Cultural heritage organizations, corporations, and government agencies hold rich collections that testify to their establishment, growth, change, and modern mission fulfillment. Historical assets offer unparalleled insight into an organization. They are unique. They are authentic. They offer tangible connections to the past. And—when incorporated into strategic planning, outreach, and development campaigns—they inspire the future.
But, as we have seen time and time again, so many historical assets are left to gather dust. Locked in closets. Squirreled away in attics. Retired to basements. Relegated to off-site storage with no index or inventory. Their existence—not to mention their value—is forgotten.
Yet today’s virtual environment provides an opportunity to discover and experience historical assets in entirely new ways. They can be used to engage with internal and external audiences through online exhibits and timelines, social media campaigns, and AR (Augmented Reality) experiences, to name just a few.
To transform historical assets into your greatest storyteller, careful planning, digitization, and asset management is required. We would like to share with you our favorite tips to help you begin turning your dusty old records into compelling digital content.
Tip #1: Discover What to Digitize
The most important first step in making your historical assets available to your audience is planning what to convert into digital format. Here are some questions to consider at the beginning of your initiative:
Who do I want to reach?
Will your digital collection be public-facing? Is it meant to answer specific internal inquiries, or is the goal to reach a larger external audience? Understanding your audience and how they will interact with your content will define what to digitize, how to present your content, and inform the technical specifications for digital conversion.
How will I present the digital content?
Consider how your users will access the materials. This will largely determine the scanning output, as well as the systems you use to search, find, and deliver content. Do you want users to search for content using a text-searchable database? Or will your organization curate the content as a website or exhibit? Do the images need to serve as high quality reproductions of the original items, or simply convey textual content?
Do I need to digitize everything?
Digitization can be highly scalable and tailored to fit your immediate and future resources and goals. If comprehensive digitization is unrealistic or beyond your limitations, consider selective digitization. Perhaps there is a specific theme or topic to prioritize, or there are physical assets at risk of loss due to their condition or storage environment. Also consider if there are record groups that can be eliminated from your digitization initiative, such as employment or financial records.
Tip #2: Transform Your Physical Historical Assets
Once you’ve identified which historical assets to transform into digital assets, it’s time to scan! There are many factors to consider during this process. Let’s walk through some of them.
How will the format of my historical assets impact digitization?
The scanning process and output will vary depending on the physical formats of the original assets. Audiovisual media in particular will require specialized equipment and handling, as will large format (oversized) papers and bound volumes. Handwritten documents should retain as much tonal content as possible. Typed documents may not require fine details captured, but you may need to apply OCR (Optical Character Recognition) if text searching is a goal.
How do I prepare the physical assets?
You should create some level of organization and intellectual control over your physical assets in order to maintain contextual relevance once they are digitized. If your collection has never been organized or inventoried, it may require a little more prep work in advance of digitization. It is also important to remove anything from the physical material that may inhibit the scanning process or possibly damage the equipment (such as paper clips, sticky notes, and bindings).
Is now a good time to caption the images?
Yes! Providing descriptive information about an image or document is a key step in providing accessibility through searches or browsing. Various descriptive elements, such as keyword tagging, will help to apply historical context and relevance, while also identifying dates and subjects such as people or objects. Descriptive metadata can be compiled before, during, or after the digitization process; it can be embedded into the image files, or uploaded into your content system.
How do I perform quality control?
Whether you’re working with a scanning vendor or an internal team, request a sample set of digitized content in the initial stages of the project. Review the image quality, scanning output, cropping and deskew parameters, and any metadata or file-naming. If your documents have been OCR’d, you should run test searches of text within the documents. For a large volume of content, review a random selection of files rather than every individual file.
Can I discard my original assets?
A common question, but rarely recommended. The longevity of digital media is still relatively unknown, therefore we suggest keeping the original material as the ultimate back-up. If storage space is tight, consider a long-term storage vendor.
Tip #3: Preserve Your Digital Assets for Longevity and Reuse
Once digitization is complete, consider how you’ll protect your investment. Digital assets are fragile and susceptible to loss due to ever-changing software and hardware technologies. These essential steps will ensure the preservation and safe-keeping of your digital content.
Why should I consider file integrity?
Over time, you may need to migrate digital formats or storage media to keep files viable and usable. But copying and migrating files can corrupt or permanently alter a file—as can cyber attacks. These changes often go unnoticed. Maintaining file integrity will ensure that your digital assets retain the same bit-level data characteristics throughout these events. Periodically check file integrity using checksums or fixity checks, which may be an automated feature of a digital asset management or preservation system.
What if my server crashes?
Always have a backup! The NDSA (National Digital Stewardship Alliance) Levels of Preservation recommends having at least three copies of your data for optimal preservation, stored in separate geographic locations. Consider adding cloud-based storage as at least one of the back-up locations.
What about long-term preservation?
There are many software platforms that provide a comprehensive solution for both access and preservation of your content. Digital preservation should be implemented with policies and procedures specific to your organization, including a workflow for eventually adding materials to your digital archives or digital asset management system. You should also create a manual that documents file naming conventions, taxonomy, and other data storage instructions.
Fueling Storytelling with Your Digital Historical Assets
There you go! Three key tips to create a rich, unique pool of digital content that demonstrates who you are as a company, organization, or agency.
The thoughtful, systematic digitization and preservation of your assets enables the creative process of sharing your stories to engage and inspire. Now you can leverage your new multimedia collection to create compelling narratives and digital experiences that turn history into your greatest storyteller.