Source: Towards sustainable digitization

[Throughout this post, I’ve included scanned photographs from my efforts to digitize my personal poetry archive. More on that below.]

The standards for the digitization of text documents and images have stayed largely the same from the early days of large scale scanning projects up to the present day. Over the course of nearly 20 years—during which time not much else has remained stable in computer culture—TIFF has remained the standard archival file format for images, and the recommended best practices for resolution and other imaging techniques still conform more or less to guidelines laid out by Howard Besser, Sally Hubbard and Deborah Lenert in Introduction to Imaging, revised in 2003.1

The digitization landscape has, however, changed significantly in other ways. Machines for digitization are far more ubiquitous now than in the past, often with improved capabilities to scan at higher resolutions in less time. Although digital storage is a perennial concern, storage continues to get cheaper; compared to moving image files, GIS data, and other huge file types, scanned text and image documents, even at very high resolutions, do not take up a significant amount of space. Alongside these technical improvements, many institutions and individuals working on digitization projects now also have the benefit of experience. Many cultural heritage institutions have undertaken a digitization project of some scale, and have, over the course of these projects, tested workflows and developed practices that work for their shop.

With well established and widely adopted technical standards, better and faster technologies, and a growing body of experience, it seems as though digitization should be implemented as a regular service at cultural heritage institutions. Indeed, more and more, it has become a foregone conclusion that institutions will digitize and make available most (if not aspiring for the entirety) of their collections. Of course, this position neglects to take into account that many digitization projects (both in the early heyday, as well as in the present moment) have depended on grants and other limited funding sources outside of the annual budget. In addition, the creation of these digital collections necessarily involves a further investment: preservation. Digitization creates new, digital objects that need to continue to be cared for, just as the analog objects. If we have taken the time, energy, and money to create these digital collections, then we must be willing to sustain them over the long-term. As Paul Conway argues, “if digitization for preservation is an investment in the creation of lasting digital products, then digital preservation is best viewed as the suite of tools, operations, standards, and policies that help ensure that this investment is not squandered.”2

Perhaps we can say then, that the most pressing issues for digitization are not the technologies or the workflows, but the scope, scale and sustainability of building and maintaining our digital collections. To further consider these issues of scope, scale, and sustainability, I want to think through two kinds of digitization: collective, multi-institutional digitization programs and that of the individual digitizing her personal or family archives. The difference in scale between these two kinds of digitization is huge, but both I would argue are necessary components of a plan of action to work towards the sustainable creation and maintenance of digital collections of our cultural heritage.

The North Carolina Digital Heritage Center (NCDHC) is a great example of a collaborative, state-wide digitization program that can help to make digitization projects more feasible for both small and large institutions alike.3 Housed in the basement of Wilson Library on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and supported through the State Library of North Carolina and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the NCDHC provides digitization and digital publishing services for all state library, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions. Technology and expertise is centrally located at the Center, enabling both small rural libraries and large university archives to send out their cultural heritage materials for digitization at no expense to their own institution. Although a high degree of both state and national government commitment to the importance of digitization and digital preservation is required for a service like this, the NCDHC model offers a more efficient and sustainable way to build and maintain digital collections. The investment in digitization is shared across the entire state, instead of each individual institution undertaking their own digitization programs that they may or may not be able to sustain.

The NCDHC, in turn, is part of an even broader, national digitization program, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). The NCDHC serves as a content hub the DPLA, meaning that everything they digitize also becomes part of the DPLA collections. Through the NCDHC, institutions in North Carolina can now digitize mass amounts of materials and also benefit by having those materials accessible through the high traffic portal at the DPLA. Programs like these provide excellent models for how institutions of all sizes can confidently build well maintained and highly visible digital collections.

While this model may be viable for cultural heritage institutions, how can we also provide support for individuals undertaking much smaller-scale—but no less important—digitization efforts? This might include an individual managing her family and personal archives, an artist digitizing materials documenting her career, or a scholar digitizing research materials. These kinds of efforts also need to be supported, not only to facilitate widespread and equal participation in today’s digital culture, but also because these materials could also become part of the collections of a cultural heritage institution one day. It is better for these materials to become well-made and cared for digital objects now than to risk loss, damage, or deterioration later on.

These kinds of personal digitization efforts can form the basis for exciting and generative projects. As an example of this, I’ve included images from my own personal archive of past poetry projects. A lot of my poetic works are mixed-media, site specific, or performative, and so they don’t give themselves easily to traditional publishing venues for poetry. However, by digitizing documentation of these works, I can develop new ways to share these poems. Even just the process of scanning these documents has given me ideas for how I might digitally publish poems from these projects. The images from throughout this post come from a collaborative project that I did with Patrick Allen, in which we pasted poem-collages around Pittsburgh, taking photos as documentation but then letting the poems have their own life in the public space. This kind of project could be published as a map, linking our photos to the point on the map where the poem was originally pasted.

This is just one brief example of the kinds of projects that individual can undertake by digitizing their own materials; however, the amateur archivist, scholar, or artist will most likely not have the same digital expertise, access to technology, or experience that cultural heritage institutions have at their disposal. In order to both encourage and sustain this kind of activity, many local libraries, archives, and cultural heritage institutions have routinely offered workshops teaching basic digitization and digital preservation skills. Many of these workshops use toolkits and resources like this put out by the Library of Congress, which make it easier for institutions of all sizes to plan and carry out personal digital archiving workshops. Digitization is an integral part of digital literacy, and the development of these skills facilitates fuller participation in today’s digital culture.

Even if we are now firmly in a digital era, I believe that we will continue to use, produce, and share analog cultural heritage materials for a long time. This means that digitization will continue to be a central concern for both individuals and information institutions. The services and programs I’ve briefly touched on are paving the way for sustainable digitization, and I hope these continue to be developed and supported.


[1] Howard Besser, ed. Sally Hubbard with Deborah Lenert. Introduction to Imaging. Getty Research Institute Publications, Revised 2003.

[2] Paul Conway,”Preservation in the Age of Google: Digitization, Digital Preservation, and Dilemmas.” Library Quarterly 80, no. 1 (2010): 65.