At HistoryIT, we meet with a wide variety of organizations and institutions that are charged, either as their core mission or as one division of their entity, with caring for the historical records that tell the story of who they are, what they’ve accomplished, and what meaning is provided by their existence. We talk with them about how important these materials are and how, when they exist in a robust digital state, they will bring the parent organizations much greater value. We work with top-notch institutions and forward thinking organizations to build digital archives that are truly meaningful (by meaningful, we mean that are designed in such a way as to be easily searchable and sharable). In the course of this work, we daily encounter questions like:

Why is digitization so expensive?

Why can’t we just use our one or two scanners in the corner and a few interns or volunteers?

What’s wrong with the groups that will “digitize” our materials for ten cents a page?

I understand the great resource challenges that face most of our cultural heritage organizations, universities, libraries, and other repositories of historical records. But this has been used as an excuse for too long and it inhibits us from planning to obtain adequate funding. We all agree that these materials are tremendously valuable. In fact, most are irreplaceable. These hidden away documents, images, artifacts, a/v materials, etc. are the core source of information that tells us who we are. They contain information that is critical to knowing who we are as a particular organization, community, or society. Also, we live in a world in which 99% of the public expects to be able to access information instantaneously. Any question we have, we ask of Internet resources and review what seems to be the world of information for an answer. Where are the actual answers? They are still in boxes in archives, waiting for the year when a modest sum will be allocated to purchase a $300 scanner and begin the years long process of creating digital images. They are buried in quickly and poorly scanned PDFs that are online in a digital haystack, inaccessible to all but the most aggressive researcher with the extensive time and inclination to find and interpret them.  Why, I ask, do we continue to relegate irreplaceable and critical information to the dustbins rather than garner the support necessary (and, yes, the support and money is out there!) to create a strong digital archive?

And WHY is it so expensive to create a digital archive?

  1. “Digitization” involves far more than simply scanning or photographing material, or what we call the imaging stage.
  2. Professionals who understand the materials they are working with must conduct the imaging stage. These materials are irreplaceable. They should be entrusted to people who are invested in their quality digital replication. These are people who are well paid and trained in the variety of settings and standards of the different equipment that could be used.
  3. You don’t just need one person and one scanner to perform this task. Most collections are absolutely enormous and would take years, even decades, to complete with your scanner in the corner, leaving you always looking at a mountain of backlog. In order to accomplish this task quickly and efficiently, without sacrificing quality, it is necessary to have a team.
  4. Quality imaging is critical. During the imaging process, it is imperative that another trained, well paid person reviews each digital product to make sure nothing is blurry, cut off, or skewed. If you are going to invest in a digital collection, make sure that the results are meaningful.
  5. Standards will change. Web browsers will make certain media formats obsolete. Accepting this from the beginning is critical. When you undertake digital imaging, it is necessary to image at resolutions far greater than you would plan on using at present. Creating multiple formats from high-resolution images is going to serve you best for the long term.
  6. Once the imaging stage is complete, actual digitization begins. This is where most organizations stop. To make your digital collection meaningful, people must be able to find and navigate your digital records. This requires:
    1. A robust collection management system that contains the digital images themselves, as well as searchable information that describe each image.
    2. Someone to write this descriptive information and catalog or index the records so that a diverse array of people can find them. This is the most expensive step in the digitization process, but without it, you simply have a haystack of digital needles.
    3. An online space for visitors to search this information, find linkages among the items, and easily view or read the digitized original item.
  7. Once you have created your fully digital archive, it is important to continue to care for it. This requires ongoing maintenance, monitoring usage and feedback, backing up the information and digital images, and making sure that the web can still read and deliver the images.

So, what are you paying for?

  1. A team of trained professionals to handle your irreplaceable materials.
  2. High-level quality control to ensure that your investment is returning the best digital result that will be most sustainable for the future.
  3. Teams of trained professionals to rapidly, but intelligently, write the searchable descriptive information (metadata) for every digital item in your collection in order to ensure that people can actually find your incredible resources.
  4. A robust technology that can support your management of these digital collections, as well as share them with your audiences.
  5. An ongoing relationship with expert technicians who understand your needs and can monitor your digital collections for sustainability.

The adage that you can never have a product that is fast, cheap and good holds true here. You can build a digital archive that is cheap, but it is either going to take many years to create and/or likely will not be very robust (probably both); you can build a digital archive quickly and cheaply, but to do so will likely mean going with a provider that returns poor images that are not going to be searchable in any meaningful way, which will require a much greater investment in the future. Too often the stewards of our collective history go for one of these options. Building a high quality and still inexpensive archive means that you would be lucky enough to have in-house expertise and probably a very small collection. It simply isn’t feasible for the vast majority of institutions.

Investing in our future is a valued cultural attitude. But it is now critical that we also invest in the future of our history. If we want our investment to have robust longevity, we have to do it the right way and we need to do it now.

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Kristen Gwinn-Becker, PhD is an accomplished scholar, published author, and thought leader in the field of digital heritage collections and content. She currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer of HistoryIT, a technology company that supports institutions as they embrace innovative digital approaches in order to secure meaningful access to our history for generations to come.

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