Monday, 28 March 2016

Digitisation: practicalities, pleasures and pitfalls. #HistLib15

On 12 November last year I went to the Historic Libraries Forum annual conference, titled ‘Practicalities, pleasures and pitfalls: uncovering digitisation projects’. As ever, it was a really informative and useful day, and a great chance to catch up with people.

The theme of the day was digitisation: how to plan, run and maintain a successful project. As someone who'd been involved for the last 18 months as one of the partners in the UK Medical Heritage Library project, I could only wish that the conference had come round two years earlier: it would have been a great help! But no matter, the case studies and advice generously shared by the six speakers will certainly be of use as I plan projects in the future.

1. Calum Dow, Towsweb Archiving. ‘The importance of planning for digitisation’

Townsweb is a company that undertakes digitisation for individuals and institutions. Calum provided a very clear overview of what you need to consider when considering and planning a project.

Key points
  • Start with formal goals: use SMART objectives. Consider your desired outcomes, and the purposes of the digitisation: is it for for preservation, for display, for searchability, for access, for revenue? Who are the core users of the digital collection? What are your ideal timescales and milestones?
  • Communicate with your supplier! Make sure everyone understands your project goals, including the end purpose of the digitisation. Ensure your supplier is happy to keep you updated.
  • What to digitise? You might choose the items in greatest use, or at greatest risk. Ideal concerns have to be balanced with the items’ suitability in terms of condition and format.
  • Image outputs and resolutions: capture your master images in an open-source, non-proprietary format.
  • Access: metadata is vital to both your internal archive or document management system and your external website.
  • Practicalities: you’ll need to consider how and where digitisation will take place. Different formats and materials have different requirements. The better quality digitisation will usually be achieved offsite. Very rare or fragile items may have to be digitised on-site, but you need a room with controllable lighting, good power supplies, space, etc.

2. Damian Nicolaou, Wellcome Library. ‘Hand in hand: The ups and downs of partnerships in digitisation’

Damian presented several case studies of collaborative digitisation projects. There can often be encouragement or inducement to work collaboratively these days, either with commercial or non-commercial partners. The Wellcome Library works with lots of partners. There are commercial (eg ProQuest) and non-commercial (eg the Internet Archive) organisations doing the digitisation. And then there are the organisations that use the output (eg Zooniverse), funders (eg JISC), publishers, academic partners, software developers, licensing societies, and internal partners. Some of the projects are London’s Pulse, ProQuest Early European Books, and the UK Medical Heritage Library.

Various themes recurred throughout the case studies that Damian presented:
  • The difficulties of balancing your priorities against your partner’s (or partners’) priorities.
  • Are the people at the coal-face of the digitisation working directly for you or for someone else?
  • How to communicate well in order to manage relationships and expectations. Be clear who has responsibility for what.
  • When collaborating, you need to agree tight standards for images and metadata. Sometimes the standards are baggy and imprecise, and even though everyone is adhering to them, local practice variations still make interoperability difficult.
  • That doesn’t only apply to metadata: agree everything to do with the project in writing and even then interpretation may differ
  • Things will change over time, including the people and staff you’re working with in partner organisations, and the goals of those organisations can change, too.
  • Can you live with the conditions imposed by (commercial) partners? Are you prepared to do things their way?
  • Could you do it on your own?
  • Even ‘free’ things have costs.
Aside from the points directly relevant to collaborative working, there were other points to consider for all projects.
  • Consider use cases for the digitised material both for the present and future, before you sign: keep things open!
  • Broaden your reach by hosting the digitised content in multiple places (eg Wellcome Library website and the Internet Archive)
  • Don’t neglect your internal departments, eg the conservation team.

3. Abby Matthews, Sutton Archives. ‘From Cellar to Hard-Drive: The Challenges of Digitising Glass Plate Negatives’

On a much smaller scale than the Wellcome Library, Sutton Archives is digitising fragile glass-plate negatives. ‘The Past on Glass’ is a 2-year Heritage Lottery Fund project, working with negatives from a photography business that was abandoned in 1918. The collection of negatives is vast, and there were several issues to address.
  • The time-frame of project was set in advance, at the point of applying for funding, with little idea whether it was realistic or not, so part of the project has been working out how to best prioritise the work.
  • There is a large and unknown number of damaged plates, so they’ve prioritised those in good condition.
  • The project relies on volunteers, who have varying skill sets, so the workflows need to be written very carefully, with different volunteer roles available.
  • There are a limited amount of resources available, including space and equipment, so they have been inventive about how to make the most of the scanner.
Abby gave some really useful advice:
  • Do as much research as possible before you start. Seek advice. Know your options.
  • Think carefully about specific needs and long-term requirements.
  • Be prepared to go your own way.
  • Set strict project methodology and workflow, and make sure everyone follows it.

4. Jamie Robinson, John Rylands Library. ‘CHICC - Heritage Imaging at The John Rylands’

Jamie described the work of the The Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care (CHICC), based at the University of Manchester Library. They work for the university and external organisations, too. With university items, they try to digitise the whole item when there’s an imaging request for one part of it, to save having to do further work again later on the same item. They are constantly updating their equipment, and make the most of new developments, for example working with a pigment specialist on how best to image gold used in printed books and manuscripts.

Key points
  • Different specialist materials need specialist imaging: this developing all the time.
  • New techniques, such as multi-spectral analysis, have a lot to offer, and are leading to new research avenues on the primary sources.
Key resources

5. Steven Archer, Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. ‘The legacy of Parker on the Web

Parker on the Web was one of the first major manuscripts digitisation projects. It launched in 2009. Steven spoke about how digitisation is only the beginning with a project of this scale and scope. The project has a large maintenance demand: corrections and additions to images, references and bibliographies appear in semi-annual releases. In addition to this, the interface is now starting to show its age to some extent, so plans are underway to launch a new version in due course.

Steven also had some interesting reflections on the way digitised content has changed reading room culture. Remote access gives the librarian much less idea what people are working on, and thus fewer outlets to help them! They hope that the new version of Parker on the Web might have more facilities for interaction between scholars working on the manuscripts.

Some resources mentioned:

6. Naomi Korn, Naomi Korn Copyright Consultancy. ‘Copyright issues in digitisation’

You can't consider digitisation without considering copyright. And copyright is complicated. Works whose authors died before 1969 and whose works weren’t published by 1 August 1989 are still in copyright until 2039. Something that looks like it might be 'one' item, like a scrapbook or diary, might have multiple copyright holders. Naomi had some very practical advice for how to manage rights in (our rights (or lack thereof) to digitise and reproduce) and rights out (what rights we’ll grant other people to use the digitised images).

Key points:
  1. Be aware what the digitisation contract says re: what’s expected and required. You need to exercise due diligence!
  2. Be aware of layers of rights: for example, cuttings stuck into a diary. Resources are needed to check and clear rights.
  3. Rights management is risk management.
  4. Check what the terms are regarding the licences on the digital images. Heritage Lottery Fund projects are required to use a CC-BY-NC licence, so you need to ask rights holders for this level of permission. When asking for rights you can ask for equivalent rights, or ask for as much as possible (but latter has risk that rights holders will say no as asking too much.)
Tools for reverse image searches (to try to uncover image sources)


So, to sum up… Knowledge is power when thinking about a digitisation project. The more detail and understanding you have about the materials you want to digitise, the easier the planning and implementation should be.
  • Think before you act! Know your collections. (Really know your collections.) Know your audience(s).
  • Think about the future: allow for possible new uses.
  • Host it far and wide – the more places, the better.
  • Have clear project plans and workflows.
  • Talk to everyone as much as possible, and don’t forget your internal partners and collaborators.
  • Plan for what happens after the project finishes: how do you maintain it?
  • Factor in the time and money involved in copyright clearance from the start.


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