Assessing the value of digital surrogates

I had an interesting meeting with colleagues yesterday to discuss how we manage digital surrogates - digitised versions of physical items we hold in the archives.

At the Borthwick Institute we do a fair amount of digitisation for a variety of reasons. These range from the large scale digitisation projects such as the York Cause Papers, to digitisation to create images for publications and exhibitions to single pages of Parish Registers for family history researchers.

As I am in the process of setting up a digital archive for the Borthwick Institute, effectively managing these digital surrogates also becomes my concern. The need to preserve these items is not as pressing as for born digital data (because they are only copies, not originals) however, to start to build up the collections that we have in digital form, to allow access to users who can not visit our searchroom, and to avoid having to carry out the same work twice, appropriate creation and management of this data is important. Although there will be a clear distinction in the digital archive between material that has been donated or deposited with us in digital form, and material we have digitised in-house, both these types of data need to be actively managed and migrated over time.

One of the big questions we have been mulling over is how we decide which digitised material we keep and which we discard. There is no pressing need to keep everything we digitise. Much of the reprographics work we carry out for orders would consist of a single page of a larger volume. Creating appropriate metadata to describe exactly which section of the item had been digitised would undoubtedly become an administrative burden and the re-use potential of that individual section would be limited. We therefore need to make some pragmatic decisions on what we keep and what we throw away.

Here are some points to consider:
  • What is the condition of the original document? Is it fragile? Do we need a digital surrogate so we can create a copy for access that avoids any further handling of the original?
  • How easy is it to digitise the original? If problematic because of it's large size or tight binding then we should ensure we maintain the digital surrogate to avoid having to digitise again in the future.
  • Is the section to be digitised suitable for re-use or would it make little sense out of context (for example if it is only one small section of a larger item)?
  • Is the archive catalogued to item level? This would certainly make it easier to administer the digital surrogates and ensure they can be related to their physical counterparts
  • What are the access conditions for the original document? Is there any value in maintaining a digital copy of a document that we can not make more widely available?
I am interested in how others have addressed this decision making process and how digital surrogates are treated within a digital archive so would welcome your thoughts...

Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist


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