Library Student Journal: The digitization decision : factors to consider when converting material to digital format (2009).

The digitization decision: factors to consider when converting material to digital format

Jeremy P. DeGracia
School of Library and Information Science
San José State University
San José, California, U.S.A.

Library Student Journal,
October 2009


Digitization is perhaps the most prevalent issue facing contemporary archivists. While converting items to digital format can result in enormous benefits for both users and institutions, it also presents a number of challenges. Benefits include an increase in access to material, enhanced quality of access, expanded search and browsing options, a decrease in some costs, improved preservation, and less use of physical storage space. Challenges involve evaluation of hardware and software, adhering to copyright law, preventing unauthorized duplication of items, preparing material for the actual digitization process, creation and storage of newly required metadata, and training staff to deal with digital items. All of these challenges result in the expenditure of significant time, money, and human resources. Thus, it is imperative to analyze whether the expected benefits of a potential digitization project will outweigh associated costs.


One of the most significant issues facing the modern-day archivist is the conversion of material to digital format. New technologies have emerged to allow the digitization of almost all types of items, including paper documents, photographs, sound recordings, and motion pictures. However, while digitization is now possible, the question remains whether moving material to digital format is a wise course of action. One must examine whether digitizing any part of a collection comports with the overall mission of the archivist: to gain control of documents with enduring value, preserve them, and make them available to others for research (Jenkinson, 1944/1984; Society of American Archivists, n.d.). Digitization undoubtedly assists the archivist in fulfilling the latter two responsibilities, but there are several costs and challenges that the archivist must consider before proceeding with a conversion project. Only through the comprehensive analysis of both positive and negative ramifications can the archivist make an informed decision to digitize.

Digitization is the “process of transforming analog material into binary electronic (digital) form, especially for storage and use in a computer” (Pearce-Moses, 2005). It is arguably the most popular trend among archival and related institutions. After conducting a survey of archives, museums, public and academic libraries, and state library administrative agencies, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) recently announced that 94 percent of archives have reported some digitization activity over the past year (IMLS, 2006). In addition, 64 percent of archives state that they each have 25,000 items or more in need of digital conversion (IMLS). In contemporary society, with the proliferation of electronic communication networks and the personal computer being a staple in the average citizen's home, making material available digitally has rightfully become a top priority for archival institutions.

The Benefits

Improved Access

The propagation of digitization is easy to explain: converting items to digital format provides an extensive variety of benefits. The main advantage over older formats is the increased access for researchers. Digital surrogates can be viewed by more people, at a wider range of times, and with less effort. By placing a copy of an item online, it becomes available to people all over the world. They can access it even after the institution in which it is located closes for business. Multiple users can view the item simultaneously. Researchers no longer need to invest time and money traveling to the facility to see the item. A key goal of the archivist is to provide access to as large an audience as possible, and digitization advances this effort.

Beyond increasing the number of researchers that can get their hands on a particular archival item, digitization also improves the quality of that access. For instance, material from different collections located thousands of miles apart can be viewed side by side in a researcher's living room (Smith, 1999, p. 7). This type of comparison would be nearly impossible if a researcher were forced to use only physical objects. Furthermore, digital versions of documents can be manipulated to aid a researcher in ways that the original object cannot. One example of this is the digitization of a 1791 architectural plan of the District of Columbia, which has been described as “so badly faded, discolored, and brittle that it resembles a potato chip. It cannot be used by researchers and yields little detailed information to the unaided eye” (Smith, p. 8). However, its digital counterpart can be enhanced in size, sharpness, and color so that users can decipher the details of the map and understand the planning of the nation's capital (Smith, p. 8). Similarly, when digitizing sound recordings, it is possible to edit the audio stream and actually improve upon the quality of the original (CDP Digital Audio Working Group [CDP], 2005, p. 11). This can make more of the recording audible to researchers, allowing them to extract more value from the item. When dealing with a text-based item like a newspaper, the digital copy is often clearer than the microfilm version from which it is derived (James-Gilboe, 2005, pp. 159-160). Through benefits like these, digitization enhances access, in addition to increasing it.

Access is also improved with digitization because researchers are given new search and browsing options that enable them to find information with greater speed and accuracy. For example, when dealing with hard-copy written material, the only way to locate specific information within the document is to read through the text. In most digital environments, the image of the page can be converted to a text file by using optical character recognition (OCR). One can then use a search engine to locate specific terms within the text file (James-Gilboe, 2005, pp. 159-160). Similarly, the conversion of audiotapes and videotapes gives researchers the opportunity to evaluate an increased amount of footage in a shorter period of time. Finding a specific point on an analog tape can be a tedious, protracted process, as using the “fast-forward” or “rewind” functions entails scrolling through or otherwise manipulating the tape. In contrast, performing the same task with a digital audio or video file is much less burdensome, as the user can skip ahead to almost any point in the file instantaneously. Once again, digitization reduces the toll on researchers hoping to access increased amounts of information.

Converting material to digital format also reduces some of the costs faced by the archival operation providing access. An example is the staff time required to serve the public. While institutions will still need reference staff to answer questions and provide guidance to researchers, the presence of computer files instead of physical papers or objects automates the retrieval process. In the case of paper documents, researchers typically have to request an item from an archival staff member, who then must go to the shelf or other location where the item is stored, most likely in a box. The staff member must remove the box, transport either the whole box or specific folder to the researcher, and record which folder is being checked out. Once the researcher no longer has a need for the documents in the folder, he or she will return it to a staff member, who then must place the folder back in the box and return the box to its proper location. This process is time-consuming and requires the availability of pages or similar staff. In the case of digital files, however, a researcher can obtain the document in question with as little effort as one click of the mouse. This assuages the user's desire to receive information quickly and reduces the staffing and time burden placed on the archives.

Improved Preservation

Beyond access, digitization is beneficial in other areas. One of these is the preservation of information contained within the archival material. In many cases, the original item is in such a state of deterioration that it is not practical to keep it for future use, or the format is obsolete, making it prohibitively expensive to view. An example of this is decaying eight-millimeter film belonging to an institution without the proper equipment to play it. In this instance, digitizing the film might be the best option to ensure that the content of the film can be accessed by forthcoming generations. Digital preservation is becoming an accepted practice for other types of items as well. Many industry experts believe preserving sound recordings in digital, not analog, format is the future of audio archives (Council on Library and Information Resources and Library of Congress [CLIR], 2006, p. 2). Analog audio formats like discs and tapes can be extremely unstable, and problems such as surface scratches, loss of oxide, and the presence of moisture, dust, or mold can hinder accurate playback (CLIR). While audio in digital form has its own longevity issues, it is currently becoming a preferable preservation option.

Digitization also assists in preservation by expediting the process of duplicating items. One viable tactic to avoid the loss of information is creating backup copies to archival holdings (Digital Preservation Coalition, n.d.); executing this strategy with digital elements is generally less onerous than with analog material, especially if the digital file is on a server or hard drive. To reproduce an analog tape, for example, a person in all likelihood has to play the entire tape and employ specialized equipment. An item existing as a computer file can be copied in much less time, and in many cases, the system used to view the item also can be used to duplicate it. Furthermore, when reproductions of digital material are made, there is no significant quality loss the way there often is with analog items. This frees the archivist to make as many copies as is necessary to prevent loss.

Another area in which digitization plays a positive role is where access and preservation intersect. On occasion, an item that the archivist wants to preserve cannot be used on a regular basis because of its rarity or delicate status. Manuscripts and early printed books are examples of this type of material (Foldesi, 2005, p. 52). In these cases, digitization can be used to create surrogates that can be accessed by researchers, while the originals remain untouched by the public (Whatley, 2001, p. 54). This means that users glean all of the information from items they desire while, among other benefits, book bindings remain intact, pages do not get ripped, photographs do not get smudged, and tapes do not get worn out. Perhaps more important, the original material remains secure and cannot be stolen or lost by a borrower. Whereas access and preservation often are opposing forces in the physical world, digitization can improve both access and preservation simultaneously.

Decreased Storage Space Requirements

One final way in which digital items aid the archivist is through the reduction of necessary storage space, especially when dealing with a large number of items. Because a voluminous amount of digital material can exist on a single hard drive or optical disk, one goal of digital conversion projects can be the decrease in physical size of a collection (Carter, 2005, p. 50). This is especially true if the original items will be deaccessioned. However, many projects require that the analog originals be saved as part of preservation efforts (Edmondson, 2004, p. 46; Carter, p. 51). Even when items being digitized must be retained, better storage options should become available because the originals will no longer be needed for immediate access by researchers. Therefore, the analog material can be moved to a location designed almost exclusively for preservation, possibly with lower storage costs.

The Challenges

While digitization generally makes the archivist more effective by improving preservation and access, converting items to digital format can also act as a hindrance to the archivist's mission. There are myriad costs and concerns that the archivist must confront before, during, and after digitization, many of which are not readily perceptible. Perhaps Lisa R. Carter (2005) sums it up best: “Digitizing an archive involves a great deal more activity than anyone would expect” (p. 54). The result is that considerable resources are used for digitization projects when they could be utilized for other activities equally important to the archival operation. Beyond this, there actually are times when digitizing material impairs preservation and access. Because of these factors, it is essential for the archivist to examine the negative aspects of digitization before embarking on a conversion project.


Even before digitization begins, the archivist needs to designate an immense amount of time for planning and preparing. Expenditures also might be required. One of the first decisions to be made is the type of media to be used. If the item is to be accessed over the Internet, the file needs to be saved to a server or hard drive. If saving to an optical disk, one must choose between CD-ROM and DVD-based discs. The archivist also needs to determine the file type to be created. Paper documents can be converted to portable document format (PDF), an image format like tagged image file format (TIFF), or even a word-processing format. There also are numerous types of digital photograph, audio, and video files. Related to the file type are the hardware and software that will be used to perform the conversion, edit and store the file, and then provide access. The archivist must choose computer equipment and applications that are compatible with the selected file types. In some instances, a project might require a higher level of expertise, a greater amount of staff, or more advanced technology than what is possessed by the institution. For example, an archivist with a collection of cartographic material might wish to digitize oversized maps but may lack a scanner large enough to perform the job (Kidd, 2002, p. 63). Another common situation is that completing the digitization project would preclude archival staff from fulfilling other responsibilities. In situations like these, the archivist must decide whether to invest in new equipment and employees or to hire a vendor that can perform the conversion with its own resources. An institution might even consider entering a partnership or collaboration to ease the financial burden and reduce staff workload (James-Gilboe, 2005, p. 158; Western States Digital Standards Group, 2003, p. 9). The array of approaches facing the archivist is staggering, and what can be most daunting is that so many of these decisions are intertwined: the selection of a vendor or partner could limit the hardware and software options, which in turn affect choices regarding file types. Consequently, a great deal of time must be invested in analyzing which strategy will best meet the needs of the project and the institution's long-term goals.

Another issue to address prior to conversion is the desired quality of the digital reproduction, which is determined by the level of technology used to capture and display the archival item (Conway, 1996, p. 12). In a perfect world, the digital version of the item will be of the highest quality possible to best convey to researchers the information contained in the original. However, superior digital representations necessitate more advanced equipment, increased time to execute the conversion, and greater storage space, all of which demand additional funding. There is also a convenience factor; high-quality files are often so large that they take an inordinate amount of time to download and view, especially via a remote network connection. To remedy this situation, an institution might need to make one copy for preservation and a lower-quality copy for researcher access (Foldesi, 2005, p. 56). When dealing with images, the Digital Imaging Working Group of the Western States Digital Standards Group (2003) recommends the creation of three versions of each file: (1) a “master” image that is uncompressed and unedited, with a large file size, to serve as a surrogate for the original, and used for creating high-quality print reproductions; (2) an “access” image that is compressed, of acceptable quality for most research, and used for general Web viewing; and (3) a “thumbnail” image that is very small, designed for quick Web display, and which typically appears with bibliographic information so the user can decide whether the larger access image should be viewed. Of course, generating these additional versions of each file requires added resources that are not always available. Kentucky Education Television (KET), while creating a digital archive of its programming, was forced by time and budget constraints to create only compressed files suited for access, when uncompressed files more appropriate for preservation were desired as well (Carter, 2005, p. 51).


Copyright concerns also must be confronted during the planning stages of a digital conversion project. All “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” are entitled to copyright protection (U.S. Copyright Office, n.d., Section 102). The application of this protection is complex, as restricted activities vary based on many factors, including when an item was created, its original purpose, and the intended use of potential copies. With few exceptions, though, displaying or distributing a copy of a work to the public without the permission of the rights holder is a copyright violation (Besek, 2003). For this reason, before establishing a digital archive that will be accessed over the Internet, the archivist must make every effort to locate the creator of the material to be digitized, so copyright can be cleared.

While locating authors is relatively straightforward in theory, it is quite difficult in practice, placing a significant burden on the archivist. It might not be feasible to determine the identity of the item's creator; even if this person is found, he or she might not be the copyright holder, who might be unknown or impossible to reach (Isaacman, Lalu, & Nygren, 2005, p. 67). The inability to ascertain the rights holder is fairly common; in a recent study, Carnegie Mellon University's library was unable to locate the owners of 22 percent of a sample of 270 works (Carlson, 2005). When the owner of the copyright cannot be found, the archivist must decide whether to display online the so-called “orphan work.” On one hand, leaving the item offline hampers access, sometimes to the point that it can be difficult to attract funding for projects that do not offer the resultant digital collection to the public (Carlson). On the other hand, exhibiting the work without permission would create an ethical dilemma and leave the archivist and institution susceptible to copyright infringement litigation. Even the required effort to contact each rights holder takes its toll on an institution. While constructing a digital archive of agriculture literature, Cornell University librarians spent $50,000 and months of staff time attempting to clear copyright on 343 monographs (Carlson). Their success rate was under 50 percent (Carlson). The planners of a digitization project must budget the necessary time and money to gain permission to use copyrighted material, as well as establish a policy on dealing with orphan works.

Copyright matters also come into play even after permission to publish is granted. An institution must develop a strategy to stop unauthorized reproduction and distribution by people viewing the files over the Internet. In this situation, the retention of quality when duplicating a digital item is a negative factor. One approach is to keep the access copy at low quality to make copies less desirable to own. Sound recordings available via the Web can be offered only at a substandard bit rate, and the resolution of images and videos can be made equally poor. With images and other visual files, the utilization of visible or electronic watermarks is also a feasible tactic (Western States Digital Standards Group, 2003, p. 23). These actions help an institution safeguard intellectual property rights, but there are costs involved. Low-quality files and watermarks can impair a researcher's ability to obtain information being sought, in direct opposition to a major goal of most digitization projects. In addition, the implementation of these copyright-protecting techniques demands time and expertise.

Digitization Process

Once all of the pre-conversion planning is complete, the next step is the capture process. This typically entails the scanning of paper documents and the recording of sound and video. To ensure the best quality of the digital copy, the archivist must properly prepare the originals. The most basic maneuver for nearly all formats of analog material is cleaning the item. Dirty paper documents and photographs can result in blurry reproductions. The presence of dust, mold, or fungus can negatively impact the playback of audio discs, audiotapes and videotapes, and all types of film. Often audiotape is spliced together with adhesive that can leave a residue that needs to be removed (CLIR, 2006, pp. 6-7). Beyond cleaning, there are many practices that will improve the quality of digital copies. As an example, large-format paper documents like maps should be flattened to remove noticeable creases. Prior to conversion, videotapes should be placed for 24 hours in the room in which capture will take place, because tapes can expand or contract in a new environment, affecting playback (Carter, 2005, p. 52). Audiotape that has warped can be rewound and stored for up to six months; doing this will allow it to come into flat contact with the tape heads when played, enhancing sound quality (CLIR, p. 7). Any other remediable flaws of the original should be addressed before actual capture begins.

Great care must be taken during the conversion process not only to improve the quality of reproductions but also to prevent the unnecessary harming of originals. For instance, attempting to play a deteriorating videotape can damage it even further (Carter, 2005, p. 52). Scanning items can generate intense light and heat, so special care must be taken when digitizing aged books and similar materials (Dean, 2003, pp. 135-136; Foldesi, 2005, p. 52). The temperature and humidity in the scanning area should be monitored, and rare material should spend as little time out of its storage area as possible (Dean, pp. 135-136). Books should be opened delicately to avoid damage to bindings (Dean, p. 136).

Once capture takes place, the next challenge faced by the archivist is quality control. The resulting digital file needs to be checked for distortions, omissions, and other errors. The characteristics needing evaluation are highly dependent on the format in question. For example, an image would need to be checked to ensure that it is complete, that no section is skewed, that it is as clear as it should be for its resolution, and that all of its colors are accurate (Moss & Currall, 2004, p. 125). In the case of newspapers or other items consisting primarily of written words, if text files are being created via OCR, one would need to review the digital output all the way down to the character level (James-Gilboe, 2005, p. 159). The ideal method of confirming the quality of a sound or video recording is having someone monitor every second of the file, but this practice is virtually impossible due to budget limitations (CLIR, 2006, p. 11; Carter, 2005, p. 53). Instead, through batch processing, several files are usually created simultaneously. While every transfer might not be heard or viewed in its entirety by a human evaluator, certain aspects, such as the length of the recording, can be checked quickly to ensure that the entire item was converted (CLIR, p. 12).

Metadata and Other Post-Digitization Concerns

Even after the conversion of material is complete, expenditures by the archival operation continue. According to the Digital Imaging Working Group of the Western States Digital Standards Group (2003, p. 9), “Generally, capture and conversion of data often comprises only [one-third] of the total costs, while cataloging, description, and indexing comprise [two-thirds] of the total costs.” The activities that occur post-conversion, especially the indispensable task of creating metadata, are laborious but essential to maintain the integrity of the data and to allow researchers to find relevant information within the collection. Many types of metadata in the digital environment differ from those in the physical world. The recording of metadata is such a key part of digitization that most project plan recommendations address the topic directly (Carter, 2005; CDP, 2005; CLIR, 2006; Western States Digital Standards Group).

The first type of metadata for archival items is identification information, the most fundamental of which simply is the file name. When creating digital files, a naming scheme must be developed that assists in keeping the material organized. Ordinarily, the archivist also should assign a unique code to each digital item to aid in the tracking of individual files. Additional metadata of this type might include familiar fields like title, creator, and place of creation. If the work is part of a series, the series title and the work's place within the series should be included.

Metadata more useful to researchers involves the intellectual content of the item. It is crucial to delineate the major subject matter addressed by the work so researchers can have an idea of whether the item is worth viewing. Digitizing material is not a fruitful activity if the resulting files cannot be found by researchers. By providing a descriptive summary and index terms for items online, the archivist allows a user to search for information by keyword or browse by subject and then quickly access relevant items. The digital environment facilitates this process, but there is considerable work that must be invested to allow the system to function optimally.

A final category of metadata, one that is extremely important when dealing with digital items, is technical metadata. Nearly all of this information will not be available until the digital files are created, so compiling and recording it must be done only after conversion is complete. First, basic information about the file must be affirmed, including its size, date of creation, and type of file. Additional information in this area depends on the medium. For example, an image or video should specify resolution, while a sound recording should convey its bit rate. The capture process should also be documented: the hardware and software used, any limitations in copying the file, and any enhancement, compression, or other intentional alterations of the item. If the analog version possessed by the institution has missing or damaged sections, this must be noted so those accessing the digital file understand that the version being viewed is different from the original work, but the errors are not due to the conversion process. Another notable piece of information is whether the file has any restrictions to access owing to copyright or other regulations.

After the archivist has determined the proper metadata for each item, metadata storage becomes a priority. With digital material, some software enables the embedding of metadata directly within the file. This is advantageous because the metadata becomes inseparable from the archival item itself. The drawback of this tactic is that in most cases, the file must be accessed to view all of the metadata regarding it. Therefore, information about the material also should be available from external sources like a contents list or database. Furthermore, if the item is to be stored on a medium like an optical disk that exists apart from the institution's computer network, it is useful to label the disk or its container with basic metadata such as, at the very least, the item's title or unique identifier. Without this type of label, it will be excessively cumbersome to locate a specific file within a collection of disks. Lastly, before an item's record or label is finalized, an additional quality control process must occur to verify that the metadata are accurate. If a misspelling or other error becomes a permanent part of an item's record, it might be impossible for users to locate the item at a later time. Metadata creation and storage, like so many other activities related to digitization, demands a multitude of resources.

Another challenge connected with digitization is the ancillary work required to make the digital items accessible to the public. In most cases, this involves displaying the collection on the Web. To accomplish this, simply creating the digital files is not sufficient. Additional time and effort must be spent on constructing the Web site that will display the material. This will entail primarily technical tasks like setting up the server and writing the code for the site. Other responsibilities include formatting the navigational layout, creating the graphic design of the pages, and authoring text. Metadata will need to be displayed with each item. A high level of expertise will be necessary to produce a Web site that is aesthetically pleasing, loads quickly, provides convenient access to the files, and reduces staff workload by automatically pulling data from existing information sources like finding aids and electronic catalog records. Additional training for current employees, the hiring of new staff, or an outsourcing arrangement may be necessary.

Perhaps the most significant concern elicited by digitization involves an issue that typically does not come to light until at least a couple of years subsequent to the conversion of material: preservation of the items as technology continues to change. Similar to some analog items like tapes, digital files require separate equipment for viewing. As such, preservation of digital objects is not based only on the physical life of storage media, but also on the viability of the system that provides access (Conway, 2005, pp. 11-12). In the case of digital material, both the hardware and software used to interact with archival items can become obsolete in as little as a few years. Thus, an institution engaging in digitization must dedicate time to monitoring the technological environments surrounding its digital collections. As current equipment and formats become antiquated, the archivist must perform migration projects with many of the same costs and concerns as the original digitization: determination of the best equipment, file formats, and vendors; balancing preservation with access; copyright issues; quality control; and metadata, especially the documentation of alterations to the file or its format. In this sense, digitization is less of an event than it is a continual process, so the archivist must be aware of the future demands of a digitization project taking place today.

The archivist also must be cognizant of the ramifications of digitization on employees and their work processes. The conversion of major collections to digital format will create substantial change within the workplace, which in turn can cause considerable stress among staff (Johnson, 1999). Skill sets that employees have developed over time will become less relevant with the advent of digitization, potentially leading to anxiety. The manager of an archival operation can employ a two-fold strategy to combat this uneasiness. First, all employees should receive technical training to better equip them to interact with digital files. Staff members should be taught the fundamentals of data networks and should be prepared to answer basic questions regarding the archival operation's technology. As material becomes available to the public online, there will be a need for employees with intimate knowledge of consumer hardware, software, and peripherals to assist remote researchers struggling with viewing, downloading, and printing files. Receiving the skills to excel at modified job responsibilities will alleviate much of the trepidation brought about by digitization. Secondly, the archivist should attempt to provide emotional appeasement to staff members. Every effort should be made to communicate with employees and to allow them to share input regarding the changes produced by the digitization project, particularly aspects that impact their job functions (Johnson). Supporting staff members will encourage them to buy into the changes being implemented, resulting in a smoother transition for the entire organization. Once more, the additional training and management of employees will mean the investment of significant time and money, increasing the costs associated with digitization.


The myriad factors that the archivist must examine before embarking on a digitization project can be overwhelming. Many institutions have concluded that the improvements to access and preservation make digitization worthwhile, resulting in almost boundless digitization activity among archives and libraries. Nevertheless, there are countless challenges to confront prior to, during, and following the conversion process. By becoming apprised of all of the issues involved, the archivist who elects to move forward with a digitization project can do so with confidence and manage the undertaking effectively.


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Author's Bio

Jeremy DeGracia is pursuing a Master of Library and Information Science from San José State University. He currently manages the information center of Micronomics, a firm specializing in economic research and consulting in Los Angeles.

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  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. The Benefits
  4. The Challenges
  5. Conclusion
  6. References
  7. Author's Bio

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