Collection Care blog

19 November 2013

Fail to prepare for digitisation, prepare to fail at digitising!

Planning a digitisation project can be a lengthy process with consideration required for strategic alignment, funding models, workflow, and metadata – all of which should be led by a clear definition of the overall purpose of the digitisation project. What must also be considered are the practical aspects of digitisation bearing in mind the condition and format of items, and identifying what needs to be done to items to make them camera ready.

There are potential risks from digitisation as books become objects when being copied, and therefore may not be handled, positioned or viewed in the conventional way. This increased handling can accelerate the normal process of wear and tear. In order to minimise these risks the items should be checked over before appearing in the imaging studio. These checks are run by our Preventive Conservation team who make initial condition assessments of items to be digitised; recommend any treatments to stabilise or repair items; and advise on handling and transport, camera equipment, lighting and cradles. We are Collection Care after all!

The outcome of pre-digitisation checks fall broadly under five headings which will be covered in this post, and we’ll share some examples of what to look out for.

1. Items that can be digitised in their current state

Good condition, flat, loose leaf items, and bound items where all the content can be seen easily, and that open well, can be digitised.

Good condition material
CC by Items in good condition which open well can be digitised easily. Depending on size limits these items may be suitable for scanning

For folded inserts, digitisation is best facilitated through use of a book rest to support the main volume allowing the insert to lie flat. A support can be arranged underneath to provide a flat base for large foldouts. Take note of the format and size of folded inserts as large items may be too big for many scanners, and may need to be photographed instead.

Fold outs and inserts
CC by The value of a good measuring tape cannot be underestimated! This bound book (left) is 260 x 210 mm, but the insert extends to 770 x 500 mm. In guard books (right), the insert may be smaller than the volume in which case a sheet of paper can be placed behind

Guard-books which contain miscellaneous single documents or groups of documents usually open well, and if items are in a good condition then they can be photographed or scanned. If inserts are smaller than the volume then a backing sheet will need to be placed underneath to hide items behind. Size and positioning can vary through the volume so items may have to be repositioned under the camera/scanner. Items with wax or shellac applied seals and vulnerable manuscript items should not be scanned under glass as this can cause damage or make existing damage worse.

Some items may appear to be badly damaged but may still be imaged safely. For example if an item has a broken binding where the boards are off and the sewing has failed, it can be treated like single leaves. If the boards are completely off, but the sewing and text block are still intact then it acts like a bound volume.

2. Items that may need some preparation

It may be possible to photograph rolled items without preparation. If the roll is particularly long then it may need to be photographed in sections with weights positioned to prevent the item rolling up between shots. Where rolled items are distorted and do not lie flat easily (even using weights), they may need some relaxing and pressing first. Bound items which have been rolled need to be relaxed and flattened for digitisation.

Rolls and rolled documents
CC by Some rolled items can be digitised using weights (left), while others (right) may need some care before imaging

Folded items may need to be photographed separately and in sections as they can be much bigger than they first appear. It is important to know how much space is needed as a different location and set up may be needed to capture large items.

Unexpectedly large items

CC by Items may be larger than they seem! This fold out map requires a large working space which imaging studios may not be capable of accommodating

Past stationary remedies such as pins, treasury tags, fasteners and adhesive tapes can damage paper. Rusting induced by a high humidity environment can stain underlying paper. Preparation time may be needed to remove pins, fasteners and threads. Tape removal can be more time consuming involving the work of a conservator. You can read more about tape removal in our Conservation Revealed blog post.

Bad storage and poor housing can cause problems making items difficult to handle and lay flat. These items may need to be prepared for digitisation by relaxing and flattening – this is a relatively simple job, however if there is a lot of material it can be time consuming.

Damaged items
CC by Poor storage (left) and broken threads (right) can make items difficult to handle

In all of these cases, time has to be factored in for preparation of material.

3. Items that may need minor conservation work

Ideally dirty items should be surface cleaned to remove loose dust and dirt before imaging. Ingrained surface dirt is very difficult to remove so the item may have to be imaged as it is, or even excluded if the condition is detrimental to the project. It’s worth keeping in mind that the appearance may be part of the ‘story’ of the material.

Minor conservation work required
CC by Damaged covers (left), and torn pages (right) can be digitised after minimal localised conservation

Outside leaves may be more badly damaged than text blocks, and it may be the case that a few leaves in a text block are torn. These items may be digitised after minimal localised conservation. It may also be possible to place torn loose items into Melinex sleeves to hold flat as an alternative to other preparation/conservation.

Mouldy items can cause damage, losses, staining and weakness to paper. For health and safety reasons, this material needs to be checked by a conservator. It may need to be dried if active and should be cleaned to remove mould spores before being safe to handle.

4. Items that may need more extensive conservation work

Extensive tears and detached sections may need to be repaired. All folds are vulnerable to tearing. If bindings have to be pulled for rebinding, digitisation can take place beforehand – single pages may be easier to handle.

Vulnerable material
CC by Already damaged material such as this torn foldout is vulnerable to further damage. Check if any items are scheduled for conservation work which may make digitisation easier

5. Items needing handling input as an alternative to conservation

Some inks such as iron gall ink can cause degradation of otherwise good quality paper. Where the damage is extensive and the paper is very brittle, it may be quicker to image with a conservator handling and setting up the items with the photographer.

Handling input required

CC by Having a conservator in the imaging studio to handle ink burn through (left) or loose leaves (right) may be quicker and less expensive than arranging full conservation work

Some bound items may be in very good condition but have restricted openings. Tightly bound volumes often result in text disappearing into the gutter of the book. These types of items can be difficult to digitise and adaptations to book cradles using straps and weights may be needed to enable them to be handled. Most books should not be opened wider than 120° unless they do so naturally. Openings throughout the volume should be checked for opening characteristics. Generally books should be positioned so that supports hold the item open at a safe angle for that item. Opening characteristics can change as a book is worked through, and volumes may need to be adjusted regularly to ensure the item is sitting correctly. Angled book rests can be placed on one side to allow the page being imaged to lie flat.

Opening characteristics of books
CC by Opening characteristics of books: Rigid tight back in conventional reading position (top left), hollow backed book in conventional reading position (top right), tight paperback 90° opening (bottom left), tight binding opens to barely 90° (bottom right)

You may decide that highly valuable items should be accompanied and/or handled and set up by a conservator or curator. This time and cost will need to be factored in to the project.

Decisions about preparation sometimes depend on the purpose of the digitisation project, e.g. to publicise the collection or to provide a study source. This may affect the level of preparation needed for digitisation, i.e. whether or not to relax and flatten items. Digital copies may raise awareness of physical items and increase demand to see the original – so decisions about future access need to be addressed. Planning for a digitisation project is vital to ensure the success of your project, with the emphasis on balancing the benefits of producing a digital copy against the risk of damage during the imaging process.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)
Imaging Scientist

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