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Selecting Items for Digitisation- Local History Digitisation Manual

Using existing copies
Known demand v potential demand
Format and physical condition
Visual and information characteristics
Location and conservation requirements
Cataloguing status
Administrative or institutional priorities
Criteria check lists
Physical preparation of items


Ownership of copyright in items being considered for digitisation is a key issue for any digitisation project. Creating a digital copy of an item involves the act of reproduction and its use online will involve the act of communication. Under the Australian Copyright Act 1968, both these acts cannot be undertaken without the permission of the copyright owner (unless copyright no longer subsists in the work). Copyright legislation is complex and it is not necessarily safe to assume that copyright does not subsist in an item just because it is, or appears to be, old.

Under the Australian Copyright Act, copyright in a photograph taken before 1 May 1969 expires 50 years after the end of the year in which the photograph was taken. Copyright in a photograph taken after 1 May 1969 expires 50 years after the end of the year in which the photograph was first published.

If a photograph taken after 1 May 1969 remains unpublished, it will effectively have perpetual copyright protection. For a photograph to be 'published' reproductions have to have been supplied (whether by sale or otherwise) to the public. (Gerdsen, 193)

It may to be difficult to ascertain the copyright status of all items held in an organisation's collection. The organisation will need to ascertain either:

  • that they already have permission to make digital copies of the items in question (e.g. through a permission document provided when material was acquired), or
  • that the rights to do so can be secured from the owner/s, or
  • that copyright in the items cannot be traced and the organisation is prepared to risk the possibility of some copyright breach.

If the last option is followed, it would be prudent for the organisation to provide a public statement on its web site outlining what action will be taken if they receive a complaint regarding a breach of copyright. Copyright is a right owned by an individual or a company, so it is the subject of civil rather than criminal action. Generally copyright owners are concerned to protect their economic interests. An appropriate copyright statement could indicate that if a breach of copyright is established, the organisation would be prepared to negotiate a usage fee with the copyright owner and/or to remove the image from the collection. It would be appropriate to seek legal advice regarding the proper wording of any such statement.

Securing rights will generally involve extensive research, negotiation, drawing up and entering a licence agreement and possibly payment. This can be extremely time consuming particularly in a complex and extensive collection of material. All clearances obtained should be properly documented prior to commencement of digitisation. If it is unclear who owns copyright in an item, it is prudent to undertake some research and approach any owner located with a request for permission to digitise. It should also be noted that rights to digitise copies of original items such as photographs of original artworks, may reside with someone other than the owner of copyright in the original item. This could be the photographer or a publisher. If copyright clearance cannot be secured it may be necessary to abandon the project.

It is also worth noting that moral rights have recently been introduced into the Australian Copyright Act 1968. This means that in addition to any economic rights, authors now have a right of integrity and attribution. This means a work may not be subject to derogatory treatment and that the author has a right to be identified as such if the work is published. Note that in some cases derogatory treament could include cropping and colourisation of images.

Using existing copies

Copies may already exist of material being considered for digitisation. If an item is not unique (e.g. a published photograph or newspaper) it may have already been digitised or copied by another body and may be available for purchase or by subscription. If good quality physical copies are available, such as slides or microfilm, these may already meet existing user needs. It may therefore be more appropriate to use scarce digitisation funds for items where such copies are not available.

Known demand v potential demand

It may be tempting to digitise only prized items in a collection or sections of items which are already in high demand. (Lee, 14) However this should be balanced against digitising a wider range of material in order to encourage new users and uses of the material. The number of people likely to use the material must be a central factor in the decision to digitise. Given that digitising an item means that many people in many locations can access it at the same time, likely level of use is a very important criteria for justifying the cost of digitising.

Format and physical condition

The format of items to be digitised and the size and physical condition of individual items will be one of the prime determinants of the digitisation methodology chosen for the project. In some cases the physical condition of the items may mean that they cannot be exposed to the digitisation process without risking damage to the item itself. In other cases the availability of a digital reproduction of the item/s may reduce use and therefore assist with preservation of the original. Some formats of material may require specialised and expensive equipment in order to create a digital reproduction, such as special cradles or lighting for fragile books or large format scanners for oversize items. Other material, such as plans or line drawings, may require particular high-resolution formats in order to meet user needs. It is also possible that some items in poor condition may pose a health hazard to handlers, so any potential health risks need to be identified.

The format of items chosen for digitisation and the type of usage envisaged for these items will determine which technical standards and methodologies will need to be applied to capture, store and provide access to the items. Whereas digitisation standards for text and photographic images for example are comparatively robust, more complex media such as audio and video present more challenging problems for the project. This means that the format and physical condition of items chosen can have a significant impact on the complexity and thus the cost of the overall project.

Visual and information characteristics

The majority of digitisation projects involve text or images and these present specific challenges when selecting material for digitisation. Colour images pose issues of greater technical complexity than black and white images and also produce much larger file sizes. The level of detail in a photograph may determine the resolution required for the digital image in order to meet the projected needs of the user. If text is being captured, the use of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software will need to be considered. Items containing both text and images are likely to require a different treatment than materials containing just one of these.

The recent report on Victorian local history collections (see the Local History Digitisation Project web site at made it clear that various forms of text originals, such as rate books or directories, are seen as high priorities for digitising. However, in many cases what users really require could be access to structured electronic versions of the text, rather than simply scanned images of the pages. Therefore rather than scanning (and/or using OCR software) for some formats of material 'digitisation' may involve database design and manual data entry. Such a solution would allow users to undertake complex searches for information which had previously been buried in books or piles of documents. In such cases scanned images of the actual pages would not provide the same user functionality (although this may have value in other applications).

Location and conservation requirements

The inclusion of items which require specialised environments or handling for conservation reasons, will increase the complexity of the project. If materials cannot be removed from specific locations for security or conservation reasons, it will be necessary to establish digitisation facilities on site. This could involve significant additional cost. If items cannot be exposed to high levels of lighting for long periods, this may reduce the ability to digitise to high quality using digital cameras.

Cataloguing status

Items which have rich and reliable catalogue information available for search purposes and for display alongside the digital version, will prove more valuable in a networked environment than materials with little or no ancillary information available. If items proposed for digitisation have good information already stored in an electronic database which can be linked to the digitised items, they are likely to create a more valuable resource and be more flexible for different types of users. If electronic catalogue information is not already available, it will be necessary to incorporate the creation of such records into the project - if people cannot find the material, there is little point in digitising it. The creation of catalogue records can be an extremely expensive part of the project.

Administrative or institutional priorities

A number of administrative issues will necessarily form part of the selection criteria matrix used to determine appropriate material for digitisation. Some of these may include:

  • Existing equipment/expertise
  • Institutional strategies or policies
  • Funding body requirements
  • Stakeholder priorities
  • Cultural sensitivities (particularly pertinent in relation to the consideration of material relating to Australian indigenous communities)
  • Privacy rights of individuals represented or connected to specific items
  • Long-term digital data management costs (Vogt-O'Connor, 47)

Criteria check lists

It may be useful to establish a criteria check-list to assist staff with selecting material for digitisation. This would cover all criteria established to determine whether or not an item will be digitised for the project. Such a list could include:

  • Meets subject matter/collection priorities identified for the project
  • Copyright cleared
  • No existing copies which meet user needs
  • High potential demand
  • Physical condition suitable for digitising
  • Meets the visual and information characteristic requirements established for the project
  • No problems with location
  • Rich existing catalogue data
  • Meets institutional priorities
  • Other project or institution specific criteria

Such a check list will assist with prioritising material for digitisation and will ensure consistency of approach throughout the project when different staff members are dealing with a large number of items.

Physical preparation of items

Prior to digitisation all the items to be digitised will need to be collected and checked to ensure that they are available for use when required. The collection may need to be collated and organised ready for digitisation. Items may also have to be packed and transported to the digitisation location, and perhaps insured. Physical preparation may include things like flattening, disbinding, cleaning, removal of staples. It includes putting items into an order which facilitates efficient capture. At the point of preparation, duplicates will be removed and, if only a selection of items from a collection are to be digitised, that selection should be made.

Certain items may require the creation of an intermediate copy using a traditional analogue reproductive process, prior to digitisation. Such items could include delicate or light sensitive originals which may be damaged if exposed to digitisation equipment or oversized items. In these cases it will be necessary to create an initial photograph or transparency using traditional techniques. This surrogate copy can then be digitised.

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