Selection for Digitization – Best Practices

Margot Note

Margot Note

June 25, 2018

The development of selection policies is a core component of digital projects, and many selection guidelines and criteria have been developed by institutions, national governments, and international organizations. Institutions need to validate their selection procedures for digitization concerning external criteria, especially with the increase of collaborations for digital projects.

Funding is most likely to be available where proposed digitization programs meet agreed criteria regarding preparation, selection, and image capture. Since only a small percentage of an image collection can be digitized, archivists must determine what is most worthwhile to convert. Selection should be influenced by aesthetic, evidential, informational, intrinsic, and artifactual values, as well as indicators unique to the digital realm.

Know Your Rights

The most important selection criteria for digitization is the copyright status of the original materials. Images should have their copyright held by the organization or be in the public domain. If not, permission to digitize must be obtained by the rights holder. If the institution does not have the right to digitize, then other images must be chosen, or the project cannot proceed.

Issues regarding intellectual property, cultural sensitivities, privacy and publicity rights, obscenity, and pornography can lead to lawsuits and costly settlements. Additionally, donor restrictions must be investigated to determine if the images can be digitally captured and presented online. Digitization performed without careful selection may result in the creation of digital files that cannot be used due to legal restrictions. Determining the legal status of candidate materials is a crucial step in any digital selection process. If institutions have images encumbered by a difficult permissions process, it may be more expeditious to consider other collections.

Usage as a Selection Factor

Usage is another factor which determines a collection’s priority for digitization. Selected images should support current prioritized activities, public programs, and outreach activities, such as exhibitions, publications, and cultural events; enhance the strengths of the institution; and have the potential for the enduring value of digital objects. Items with pedagogical utility for classroom use, curriculum support, or distance education are also ideal for digitization.

If analog images are well used, researchers will most likely also be interested in their digitized versions. Conversely, underused images may be good candidates for digitization, if they have widespread interest and a realistic expectation exists for attracting new users. However, images selected for conversion and hosted online, even if highly used in their analog form, are only a subset of the collection. Online aggregations of images give the public access to an edited view of history, rather than the more balanced perspective they would have if they were aware of the context from which the photographs originated.

Although making selection decisions based on use is tenable, doing so limits search results to the repeated use of the same images, perhaps without proper context. Archivists must determine the sapient balance between digitizing popular images and providing a richer representation of the institution’s holdings.

Intellectual Control

Potential projects should be evaluated as to whether the appropriate intellectual control can be provided for the original images and their digital surrogates. Archivists should assess the degree to which the images are arranged in a way suited to online use; if cataloging, processing, and related organizational work are already accomplished; and if there are appropriate staff and resources to support the creation of metadata relating to image identification.

Technical Considerations

Selected images should also be considered for their technical feasibility. Factors to consider are The degree to which a digital version can represent the full content of the original, whether the images will display well digitally, and the capacity for accessing images from current institutionally supported platforms/networked environments and delivering them with reasonable speed are factors to consider. The images should be at least as easy to use digitally as in their original form and should allow for improved access and new types of utilization when digitized.

Improved Access

Images that have restricted access due to their condition, value, vulnerability, or location should be considered for digitization so that access to originals can be reduced for preservation and safety purposes. Additionally, some images or collections may be chosen to enhance image quality. Digital conversion provides high-quality surrogates which, in most cases, will protect the images from handling and satisfy users of today and tomorrow.


Collections of images may be selected because of requests from potential partners in collaborative or consortial efforts. Digital conversion encourages new usage between organizations, and collections split among some institutions may be united online. Research may be enhanced by integrating images that otherwise would have remained separated in different parts of the world. The flexible integration and synthesis of a variety of formats, related materials scattered among many locations, and the contribution to the development of a critical mass of digital images in subject areas should also be considered.

Collective Mass

To make a digitization project worthwhile requires a certain minimum volume of information. Otherwise, the research value will be too low to attract enough planned or potential users. An important consideration is if whether an entire collection or a part of it will be digitized. The value of photographs is higher as in the aggregate, rather than as single items taken out of context.

Organizational Strategy

Other criteria include an examination of the strategic motives for initiating digitization projects, the institutional framework that will support them, and funding opportunities. Whatever the factors behind the decision to convert images to digital form, the selection process is further refined along a continuum that will require reassessment in successive stages.

A healthy balance of all these factors will allow the selection of archival materials for digitization to be the most beneficial to your institution, as well as to researchers around the world. In selecting well, archivists can focus on the parts of their collections that are well suited to digitization, make the best use of technology, and meet their users’ needs. Suitable selection builds digital collections that are both useful and usable, creating assets that can be managed well over time.

Margot Note

Margot Note

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