Learn about the factors you need to take into account to safely store delicate or aging documents with minimal damage and how digitization can help preserve documents into the future.
This is the question many archive owners, collectors, and curators face. In an increasingly digital world, analog access to collections and archives is still the norm. But should it be?
A Philosophical Question
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
In the spirit of that popular mental exercise, if a physical archive exists but no one can access it, does it impact the world?
Sadly, this is the state many archives find themselves in.
For collectors and curators, the problem of access is one that can seem insurmountable. Many collections are housed in personal residences, in a dedicated room of a library, or even in storage. Finding aids such as indexes or the Dewey decimal system assist those who can visit the material in person, but the barriers to access are high.
The Limits of Physical Access
Take the example of a hypothetical newspaper archive. The entire collection, frequently cited in family genealogy research, is only accessible in one location. Rather than attempt to visit the collection, researchers call the curator with their questions. Often, these researchers only know a name or a location or some other fragment of data, so the curator must wade through decades of material, and once they discover the desired information, the researcher receives a copy or scanned image.
For researchers, limited access means the process takes time and reliance on someone else to find the information they seek. Often, copies of originals come with a price tag because of the labor involved in retrieving them. Other times, the cost is borne by the original material, which experiences wear with every turned page.
For the curator, the system seems to work. People can access and use the collection to enhance their research. Why should they digitize?
- Location: Instead of visiting or calling a single location, researchers could access the collection anywhere in the world with an internet-connected device. Potential visitors who may be limited by disability, travel funding, time, or state of emergency, could experience the collection digitally.
- Condition: Instead of risking tears, smudges, and other damage with every physical search, the material could be safely stored in its current condition while allowing continued, constant digital use.
- Search: Instead of relying on summary documents, finding aids, and the diligent labor of an authorized user, everyone accessing the collection could search for names, dates, locations, and other keywords, making the information they seek available in a click.
A real-world example of how digital preservation could have benefited mankind is that of the Museu Nacional of Brazil, which was almost completely lost to fire in 2018. It was the home of many unique collections and a frequent travel destination for researchers. Just months before the blaze, researcher Cassia Roth had traveled to the museum to view one of the exclusive collections in the massive archive housed there.
I was there for just a few days, so I only took pictures of a small fraction of [the] collection, telling myself that I could always come back—the archives were not going anywhere,” she wrote.
The museum was a hub of research and innovation for hundreds of years, but lacked funding. Why should they have digitized?
- Preservation: Hindsight is 20/20, but even without a disaster in the rearview mirror, curators could have investigated crowdfunding to restore the 200-year-old building’s faulty electrical and sprinkler systems or digitally preserve the museum’s collections over time.
- Impact: The truth is, we may never know how many researchers and students were unaware of the contents of the Museu Nacional until reports of their loss. Online access to a collection doesn’t guarantee widespread knowledge, but it does facilitate the possibility.
Ultimately, if access and exposure are important to the curator of a collection or archive then digitization should definitely be considered. Don’t let inertia prevent you from taking the initial steps towards digitizing your collection.
Types of Digital Access
The good news is that digitization can revolutionize how a collection or archive is accessed and used. Each collection is unique and some types of digital access may be more suitable than others.
- Open Access: Similar to the way Archive.org or Google Books function, this model makes all content fully searchable on the internet. Users may discover an archive through a wider web search.
- Free Access Once Registered: Need to track who is accessing your collection? Requiring users to register prior to gaining access keeps the documents available to those who sign up, but has the feel of private access.
- Paid Subscription: A potential revenue stream for the archive, this model unlocks the collection once a user has paid a fee.
- Additional Paid Perks: All levels of access can also offer options to pay for special features like high-resolution printing, guided research aides, photo licensing, etc.
Every level of digital access eliminates the limitation of physical location, offers enhanced search options, preserves the original documents from continued exposure, and provides a mechanism through which your archive can be utilized fully.
Access is merely one of the powerful arguments for digitizing your collection. Are you ready to start the process and protect your collection from an uncertain future? Contact Anderson Archival today at email@example.com or 314.259.1900.
Do you have a historical collection that deserves digital preservation but keep coming back to the same problems? Maybe your project is so extensive you don’t know where to start, or you simply can’t afford an archival project right now. Even if you’ve owned a collection for decades, you’ve probably noticed more recent emphasis on the importance of digitization. To keep your collection pristine, secure, and free from dangerous overhandling, digitization is paramount.
If you have a historical collection that needs conversion, Anderson Archival’s advice is this: just get started!
Outsourcing Is an Option
Outsourcing the digitization takes a lot of pressure off you. While the archival company you choose needs to have your vision in mind, the day-to-day tasks are off your plate and entrusted to experts. Digitizing a project in-house is often an organization’s first thought, but there are many reasons this isn’t sustainable.
Daily tasks are resource intensive and include dedicated personnel standing at a scanner and turning the pages of a book in an expensive cradle scanner. Each page must be monitored for poor-quality images and followed up with a multitude of post-processing work. This is a full-time task for employees who normally have other responsibilities. Often, the project gets delayed. Inevitably, immediate tasks need to be fulfilled, and scanning gets pushed lower on the priority list. Outsourcing gets the job done in a timely manner with little or no burden added to your employees’ responsibilities. Before you consider bringing someone new in to do this work, remember taking on a new hire comes with its own long-term overhead costs, and having an intern perform scanning often means inexperienced hands on fragile and irreplaceable materials.
By sending your documents to a trusted archival company, your organization is freed from laboring over a game plan.
Archivists guide you through each step of the project using their expertise and experience. They’re happy to answer any questions, ask you pertinent questions you may not have considered, and get you started on the right foot.
In all likelihood, outsourcing your archival project provides better quality results as well. Archival companies are equipped with enterprise-grade scanners, software, organizational techniques, and the experienced archivists needed to put those tools to good use. Adding features to your project such as searchability through optical character recognition (OCR) and metadata will move your search to the next level in terms of speed and accuracy.
How can you get started right now? Evaluate your needs—but keep it simple because the heavy lift is for your archival team. How are your documents stored or organized? What would you like to be able to do with them? Which items are the top priority? Talk with your archival company and just start! They’ll guide you through the process.
Budget Wise? You Bet.
When choosing an archival company to kick off your digitization project, look for one that doesn’t require a massive price tag up front. Experienced archival companies provide the option of a metered approach to balance timely completion of a project with a client’s budget.
In this process, you prioritize what you need archived and divide the project into phases with a focus on what your budget can handle or what a board will approve. For instance, a project can be planned out to take two years to complete with each phase delivering you a portion of the collection. You will pay smaller fees monthly while also enjoying measurable deliverables throughout the process. You’ll be able to start using your archives right away. Don’t let budgetary concerns halt your progress or steer you to a poor-quality solution.
Another option that can help pay for digitization is monetization, but this only works if the documents are of wide public interest. In this case, the documents are displayed in an online collection, and the public (or libraries or schools) pays for subscriptions or printing rights. This allows your organization or company to make money off the project as documents are made available to users online.
There are many ways to get started, so if you have a vision for your project, don’t be too worried about what you should do first. Give your archival company a call, and they’ll guide you and get your project started!
Anderson Archival is an archival company that listens to your needs, takes the lead, and offers assistance every step of the way. If you’d like to hear more about what makes Anderson Archival different, give us a call at 314.259.1900 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
Principal Farica Chang shared the importance of digitizing your “docs and pics” with Grit Daily.
While you might not have an original draft of the Declaration of Independence lying around, your collection—whether it contains historical newspapers or your grandparents’ letters from the war—has value to you and to the future.
Do you have a historical document collection that you’d like to make more accessible, relevant, and impactful? Anderson Archival uses proprietary methods to digitize collections so they are easily searchable, ultimately accessible, and even more meaningful to a wide audience. Let us help you preserve your legacy today! Give us a call at 314.259.1900 or email us at email@example.com.
What are Quotables? This is a category in our posts to highlight any professional publications that benefit from our expert archivist experience and quote us in articles for their readers.