What does digitising collections involve?

If you want to create digital versions of your collections, this pathway gives an overview of the issues you need to consider before you begin.

Each heading below links to a separate article with resources for beginners and for those wanting to explore the topic in more detail. This simple glossary explains some of the terms we have used in our articles, guidelines and standards.

This pathway was commissioned from Collections Trust by The National Archives on behalf of the Culture is digital taskforce on digitised collections. Contact the taskforce. To suggest additional resources, please email Collections Trust.

What do we mean by digitisation?

In this article, digitising means creating a copy of a physical original and its associated information known as a ‘surrogate’ or, sometimes, a ‘digital twin’. It might be a photograph, a 3D model, a video or a sound recording, but it will always include structured  information (metadata – data about data) that remains connected to the digital version however it is used and stored.

‘Digitisation’ can also describe the process of transferring paper-based collections documentation to a digital format.

Why should I digitise my collections?

Having a digital copy of an item can:

  • preserve content: by transferring the content of an item, such as reel-to-reel film or newsprint, which will otherwise degrade beyond use.
  • protect the original: by minimising the need for handling, it offers long-term access and reduces the risk of damage and theft.
  • improve access: by making it easier to search, share and use collections.
  • provide a return on investment: having digital copies of an item can provide efficiency savings in terms of work flow, preventing duplication of effort and, if you have cleared the necessary rights issues, in some cases digital copies can generate revenue or demonstrate a collection’s value.

What should I digitise?

Choosing which collections, sub-collections or items to digitise may mean considering significance, risk of deterioration, popularity or planned use for exhibitions or projects. Whatever criteria you decide to use, it is important to take a structured approach to prioritising digitisation.

How should I plan digitisation?

You will need to decide whether to carry out digitisation in-house or out-source it.  You will also need to estimate the time the work will take and calculate how much it will cost.

What do I need to know about copyright and data protection?

Before you begin to digitise, you will need to understand the rights associated with your collections and how to record and manage them. This will affect how you digitise and how you catalogue, use and allow reuse of the resulting copies.

How do I digitise?

From choosing cameras, recorders and scanners to selecting file formats and resolutions for images, sound recordings and videos, there is plenty to consider if your digital copy is to be as useful, and future-proof, as possible. If you are copying documents,  records or voice recordings, you may also want to consider ways to capture and transcribe the content.

What kind of information should I record?

As well as information about the original physical items, you will need to record information about the digital copies you make. Hopefully, your collections management system will already have most of the information you need about the original items. However your system does it – and whether you call it ‘data’ or ‘metadata’ – the most important thing is that you can link and update the two kinds of information.

How should I store digitised assets?

Just as there is guidance on best practice for physical artefacts, there are recommended ways of storing your digital assets, whether in-house, outsourced or cloud-based. You will need to consider security, back-up, location control, file-naming and creating master copies and usable copies before you embark on the process of digitisation.

How can I future-proof digitised assets?

As with conserving physical collections, preserving your digital assets is every bit as important as making good use of them and the process starts with archival-quality standards at the point of digitisation.

How should I use digitised assets?

Digital assets can be useful for managing your collections, documenting their use and managing reproductions where rights and licensing allow. Sharing them on your own website or with aggregator sites can allow greater access to them, and monitoring their use can add to your documentation and demonstrate their value.