From hand-crafted to mass digitized

Ricky, Jennifer and I just got back from the joint RLG Programs / SAA sponsored forum “Digitization Matters.” We spent the day discussing with a sell-out crowd of 200 archivists at the Newberry Library how digitization for special collections can be ramped up to achieve the kind of throughput which would qualify as “mass digitization” as opposed to spending our effort on hand-crafted projects generating small numbers of high-quality digital files with very granular descriptions. We’ve asked our speakers to be bold and provocative, and we’ve asked our audience to be open-minded. Here’s the complete list of suggestions our speakers discussed with a lively audience, ordered by session. Read them now, and then stay tuned for the mp3 files of the talks and discussions!

Emphasis on Access

Susan Chun (presented by Michael Jenkins)

  • Treat digitization and cataloguing of collections as operational activities. This means:
  • Survey future activities, build operational budgets, and allocate permanent staff.
  • Funders should favor building permanent organizational capacity over short-term projects.
  • Make content available, then make changes based on use. This means:
  • Track users and uses of content.
  • Treat digitization and cataloguing as an iterative process

Sam Quigley

  • Include digitization in initial records processing, i.e., don’t get further behind.
  • Develop rapid production scanning using “prosumer” equipment and automation.
  • Consider cutting back on resolution and detailed metadata for faster production.
  • Investigate voice recognition software for handwritten documents, in lieu of OCR.
  • Investigate joining or forming a consortium for storage, Web delivery, and digital preservation.

Selection Decisions

Barbara Taranto

  • Digitize on demand.
  • Engage archivists in public service discussions.
  • Flatten hierarchy of discovery.
  • Digitize comprehensively.
  • Avoid discussions of audience.

Sharon Farb

  • Digitize what best supports and reflects your mission.
  • Digitize what users want and use
  • Integrate digitization into all workflows and user services
  • Collaborate with users/IT/curators/archivists/librarians throughout all stages – from planning to implementation –of the digitization process.


Bill Landis

  • ‘Boutique’ vs. ‘Mass’: Explore digitization options other than those with which we’ve gotten comfortable over the past decade or so.
  • Good enough is good enough: Embrace archival control, organization, and the descriptive metadata that flows from that collection management strategy.
  • Rose-colored lenses: Know the difference between interpretation and access, and how that impacts our description and digitization work.
  • Know your limitations: Aim to influence, not control, dissemination and use of digital facsimiles of material from our collections.

James Eason

  • Decide what you are: a Museum? a Picture Library? or an Archives?
  • 1a. Be an Archives.
  • Lose your conception of a Photograph as an Individual Work.
  • Describe only aggregations of photos, and only in the broadest terms.
  • Only consider investing more in description when both these conditions are met:
  • Extremely high value item (historical or artifactual value)
  • Part of a heterogeneous body of material
  • Look for and experiment with emerging technologies that support added description from users and external experts.

Public/Private Partnerships

James Hastings (presented by Ricky Erway)

  • Archival access is no longer about ingress into buildings. Think of the potential exponential increase in use when people no longer have to walk through doors.
  • Digitization and online access is far more expensive than most realize. Most archives and manuscript collections, cannot afford to do it all themselves.
  • Archival institutions can still have control of projects, standards, and principles when partnering with for-profit organizations pursuing of their own goals.
  • To achieve preservation and access goals, require partners to digitize entire series or collections. Avoid “cherry-picking.”

2 Comments on “From hand-crafted to mass digitized”

  1. Hi Kate,

    the study I referred to wasn’t specific to special collections, but I believe it’s still applicable. Simon Tanner investigated licensing digital images and revenue in US art museums:
    Reproduction charging models and rights policy for digital images in American art museums, 2004 (

    Some of my favorite quotes from this study:
    “Everyone interviewed wants to recoup costs but almost none claimed to actually achieve or expected to achieve this.”
    “It is clear from the results of this study that the level of revenue raised by museums through imaging and rights is small relative to the overall revenue earning capacity of the museum from retail, ticket sales, membership and fundraising. A museum does not carry out image creation or rights and reproduction activity because of its profitability.”

    Simon concludes that if museums would run their licensing operations more like a business, they’d a. know for sure whether they are recouping their cost / creating revenue and b. they’d actually be more likely to recoup their cost / create revenue.

    Ken Hamma’s article “Public Domain Art in an Age of Easier Mechanical Reproducibility” ( has generated a formidable debate among museums about how all these issues relate back to mission. It’s in this climate and spirit that the Met launched it’s Images for Academic Publishing with ARTstor – in essence, a fee-free license model ( The V&A also has efforts along similar lines (see

    I believe that now the attention is really moving towards a differentiated model where we charge those who make commercial use more rigourously, while at the same time communicating very clearly to those who’d like to make educational / not-for-profit uses that these uses are not only free, but actually encouraged!


  2. Hello!

    I attended the Digitization Matters symposium, and I remembered Gunter commenting that he knew of some literature on whether or not digitized special collections materials would lead to revenue generation for an institution (licensing, etc.), but I don’t remember the specific article that was mentioned. If it would be at all possible to e-mail it to me, I’d love to have that citation. Thanks so much!

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