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The Journey to Digitization

person writing in notebook near laptop
One of Anderson Archival's team members

by Marcia Spicer

Last weekend, my family was invited to dinner at a restaurant. Shortly after food was served, my youngest began melting down. Then, earlier this morning, I had to reschedule a meeting with a potential client. When we made the plans, everything looked great, then life happened. Just like planning a meeting or a meal without a screaming child, the journey to digitization doesn’t always meet our expectations.

A Father's Legacy

TJ, a woman from Columbia, Maryland, knew what she wanted: her father’s Master’s thesis digitized and added to the library at his alma mater. His carefully-researched perspective would be a gift to future scholars, and he would get to witness his legacy being preserved. TJ could envision the end result, but wasn’t sure how to get there.

In September 2019, TJ reached out to Anderson Archival. “Do you handle this sort of one-off job?” she asked.

I knew the answer was yes, but before putting a price tag on the job, I needed more information.

Whether it’s a single item or a massive collection, details help to clarify the kind of work, amount of difficulty, and—most importantly for many prospective clients—the cost of a project.

This conversation revealed that TJ’s project had a unique complication: the paper was onion-skin. Onion-skin paper is thin to the point of being transparent and requires finesse to make sure the digital copy comes out accurate and readable. TJ’s efforts at scanning the document herself produced blurry and unusable results.

She also loved the idea of using optical character recognition (OCR) to make the thesis fully text searchable and mentioned that we could coordinate with the library to determine the best file type and delivery for them. In the end, what TJ wanted most was for the project to be done, saying, “None of us are getting any younger, but my father is definitely getting older and I want to finish this before it’s too late.”

The Best Laid Plans

But despite her intentions, TJ’s plan didn’t progress as expected. November came and went. Derailed by medical concerns and no contact from the university library, TJ told us to expect to hear from her in December. What was supposed to be a set-in-stone project kickoff began to look more like sporadic email exchanges and brief phone calls.

December turned into January, February, March, and April. By May 2021, though, things had turned around for TJ, and we reviewed samples, hammered out a final estimate, and made additional attempts at connecting with the library’s collection managers. Finally, in July, the wheels were officially set in motion.

Getting Started

In August, the Anderson Archival team hit the ground running. Knowing that clarity and readability were two of TJ’s biggest concerns, we performed tests and provided TJ with two image quality options. One was accurate to the original, with a rich color tone but a slightly blurry appearance caused by the onion-skin paper. The second option’s darker background dulled the color, but brought the text additional clarity.

Each digitization project comes with its own variables and objectives. “With regard to the two options,” TJ said, “our purpose is to make the contents of the document accessible so we should go with the option that makes the text clearer and more legible. Let’s go with the version with the darker background.”

From there, the project moved smoothly from scanning to image processing, though the OCR step triggered some unique hurdles. Even with pages that were easier for us to read, the OCR software missed or misread large swathes of information. That’s why a human review is important and what TJ choose to go with. The team made manual changes and additions, ensuring that the entire manuscript could be full-text searched accurately.

Final Delivery

In September 2021, exactly two years after TJ first reached out, we delivered the project. “It looks fantastic! Thank you for your hard work and attention to detail on this project,” TJ replied.

The story didn’t stop there. After all, TJ intended to gift the digital asset to the university library. I shared the final project over cloud storage so the librarian could access the file directly.

The end result that TJ had envisioned when she first contacted Anderson Archival was finally realized. Thankfully for TJ’s father, his manuscript was in the hands of a determined daughter and a digitization vendor that knows when life doesn’t go as planned, we just keep going.

“Thank you again and again,” TJ said, her final thoughts connecting with many of the reasons why we do this work: “The manuscript arrived today in perfect order. I will see my father tomorrow and will present him with the manuscript and the link to the entry for his document in the … library. Here’s to success all around. I couldn’t have done this without you. All the best to you and Anderson Archival in your future endeavors.”


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