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Becoming Digital, Or, What Comes Before The Preservation?

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As the NDIIPP program name indicates, our mission is focused on digital preservation.  That is, preserving material once it’s in digital form.   And by our own definition, digital preservation is “the active management of digital content over time to ensure ongoing access.”

There is also a separate, but related, concept, addressed by the question, “How do items become digital to begin with?”  The answer in short is, items are either “born digital” or they are converted through “digitization”.

A born digital image of Nicky the cat.

“Born digital” is basically an umbrella term for any item that existed originally in digital form.  And these items are now with us, and growing exponentially, on a daily basis!  Some common examples are email and photos taken with a digital camera.  Websites are also included in this category.  (Or “web archiving“, as we refer to it on an institutional level).

“Digitization”, on the other hand, is the process of converting an original physical item into digital format.  Digitizing can be done with many different types of materials – paper documents, photographs, audio and video.  When digitizing paper documents, for example, the process is accomplished through scanning.  (Digitizing audio and video is also quite possible, but more complicated – another matter for another day.)

So, just to be clear, digitization and digital preservation are not the same thing, but they are indeed related.  (For an earlier discussion of this topic, see  this  blog post.)   Individuals and organizations alike are scanning their ever increasing collections of documents and photographs – either to share with others or simply to save and have on-hand in another format.

Cover of "Fire Away Galop" from the Library's Civil War Sheet Music collection.

From time to time, we do get questions from the public who want some guidance on digitizing  their personal materials. As always, with issues involving personal digital materials, we refer people to our Personal Digital Archiving page which contains advice mainly for the maintaining of digital materials.

But in addition to basic preservation information, we also have a document available to help with that preliminary step, the one that comes before the preservation – “Scanning Your Personal Collections”. Similar to our preservation advice, this document offers up a basic how-to for the scanning of documents and photographs.  We include it in our “personal digital archiving” section, but this information is scalable for both small and larger personal collections, or even some organizational collections.

This document, compiled by our staff, offers an explanation of some basic terminology, as well as the steps involved in a basic scanning process.   The document covers the following material:

  • Prepare the scanner, documents and photos – cleaning everything up before you begin
  • Terminology and settings – explanations and suggested settings for image resolution, and for three basic image types:  bitonal, grayscale and color.
  • Scan and save – which format is best to save your images
  • Access and storage – how to organize your scanned images for best access later on

And of course, always read the scanner manual first!

“Scanning Your Personal Collections” also includes preservation steps at the end, under “Make backup copies and manage them in different places”.  So this covers the whole process from start to finish, from the physical, to the digital, to preservation. If you are just beginning to scan your own personal collection, this document can help.

And for some further inspiration, take a look at some of the Library’s treasures that we have been digitizing here for many years.   See the Library’s Digital Collections page for a listing of the collections, which include The Prints and Photographs Digital Collections, the Performing Arts Encyclopedia, the American Memory collections, and many others.





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