As archivists, we take our responsibilities seriously as stewards of the collections entrusted to our care, ensuring that our assets remain safe and accessible to users. The demand for increased online access to collections, coupled with limited fiscal and staff resources, makes balancing the two a challenge.
I always advise my clients to evaluate staffing and budgetary resources before a digitization project starts. The aims of the project should be realistic when compared with the resources available. Creating objectives at the conception of a digitization project assures that the initiative is successful and sustainable.
Planning is Key
While planning a project, archivists must understand their institution’s mission and goals, know where the digital project fits into these goals and assess existing resources against those that need to be acquired. They should also factor in costs and capabilities for long-term maintenance of the digitized images. They need to establish standards that will be adhered to while conducting the digitization project, begin the documentation process to assure that decisions are well communicated, and provide direction. The project team should write a preliminary project plan, budget, timeline, and other planning documents. My experience in planning of archival projects has taught me to take as much time as needed at the outset of a project to define its goals and outcomes. The effort you expend at the conception of the project will save you blood, sweat, and tears throughout the project.
Defining the Scope
The scope of the project is often determined by the archival materials themselves. Evaluating the characteristics of the images to be digitized is part of the planning process, which involves determining the number of images to be digitized, identifying source formats, considering the images’ sizes, assessing unusual characteristics, and reviewing the condition of originals. The project should progress efficiently, and the workflow should be well organized. Equipment should be chosen to optimize quality and the level of production, suitable hardware and software must be selected, and image capture and editing rules must be set to maximize efficiency.
The success of digital projects centers not on technology, but on project planning. In my experience, institutions may sometimes concentrate on technology before deciding on a project’s purpose. However, technology should never drive digital projects; instead, user-based desideratum should be determined first, and only then should the appropriate technology be selected to meet a project’s objectives. One thing that is unchangeable no matter what the technology is: insisting on the highest quality technical work that the institution can afford.
Creating New Research Opportunities for Users
Archivists should undertake projects that deliver resources to be utilized by a variety of user groups for research, learning, and general informational purposes. To this end, archivists should establish criteria outlining collection selection, metadata creation, and systems for access that address the varied interests of users. Digital collections should also enhance understanding of the value of the images, their authenticity, context, and historical significance. Institutions should provide a stable, scalable, and sustainable platform for the delivery and management of digital content, as well as strive to deliver content in ever-evolving ways, challenging archivists to create a premier research experience for their users.
Should We Continue?
Digital projects should also be reviewed for continued applicability. The value of existing projects may be reconsidered from time to time. In some cases, additional resources may be expended when enhanced accessibility will benefit users. Conversely, some digital projects may outlive their value and should be discontinued. Making decisions to end projects is often hard, but necessary.
The success of a project is in proportion to the time spent planning it. Digitization projects are laborious, complex, and costly. Plan ahead to make sure your project is a success.