By carefully thinking through decisions on what materials to digitize, institutions can produce truly successful digital assets and manage them well to the benefit of audiences now and in the future.
Selection for digitization is about more than which items to scan. Selection is what shapes the online collections that are built by libraries, archives, historical societies, and other cultural heritage institutions. By selecting well, institutions can concentrate on the parts of their collections that are best suited to digitization, that make the most effective use of technology, and that meet the needs of their audiences. They can create online collections that are both useful and usable, and they can create high-quality digital assets they can manage well into the future.
No institution can afford to digitize everything. Some items are not suited to digitization. In some cases an item's level of damage or deterioration would necessitate significant repair before digitization could be possible. Some items simply are not important enough to justify the effort.
Every institution should have a selection process in place to evaluate materials and to determine when digital conversion is most appropriate. Clearly stated goals for digitization and careful plans to achieve them are the starting point.
Having a basic set of selection criteria to work from helps characterize materials as better or worse candidates for digitization based on their content value and their physical features, and it provides guidance through the logistic and financial questions: Should these materials be digitized, may they be digitized, can they be digitized, and what will it cost?
Should These Materials Be Digitized?
Is the collection important enough, is there enough audience demand, and can sufficient value be added through digitization to make it worth the effort?
First, does the value of the materials merit the expenditure of effort and resources? Specific definitions of value and importance vary, but they cluster around intellectual, historic, and physical characteristics. For instance, are the materials unique or rare, aesthetically appealing, or associated with important people or events? Is the content important for scholarly or societal reasons? How do the materials relate to the institution's collecting policy, and how do they complement its other digital resources?
Value alone is not a sufficient reason for digitization. Demand from users is a vital second factor. Digitizing and mounting materials publicly is a form of publishing, and success in publishing means knowing and targeting viewers. Is there a current, active audience for these materials? Is access to the original materials inadequate, perhaps due to heavy use of popular items or because access to fragile or very costly items must be restricted? If current demand is low, will digitization attract enough new viewers to justify the cost?
In order to satisfy demand, the institution needs to determine what audiences it hopes to serve and how it will present the digital content. Scholars, high school students, and the general public utilize online content in very different ways. How should content be presented to be most useful to audiences now and in the future? What discovery and navigation tools will be necessary? What metadata will provide adequate description and file management? What supportive and interpretive information will accompany the content? Is the plan to use a standard search interface such as Google to let people find and interpret the items on their own? Or will a special site be designed that puts the materials in context through introductory essays and related content?
Third, how will the materials' value be enhanced; what will be gained that will make them worth more in digital form? …