Digitization: 5 Minutes of Tips

Digitization: Five Minutes of Tips, Hints, and Clues
By Marcia K. Segal, Processing Archivist, American Folklife Center
This presentation, in a slightly different form, was delivered at
the Ethnographic Symposium, prior to the annual conference of the Society of American Archivists

When it comes to learning about digitization, there are workshops, classes, symposia, lectures, and conferences. Standards and best practices will vary from institution to institution. All of the points that follow I can recommend from my own experience here at the American Folklife Center, and many are reflected in the literature and guidelines used by other institutions.

1) Before you embark on a digitization project, do research so you don’t reinvent the wheel.

(Whatever your project, chances are that you’re not the first person or institution to do this type of work. Find out how other institutions have planned and carried out digitization projects similar to yours.)

2) Bigger institutions than yours can literally afford to make mistakes.

(Technology is constantly evolving, and to stay on the leading edge is expensive in terms of time, resources, and staff. You can partner in a digitization project, but work with an institution whose experience and resources far outweigh yours.)

3) Talk to people who have been involved in digitization work — at different institutions, with a variety of concerns, audiences, and budgets.

(People who work on digitization projects love to give advice. They didn’t get to where they are by trial and error. Somebody helped them, and in turn they can help you, with advice, guidance, suggested readings, recommended listservs to join, and other potential information resources.)

4) Your goals will define everything you do.

(Digitization projects are complex, and take a good deal of advance planning. Know what you want to achieve before you start to plan, and be flexible about the desired result as the workflow plan for digitization evolves.)

5) Treat a digitization project as your only chance to get the work done.

(Get the highest-quality transfers, whether for audio or visual materials, as uncompressed files, and make reference copies from these. Some media degrade every time they are accessed –e.g., when a wax cylinder is played—so get the best possible transfer the first time.)

6) Digitize for both preservation and access.

(Digitization is not a replacement for processing; it is a means of access, and not a shortcut; lots of planning needed. Digitization can indeed be a form of preservation, as it keeps researchers from going back to the original items and wearing the items out.)

7) Metadata provides context for digital files.

(Administrative, descriptive, and technical metadata are essential for providing both researchers and staff with information about digital files: copyrights, permissions, bibliographic information, whether the files were reformatted from analog versions or were born digital, the equipment used to create the files, the standards used, who digitized or created the files, and other details.)

8) It takes a year to make a click possible.

(That equation is not a rule, but an example of how online presentations involve more planning than any digitization project. Materials can be digitized, but getting them web-ready means creating files that can be ready across platforms and browsers, writing the text, writing the code, the editorial phase, the review phase and, most important, securing permissions for the materials to be presented online.)

9) Digital files are fragile.

(Digital files need upkeep. Make backups, keep offsite copies, develop a migration plan, and learn how to confirm file integrity—that is, what’s been digitized can still be heard or viewed, will sound or look the same way as when you first checked to see if the files were OK, and are still complete.)

10) Once you’ve finished a project, don’t retrofit it when new and better digitization methods become available.

(Revisiting a project over and over wastes time and resources. In every project, there is always more you could have done, or done better.)

11) Items 1 through 10 are subject to change.
Some final thoughts:

–Document and retain the project’s history, including e-mails, so you can refer back to it as standards and needs change.

–Digitization makes materials more quickly accessible, but nothing should be done on a whim.

–The digital world moves fast, and for the user, it’s supposed to be easy, but as the people behind the scenes—the stagehands as it were—your job is to make all the hard work look easy.