Selection Criteria for Digitization

Margot Note

Margot Note

March 13, 2023

A selection policy is a core component of a digital project. Archivists must validate their selection procedures for digitization, especially with the increase in collaborations for digital projects. 

Additionally, funding is most likely available where proposed digitization programs meet agreed criteria regarding preparation, selection, and image capture. Since only a small percentage of a collection can be digitized, archivists must determine what is most worthwhile. Aesthetic, evidential, informational, intrinsic, and artifactual values—as well as indicators unique to the digital realm, influence selection.

Copyright Status

Copyright status is the most critical selection criterion for digitization. Records that are candidates for digitization should be in the public domain or have their copyright held by the institution. If not, archivists should obtain permission to digitize from the rights holder. If the institution lacks the right to digitize, it should choose other records. 

Archivists should investigate donor restrictions to determine if the records can be digitally captured and presented online. Digitization performed without thoughtful selection creates digital files that are limited in usage because of legal restrictions. Determining the legal status of materials is crucial in any digital selection process. If institutions have materials encumbered by an onerous permissions process, it may be expeditious to consider other collections. 

Current and Potential Use

Usage is another factor that determines a collection’s priority for digitization. Selected records should support activities, programs, exhibitions, publications, and events and enhance the institution’s strengths. 

If analog records are well used, researchers will likely be interested in their digitized versions. Conversely, underused records may be good candidates for digitization in order to attract new users. Although selection based on use is tenable, doing so limits search results to repeated use of records without context. Archivists must balance digitizing popular records against providing a richer representation of the institution’s holdings. Records hosted online, even if highly used in analog form, are only a subset of the collection. Online aggregations provide a curated and perhaps restrictive view of history rather than a more balanced perspective.

Archivists should evaluate whether appropriate intellectual control can be provided for the originals and their surrogates. In addition, archivists should assess the degree to which the materials are suited for online use, if cataloging and processing are complete, and if resources support metadata creation. 

The Impact of Digitization

Selection should consider technical feasibility, such as the degree to which digital surrogates can represent the originals and whether the images will display accurately. Digitization is ideal for records with restricted access due to their condition, value, vulnerability, and location. Additionally, some collections may be chosen to enhance image quality. 


Requests from potential collaborative or consortial partners influence selection. Digital conversion may encourage new usage between institutions, and collections split among institutions can be united online. Archivists also consider synthesizing various formats, related materials scattered among many locations, and the possibility of developing a critical mass of subject-related records. Making a digitization project meaningful requires a minimum volume of materials. Otherwise, the research value may be too low to attract enough users. An important consideration is whether an entire collection or only part of it will be digitized. The value of records is higher in the aggregate rather than as single items without context.

Other criteria include examining the motives for initiating digitization projects, their supportive institutional framework, and funding opportunities. Finally, no matter what the decisions to convert materials to digital form are, archivists refine the selection process along a continuum requiring reassessment throughout the project. 

Understanding Context

The creation of digital collections relies upon understanding the context and meaning of the physical collection. Research often reveals aspects of a collection that influence digitization. The materials in a collection slated for digitization should be stable, organized to optimize scanning, and have supportive records to facilitate processing. If a collection is not physically ready, organized and documented, or sufficiently understood, digitization should be delayed, regardless of priority status.

Margot Note

Margot Note

If you’re interested in this topic and eager to learn more, please join us for “Selection for Digitization”, the third in Margot Note’s latest free webinar series, on Wednesday, March 29, 2023 at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern. (Can’t make it? Register anyway and we’ll send you a link to the recording and slides afterwards). Register now or call 604-278-6717.

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