Developing a Digitisation Strategy

Digitisation can help bring cultural heritage items into the public realm, allowing them to have a greater impact on a wider section of society. Over the last decade, an increasing number of organisations and institutions have embraced digital technology to better preserve their collections, and even allow online public access to their most fragile items. To fully benefit from this alternative method of preservation and community engagement, organisations must be capable of capturing high-quality digital images that can record even the smallest details of their collection.

NZMS use Phase One 100mp cameras to produce images of extremely high resolution and quality.

It is important that organisations plan a digitisation strategy, so they can make the most of the budget available to them and avoid costly mistakes. Planning a digitisation strategy can be daunting: not only should a strategy be complementary to an organisation’s business plan, but it also needs to accurately reflect the scope of its collections and any special requirements it may have.

Before an organisation embarks on a digitisation project, it should:

  • Assess its needs and decide on the scope of digitisation, including:
  1. Define the nature and condition of its collections.
  2. Compare different digitisation technologies to decide on the best option.
  3. Set some digitisation standards.
  • Determine whether an in-house strategy will work or whether outsourcing to professionals, like NZMS, is a better solution.
  • Plan a timeline that defines how the project will run, including key milestones and how these will be evaluated and adjusted along the way.
  • Create a budget that can be followed and test it with a pilot exercise.

NZMS is happy to provide advice for organisations wanting to begin their digitisation journey. Our first resource in this series, Why Digitise, provides an overview of why digitisation is important and how it can benefit collections. This resource will help organisations plan how they might make their digitisation project a reality.

Digitisation assessment

What kind of material is included in the collection? Is it historical, fragile, rare, or valuable?  

Material that is partially damaged or degraded requires specialised skills for assessing, appraising, and determining if capturing the content is feasible — in some cases that means understanding whether it is salvageable. E.g., some photograph collections are prone to vinegar syndrome, such as acetate-based negative film, and they can quickly degrade beyond repair or even damage other items in a collection if not addressed immediately.

What are the shapes and dimensions of the collection items?  

Conducting an audit and count of the material is an important step to assess a collection for digitisation. Significant collections are rarely indexed and catalogued correctly, and a list of holdings can lack critical information.

Conducting a physical audit and count of collection items will update any outdated information held by the organisation and can provide an accurate picture of the collection as a whole. This information can also provide quality assurance metrics for use throughout the project, and will likely be added to as the digitisation programme progresses.

What format is the collection?

Does the collection include:

  • Bound books.
  • Documents.
  • Loose material, like business records or letters.
  • Larger format plans.
  • Maps.
  • Artworks.
  • 3D objects.
  • Ephemera.
  • Photographic prints, negatives, slides, or transparencies.
  • Audio or video.
Are there colour slides in the collection? Transmissive items require a completely different digitisation strategy compared to reflective items (books, etc.)

What might make digitising the items difficult? What needs to be monitored?

Conduct a comprehensive review of the material that will identify any potential problems, for example:

  • Are there foldouts or inserts inside the collection items?
  • Do books have photographic plates placed inside them?
  • Are there glossaries or indexes to consider? 
  • Does the item need professional conservation to ensure it is not further damaged during handling, preparation, or scanning?
  • Has the material been digitised elsewhere? Consult online catalogues and reach out to cultural heritage networks to make sure a collection has not already been digitised.
  • Is there sufficient permission to digitise the material? Read our guide to New Zealand copyright for the cultural heritage sector for a comprehensive overview of this important topic.
  • Will the collection require OCR, transcription, or metadata management?
  • Is the material decaying and needs to be captured as soon as possible, before it’s unique intellectual content is lost?
  • What time frame does the collection need to be digitised within?

All of these questions will factor into planning a detailed digitisation strategy.

Outsourcing or in-house

Organisations with a large volume of material requiring digitisation often face a choice: create in-house capability or outsource the work to a specialist.

An in-house digitisation approach is convenient if the material is highly valuable, cannot be easily moved, or if there are other reasons it cannot leave the organisation’s premisses. These restrictions are common within the cultural heritage sector because collections are frequently donated or entrusted to organisations by outside parties who might not want the material relocated for insurance reasons or simply for their own peace of mind.

Organisations should consider that the equipment and software will have cycle times, and a ‘mean time before failure’ (MTBF), that affects how often it must be replaced or maintained. This changes with the type of equipment, e.g., a DSLR camera has an economic working life of around 150,000-250,000 images, while a flat-bed scanner can exceed 500,000 images. The running costs of equipment (and software if it is paid monthly/annually) should be factored across the life of the digitisation programme, including replacement computers and lighting.

Outsourcing to digitisation experts, like NZMS, will be best option for most organisations, especially if the collection is large or complex and the organisation has limited in-house resources. Contact NZMS to further discuss the advantages and disadvantages of in-house digitisation programme compared to one that is outsourced.

NZMS recently digitised a collection of over 500 glass plate negatives from Te Awamutu Museum. The glass plate negatives date back to c.1900 and depict Te Awamutu residents, their homes, and businesses.

Timelines and budgets

Balancing people, resources, and technology with a timeline and budget should be the final consideration before finalising a digitisation strategy. The scale of the programme (small, medium, large, or ‘mass’ digitisation) will be a necessary part of the equation, and can determine the best way to allocate resources and set the required timeframe.

An organisation’s budget will also influence its digitisation strategy, like deciding whether to purchase or lease equipment. It can be difficult to quantify the realistic cost of creating in-house digitisation capability — it requires staff resources (time and training), IT support, as well as equipment and software costs (including ongoing servicing or upgrading).

Maintaining in-house digitisation capability can be a resource consuming process: existing staff might need to be taken away from their regular duties to manage or carry out the project, and hiring new staff can require extensive training and associated HR/OSH management.

The best way to create a realistic budget and programme expectations is to conduct a pilot to ensure everyone is on the same page. This allows an organisation to approach the procurement process with the intention of achieving the best value for money – not necessarily the cheapest quote, but one that will achieve the desired results within a set budget. A pilot ensures the best possible outcome for an organisation’s stakeholders and can help secure success.

Creating a strong digitisation strategy, that strives for a high-quality result, guarantees organisations can preserve collections (and the vital information they hold) long into the future. Look out for NZMS’s next resource on digitisation output that will discuss industry standards and what to expect from a digitisation programme.