course, the resultant files will be large; so you will need to take that into account and plan for it from the beginning.

You will also need to ensure you have a strategy for managing the material so that it will continue to be usable even when the technology has moved on. You will need not only to record details about the image or text; you will also have to note how, when and by whom it was copied and think about how and when you will need to update the material.

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

All this takes time, and 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 says. "There are all sorts of things that in five years' time would be done completely differently, and there is no point in doing them now. 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. Disparate collections of material are also harder to digitise than a free-standing resource.

He advises academics to reflect on what scholarly value will be added by digitising materials, whether it will open new possibilities for research or teaching.

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 in your field.

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. If it is not, you will need to lobby your department and institution for help in securing it at the beginning of the process.

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 it is likely that the digital files you create will quickly grow so much that you will be unable to manage them effectively even department-wide. Library and information services can offer help in organising and preserving materials for the future.

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. You will need to consider early on how to maximise your chances of getting such clearance in a timely fashion. His experience is that although you may get verbal assurances of support, it may take more time and effort to get people to sign an agreement. On the other hand, you should not let worries about copyright stop you trying to digitise at all.

Finally, you need to be aware that digitisation is not all about flashy equipment. Dunning says 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."

Further information

Technical Advisory Service for Images:

Arts and Humanities Data Service: http:///

Joint Information Systems Committee:


* Make sure you have the right equipment

* Make sure you will be able to find the material once you've digitised it

* Think about who and what it is for

* Think long-term: be realistic about time and cost

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