Where do I start with creating a digital archive?

Creating a new digital archive requires a bit of forethought and consideration. In this article, we’ll give you some useful tips to help you get started with the process of creating a digital archive.

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Grey filing cabinet with an open index card drawer.
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Where do I start with creating a digital archive?

Creating a digital archive might sound like a daunting prospect. Maybe you jump to thoughts of the cost of necessary equipment, or perhaps you’re worried about who the archiving process will fall to. Either way, we hope to demystify the process of creating a digital archive.


1. What are the benefits of creating a digital archive?

From a collections point of view, a digital archive can be a life saver. No longer do you have to try and remember how ‘Susan The 1970s Curator’ liked to file papers, now you can find them at the touch of a button. A digital collection is there to make your life easier, to create a system that allows you to store archival material in an easy to find way. It’s also a massive space saver.

From a customer perspective, it can also open up your collection to the world, rather than just your local area. For example, if I want to research the history of railways in the Pennines and Calder Valley, I can visit the Pennine Horizons Digital Archive from the comfort of my arm chair. Here I’ll be able to look at photographs, scanned plans and even listen to oral histories. In this case, all collated and uploaded by a community of volunteers.

Don’t forget though – creating a digital archive doesn’t have to mean photographing every single item in your collection. It might mean creating a highlights gallery, or producing a catalogue on a website, where your visitors can find out what’s available before they come and see the ‘real deal’ in person. A lot of municipal archives work in this way, for example, the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives contains item descriptions, rather than digitised copies of each item.


2. Getting started: answering the big questions

In terms of getting started. It’s vitally important to sit down and answer some big questions.

Why do you want to create a digital archive?

We turned to Roy Clare, a trustee for The Heritage Alliance and previously CEO of The Museums, Libraries and Archive Council, Director of the National Maritime Museum and Auckland War Memorial Museum. In each of his roles he developed experience of setting up, managing and developing archives. His advice is to “start with the big strategic question – why do we want a digital archive?”

Perhaps you’ve wanted to do this for a while and now have the funding, or you’ve realised that there is an audience wanting to access your collection remotely. Think about what’s motivating you, as that will be your guiding light when answering the other big questions.

What digital resources do we have already?

Many digital archives start because there is an influx of new material, such as an oral history project, or a digital photography collection is donated. Perhaps you already have some digital resources at hand such as videos, or maybe a volunteer digitised some collection items a few years ago. Either way, think about the ‘digital-born’ resources first, rather than those that you need to digitise. How are they stored right now and what format are they in? Will this format work for you going forward, or do you need to transfer them to a different format?

What do we want to digitise?

Perhaps you have a collection of objects that you’d like photographic records of, or you have cabinets of maps just waiting to be scanned. Think long and hard about what you want to preserve digitally and where you’ll start. A particular collection or type of material is a good place to start.

Roy Clare noted that Auckland War Memorial Museum; Tamaki Paenga Hira, New Zealand, had one of the most important natural history collections in the Southern Hemisphere, with many species meriting global access for research. The catalogue included several million records. Rather than attempting to digitise all of these, which would have been a huge task, the team made the decision to create a digital catalogue supported by ‘highlights’ sections to give people a taster of what they could see. To encourage research, they used linked open data, to release the information as widely as possible, to enable co-curation.

Who is going to implement this?

Considering how you’ll physically digitise items and build a digital archive means thinking about who is going to get hands-on and make this happen. You might consider incorporating this into a staff role that you already have, or maybe you’ll need to recruit some volunteers. It’s important to set tangible goals for whoever will be doing this, to ensure that you reach the milestones you’ve set yourself.

Again, we turned to Roy Clare for his advice on this. He notes the importance of creating a system that works for you. He had volunteers, some of whom were in their 80s, uploading metadata to their catalogues at the Auckland War Memorial Museum; Tamaki Paenga Hira. As Roy says: “keep it simple … if you can record an item in a register with a pencil, you should be able to do it on a database.”

keep it simple … if you can record an item in a register with a pencil, you should be able to do it on a database.

What budget is needed to make this happen?

Have a think about how you’re going to fund this endeavour. Whilst you might rely on volunteers to digitise and upload your files, you’re still going to need to pay for your platform, equipment, hosting and storage.

Alternatively, you might create a role or roles to fulfil this project. In that case, you’ll have to factor in those costs too.

If you apply for funding, all of this will need to be planned for, and itemised in your application.

What tools and platforms are out there?

The decision on which product is right for you will depend on what you’re trying to achieve, your budget and skills set. Roy Clare reminds us that “flood, fire and theft” can be a big issue when storing data on servers. His service used a Cloud-based platform instead.

Roy also recommends thinking hard about the platforms that you choose to use. Companies come and go, and catalogues and digital archives aren’t a ‘one size fits all’ market. “Do your due diligence. Upskilling your team and making it as quick and easy as possible is really important.”

Where can I go for help and advice?

Thankfully, there’s a lot of advice out there on how to create digital archives and stay within copyright law. Within this website, you’ll find lots of tools and advice to help you navigate throughout the whole process. See How do I get my collection online? and How can my online collection help me tell our heritage organisation’s story?

Beyond here, look to The National Archives for professional standards and the Community Archives and Heritage Group to see how other small to medium sized organisations have digitised their collections. The Association of Independent Museums regularly features articles and resources on digital archives, as does CILIP: The Library and Information Service. It might also be useful to explore the Archives JISCMail list, where archive questions, roles and volunteering opportunities are posted.

Finally, Roy suggests that you ‘talk to organisations that have already done this’. They will have been through the process and be able to advise you on the ups and downs of their own approach.


3. Where next?

Whatever tool you choose, ensure that the end result is user friendly so that as many people as possible can access your digital diamonds! As Roy says, ‘the walls of an archive can be a terrible trap, we need to go beyond the walls and move from being keepers to sharers’ – and that is exactly the role that a digital archive can play.

Published: 2022
Resource type: Articles

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence

Please attribute as: "Where do I start with creating a digital archive? (2022) by Sarah Shaw supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


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