2. Why should I digitise my collections?

Before you plan to digitise your collection, you need to have a clear idea of why you are doing it. Will it improve access or security, preserve content or provide a return on investment?

What do you want to achieve?

You may feel that you should digitise but, if you can identify sound reasons for carrying out the work, it will be much easier to choose which collections to begin with and to make the case for funding your project. Having a clear vision for digitisation, as part of your wider strategic aims, will mean that the resulting digital collections will be more useful to your organisation and to your users.

  • This  three-page guide  Deciding to digitise [JISC Digital Media, 2016, archived content] offers a good introduction to establishing and demonstrating need for a project, assessing user needs and identifying what you hope to achieve. It also looks at resourcing issues in terms of  time, budget, conservation and rights issues.
  • A guide to digitisation [SHARE Museums East, 2014] includes a section called ‘So why digitise?’ (p5), which examines the need for a strategic approach and looks at the benefits of a project by project approach to digitisation.

How will you explain your vision?

Advocacy is often a vital part of getting a digitisation project off the ground, persuading managers and funders to commit time and money and persuading staff of its value. Being clear about the end result of digitisation work – and what you will gain as an institution by carrying it out – will provide a clear focus for any project you carry out from the outset, preventing you from wasting resources.

  • The Natural History Museum’s digital collections programme  has a vision that connects it to some of the world’s biggest scientific questions. Even if your collections are on a much smaller scale, being clear about what digitisation will achieve will help you work out what to choose and how to go about the work. NHM explain their rationale in this video and the page contains links to specific digitisation projects.

Are you preserving content, improving security or enhancing access?

Your reasons for digitising may be prompted by conservation issues, such as the deterioration of the original, wanting to minimise handling of popular research material or preserving content in a format that can be accessed much more readily than the original. You might want digitised documents, images, maps or other collections to be more widely accessed by researchers, or even for them to be indexed and transcribed online.

  • The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme uses digitisation as a way of preserving the content of physical material that is at risk from “general neglect, poor storage … damaging environmental conditions [or] wanton destruction.” The library then makes the resulting content available online. The web page explains why this digitisation is important and seeks feedback on how content is used, reinforcing the value of the programme.
  • The National Library Wales Cynefin: Mapping Wales’ Sense of Place project improved access to tithe maps, as well as protecting  the originals, held in archives across Wales and popular with researchers. By ‘stitching’ together individual digital images, and working with volunteers to geotag them, they created an interactive historic and modern map. Crowdsourcing the transcription of maps and apportionments also made the text searchable.

Are you looking for a return on your investment?

Your decision to digitise a particular collection may stem from a desire to generate income as well as improve access. Balancing these two objectives can be complex, but sustainability is vital to many museums. Dealing with issues such as rights management and assessing indirect financial benefits of digitisation, will help you to balance commercial considerations with learning and access requirements.

  • Striking the balance, a report by the Collections Trust [National Museum Directors’ Council, 2015] is a realistic examination of the potential for generating income, set against arguments for open access. Understanding return on investment (p29) looks at financial and indirect returns you may experience, with a useful infographic. The document also contains a number of useful case studies.
  • Tate has produced a policy on commercial and non-commercial use of collections [2017] in relation to Creative Commons licences. The document’s aim is  “to ensure a fair balance between free use of images in promoting the public’s enjoyment and understanding of British, modern and contemporary art, and Tate’s commercial activities, used to help fund the former.”

Return to what does digitising collections involve?

Did you find this pathway useful? We’d love to hear your feedback or ideas. Please email [email protected]