Digital Imaging on a Shoestring: A Primer for Librarians

Article excerpt

In April 1994 Cline Library at Northern Arizona University (NAU) received funding for a pilot project to establish a database of digitized original photographs, manuscripts, and maps from the Special Collections and Archives Department. Materials were selected for digitizing to support curriculum and instructional needs of four NAU faculty whose classes were broadcast to distance sites state-wide during Fall 1995. PCs accessing the image database were installed at four distance sites, and library staff at these sites were trained in the use of Netscape for database access and navigation. The pilot project has provided an opportunity for close collaboration of library staff with other NAU staff working in the areas of distance education, instructional technology, and network communications.

Why Digitize?

Thousands of institutions worldwide are committing substantial resources to digitizing collections. Is it worth it? What are the benefits? A primary benefit is to provide remote access to library and archival materials. Online catalogs identify and provide references to material. Image databases provide access to digital representations of the materials themselves, a distinct advantage to the user.[1] Because in the digital world, preservation and access become synonymous, a second important benefit of digital technology is that it provides a preservation format that supplements traditional preservation practices. The Commission on Preservation and Access defines preservation as "the provision of access to knowledge recorded on a multitude of media as far into the future as possible."[2]

Northern Arizona University has been given a specific mission by the Arizona Board of Regents: to serve the communities of rural Arizona by making its resources available to them using appropriate technology. The Special Collections and Archives Department at Cline Library houses a photograph collection of 700,000 images, a manuscript collection of 3 million documents and a map collection of 1,300 documents. These collections depict the history and development of the Colorado Plateau from prehistory to present and contain materials related to forestry, ranching, mining, geology, archaeology, Native American traditions, urban settlement and growth, tourism, and recreation. All materials at Special Collections and Archives are noncirculating. For place-bound students at over fifty NAU distance sites around Arizona, these materials remain inaccessible due to geographic distance.

Critical Decisions To Be Made

Many important decisions need to be made before establishing an image database. Those decisions will affect how the database is accessed and navigated by local and remote users, who those users will be, and the future viability of the database as technologies change.

Academic Support

Will the database benefit a broad range of academic departments or only a few? Will faculty have an interest in using the image database as an instructional tool? Will they need assistance incorporating it into the curriculum? New technologies are embraced more wholeheartedly by some faculty than others, depending on teaching methods, the nature of the discipline being taught, and personal preferences.

Funding

How much is needed and from what source? Creating an image database can be very costly, depending on the technologies you choose and the level of technical support your institution provides. Our pilot project was funded by the university. We're investigating grant sources for future funding.

Technologies

What kinds are most appropriate for your institution? Will all components be compatible? Who will train your staff to use them? Even in house technical support staff may not be familiar with imaging technologies.

Data Standards

Which file formats are most appropriate for your data? Should data files be compressed? Which compression method is best? …