Recently, I delivered a one-day training course on digitisation to Digital Humanities post graduates in Salford. Elinor Taylor of Salford University won an AHRC grant for a Research Skills Enrichment project, called Issues in the Digital Humanities: A Key Skills Package for Postgraduate Researchers, and one of the strands was about improving digitisation skills; more specifically how best to manage a digitisation project.

Elinor was unable to find anyone who could deliver the course they wanted, and commissioned ULCC to create a bespoke course. They approached us through our Digital Preservation Training Programme, which recently won an award for training and communication. Elinor at first thought a workshop / hands-on event might be best, where a digitisation workflow could be aligned with a real-world case processing papers from the Working Class Movement Library which they were scanning. In the end we agreed that an overview of management principles would be better. I was asked not to dwell on scanners and cameras, since the audience for the course would mostly be outsourcing their origination work to commercial providers. Audio-visual conversion was also out of scope.

My course was structured to follow a start-to-finish narrative. Inevitably this meant spending one-third of the time discussing the planning and preparation. I’m a great believer in asking the question “why” about 15 times before beginning any project, and the same applies to digitisation. Who wants this stuff? Why digitise it? Will it improve their lives if you do? More importantly, can we make the experience for a user even better by digitising it? Then if you get a sponsor for your project, there’s the management – the multiple considerations and the groundwork that has to be done before a single image is created.

Let’s skip ahead to image creation. When it comes to producing digitised content, my archivist training always tells me it’s best practice to create “archival originals” – or “master copies” – to a very high standard of resolution, quality, and format compatibility. I favour the process used by many professional digitisers of creating RAW images in a good camera and deriving TIFF files from those RAW images. From that point it’s possible to derive accessible copies – quite often low-res, small size objects in JPEG – for your user base. It was also good to address my favourite subject, metadata, and attempted to stress why it’s such an essential part of digitisation. We need the descriptive catalogue metadata, but we also need the technical metadata for validating, handling, preserving etc. of image objects. Especially if we want to put them into an image management system.

As to image management systems, I sensed great interest in the room as I described all the useful features that you might find in a bespoke system such as Canto or Extensis Portfolio. At one level it almost seems these systems offer everything a digitisation project could want in terms of searching and browsing, integrated editing suites, and management tools. Providing of course, we have the metadata to begin with. If I do this course again I must remember to stress the essential role of metadata. A management system can’t manage very much without it.

Another subject which generated a lot of interest and discussion was Copyright. Unsurprisingly, this continues to be the concern that nearly breaks the deal for a digitisation project. Do you have the right to digitise, store, preserve, disseminate and share this material? Do you attempt to take a managed risk, or go to the effort of resolving the question of ownership? How do Google Books get away with what they are doing? was one question from the floor. The copyright dilemma is that the law as it currently stands does all it can to prevent copying of copyrighted material. But for any digitisation project (for that matter, any project involving IT or the internet) archivists have to make copies and allow users to make copies too. Is copyright law lagging behind the reality of the digital world? Discuss.

Some positive feedback from students:

  • “Great technical details and non-biased advice from an expert”.
  • “A very realistic view of the amount of work involved in digitisation projects, and the importance of planning”.
  • “The presenter was excellent. It was accessible and yet in-depth”.
  • “Very straightforward methodology of doing a digitisation project – jargon explained.”

Update 29th August:

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