Ned and I attended this training day at The National Archives in Kew. The day was intended to introduce archivists and others to the key issues involved in digitising archive material. The topics advertised were: digitisation strategy (stakeholder management, business models, funding and sustainability); collection care; in-house digitisation; metadata and digital preservation. The first session, on strategy, by Chris Mumby and Caroline Kimbell of TNA, began with some lessons on how to work with commercial partners in digitisation projects, particularly those in the family history industry. Companies can fund and carry out digitisation projects which archives would not be able to afford by themselves, in exchange for the right to use the images in their own services to generate revenue. In general, the commercial partner owns the IPR in the indexes they create but not the digitised images themselves. It is important to know what to expect from commercial organisations and their contracts – companies are adroit at getting what they want and it is important to get legal advice before signing a contract. One pitfall is signing away the right to use images in perpetuity – ten years should be long enough. On the other hand, there are many benefits to this sort of arrangement – such as getting someone else to pay for digitising your stuff and advertising it.
Another key point from this talk was that the most important questions to consider in contemplating a digitisation project are: “Why do you want to digitise?” and “What are you going to do with the digitised material afterwards?” There are numerous different reasons for digitising, including to create preservation surrogates and to maximise access. Different projects may have different reasons – this is one reason why it is very difficult to produce an over-arching digitisation strategy. The National Archives has been “innovative, but opportunistic” in its choice of projects and each project is very different. They have found that digitisation massively increases use of material. However, interestingly, this effect also has a negative impact on physical preservation, as, although physical documents can be withdrawn from use once digitised, the massive level of use of the digitised version increases interest in related, but undigitised, documents, leading to an increase in users actually coming to the archive to see the physical documents. A useful tip: always digitise a document series or collection in its entirety – this was stressed strongly.
The session on collection care looked mainly at preparing documents for digitisation and how to handle conservation issues, with lots of examples from TNA projects. Lots of photos of decayed, creased, sewn and pinned documents are always a hit with me, as I miss handling interesting old paper things! Advice was given on the level of conservation necessary (just enough to enable safe handling and image capture) and how to integrate conservation into the workflow, especially when outsourcing digitisation. Again, the importance of capturing everything, even extremely damaged documents, was stressed.
After lunch, we were given a tour of the digitisation suites at TNA. This was possibly, for me the most interesting part, as it is always good to see, rather than just hear, what people are doing. We saw TNA staff at work using copy stands (Mamiya cameras with Phase One digital backs) and a room in which at least two companies were at work digitising TNA material, supervised by a TNA conservator.
The session on metadata was actually focussed on transcription, rather than what I would have thought of as metadata, namely descriptive information about a resource (it is interesting to see how terms are used differently in slightly different fields). The speaker, Tafhim Kiani, spoke about the TNA’s experience of outsourcing manual transcription of digitised manuscripts (OCR is not possible for handwritten documents at present).
The final talk, on digital preservation, was presented by Tim Gollins from TNA. He spoke about the importance of what he calls ‘parsimonious preservation’, i.e. doing the minimum necessary on the basis of the evidence available. He argued that the threat to digital objects has been exaggerated in some cases. Particularly vulnerable is data in proprietary formats and on removable media. He regards data in extremely common formats, such as JPEG, as being safe, simply because the sheer number of files in these formats means that there is always going to have to be some means of accessing them. There is no need for expensive emulation in many cases. Whether this is true or not, time will tell!
All in all, it was an interesting and informative day, which I would recommend to anyone interested in this field.

Matthew Herring

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