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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Preparing Collections for Digitization

Since 2005 the Archives of American Art has been digitizing entire manuscript collections and making them available to researchers online. Currently there are 102 collections online representing over 800 linear feet of material. The benefit of our approach to collection digitization is that it relies upon traditional archival methods of arrangement and description. The transition to an in-house digitization program seemed like a natural progression for us because many of our processing activities already supported our in-house microfilming operations. We were able to re-purpose and enhance these existing workflows, rather than invent new ones. The key is that the archivist assigned to process the collection also oversees digitization.

Processing a collection that will be digitized is very similar to fully processing other collections, however the archivist has to take the extra step of considering whether documents require special handling, additional imaging instructions, and if there are items in the collection that should not to be digitized. Though we’d like to digitize every single item in a collection, this is not always possible. Types of materials that are typically not scanned include duplicates, items readily available in libraries, certain financial records, items with sensitive content, and fragile or large items which can’t physically be scanned. Having the archivist make these decisions as they work, rather than at a later date, takes advantage of the archival appraisal skill set that they already have.

As the archivist determines what is not to be scanned, they write scanning instructions for the digital imaging technician on slips of paper placed within the collection. The archivist also writes numbers on each box and folder to help the technician keep things in order and save their work in the corresponding computer file directory.

The next step is for the archivist to write an online EAD finding aid for the collection. It was clear from the start of the project that item level metadata was not sustainable, and we also questioned why we as archivists would even want to create descriptions for every item when we have always described our holdings in aggregate, trying to reflect context, relationships, and hierarchy. Instead, we use the descriptive folder headings that we were already putting in our EAD finding aids as links to digitized content online.

Upon completion, the finding aid .xml document gets uploaded to our in-house collections database through an internal web-based workflow site, developed by AAA’s programmer. On this workflow site, a Collections Progress Checklist for the collection is automatically generated. This checklist includes all of the tasks for digitization, and every time a task is clicked on it is crossed off and given a date of completion. The archivist manages this checklist for all of their assigned collections.

When it is time to digitize the collection, the archivist moves the boxes of material to the digital imaging office and briefly meets with the technician to review any special instructions. When scanning is completed, the archivist returns the collection to storage, and waits for the digital asset manager to link the images to the finding aid. The final duty of the archivist is to review the finding aid links to all of the images, before they are deployed to the public website. This review process can be time consuming, but is very necessary. The types of errors found during review include missing images or links, items that need to be rescanned or that were skipped, errors in the EAD finding aid, and website programming issues. Once the errors are fixed the archivist gives her final approval, and the digitized collection goes live on AAA’s website. Then on to the next collection!

Erin Corley

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations Erin, both on your well written overview and your long-term participation in this successful project! The emphasis on harnessing the power of traditional archival workflows really comes through in your post.