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Changing our minds and following the logic

180 turns on long-standing policy is not something that happens around here much, but over the past few months we’ve been thinking and discussing.  You know all those images we put up on the Alaska’s Digital Archives site?  We spend a great deal of time scanning them at a fairly high resolution (600 ppi tiffs based on a 4,000 pixel count along the longest dimension) and then manipulating the files to bring them to our posting standard (72 ppi jpgs with a 600 pixel count along the longest dimension).  Not to mention the space we take up on our servers because of the resultant file size. Greyscale isn’t overwhelming, but those color photos!  Last we’d heard, of the server storage space currently being used by the entire Consortium Library, the Archives account for about 90% of it.  That’s a lot of real estate for the smallest department (FTE-wise) in the Library.  Server space is relatively cheap these days, but  still.

Plus we haven’t been putting all that many images online because it’s such a huge time commitment to do all that high-end scanning and file manipulation and so forth.

So about two weeks ago, I asked a question of my colleagues in the department.  What would the downsides be to scanning at the low resolution at which we typically post images online and saving as jpgs?  The answers were fairly obvious.  The time it takes to rescan when somebody requested an image.  And that nebulous though still forceful feeling that we’re somehow abrogating our archival responsibility by not creating a preservation master digital image.

And then we parsed it out.  On the time it takes thing? We already have to take a certain amount of time to handle each image request as it comes in–from making sure it’s the resolution and file type required, to sometimes even rescanning to meet the needs of the specific request.  So would rescanning at a preservation/publication level really add much to the time we take if we switched to an on-demand process?  Probably not.  Plus, of course, not all the images–not even most, not even one third–that we post online end up generating a publication-quality duplication request.  So think of all the time we’d save at the front end, not having to scan to such high levels, and we might even gain some time.  Okay, so we’re going to use the gained time to add yet more to the Digital Archives which will in turn result in increased use requests, but since our goal is to raise the numbers of images we put in, this is only for the best, right?

But more importantly, perhaps, is the question of whether or not it’s the right thing to do.  Archivally, that is.  And that’s where we had to think about it a little more closely.  But in the end, the decision was unanimous.  Once we got past the immediate “What?” reaction, the next was a thoughtful “hmmmm” followed by a “wait, this makes a lot of sense.”  And here’s our logic on it.  For the vast majority of our photograph holdings, slides, negs, prints, whatever, the originals are in really good shape.  And we don’t anticipate a situation in which that will change.  They’re stored in appropriate conditions, they don’t get a lot of hands-on use.  So why does that matter?  Well, it means that most of our originals will outlast any digital copy we might make.  So the “scan to preserve” argument really doesn’t make all that much sense.  Plus for the most part, a scan will never be quite as good as the original in quality–it’s a second (or in some cases third or fourth) generation copy.   And based on a lot of profession-wide discussion of late, it appears that in most cases the potential damage caused by repetitive scanning has been vastly overstated (and in any case, it’s hard to argue that two scans–one low res initially, one high res in response to a request–is repetitive scanning.)

We do have exceptions though.  Some nitrate negatives (stills) that are in good shape right now, but you just never know with nitrate.  And prints that are oxidizing despite our best efforts to stabilize them. And polaroids. And those lovely snapshots from the 1950s through the 1970s that are turning weird colors. Those might be candidates for preservation digitization.  And avoiding scanning multiple times.

And so the decision is made. Or as we tend to call it around here, we’re trying out a pilot project.  Not to scan materials to very high standards unless there is a physical degradation issue with the originals.  And we’ll go with it for a while and see what the results are.  And by that, we mean the use results.  Since researcher use of materials is what informs a lot of what we do.  If we find we’re getting requests for high resolution copies of the majority of images we put online? And that it’s taking up a lot of our time? Maybe we step back and figure out a different path. Because it’s clear to us that our current methodology isn’t getting all that much scanned and available online.  And that’s just a pity, given all the wonderful resources we have in our archival stacks and given the number of researchers who will never be able to visit us in person.

So we’ll see.  And we’ll let you know if it’s a dismal failure.  Because if it is, we’ll want to make sure nobody else makes the same mistake.  But if it’s a resounding success?  We’ll let you know that too.  Or even if it’s somewhere in the middle.


  1. Arlene, bravo! There are a few other places who have turned that same 180 degrees: UW Oshkosh and my institution, the American Heritage Center–U of Wyoming to name at least two. Here we used the same logic you outline, and maintain the same exceptions. Along with also shifting to folder-level metadata from item-level, the change in scan density has of course helped dramatcially increase our production of digitized mateial online. We are also about to implement a policy of scanning the entire contents of a folder even when a patron asks for only one item, so that we can link the folder metadata to the respective EAD finding aid. Regards, –Mark

  2. Hi Mark! I’m really pleased to know this is working for other places–especially ones with much higher reference use than we have. I wish we could consider the second part but that will have to wait until we finish our project to convert our legacy finding aids to a standardized form. Then maybe we can consider that one. Wouldn’t that be cool…

  3. Pingback: The Spoils of Conversion: Charlotte E. Mauk’s Color Slides @ Archives & Special Collections

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