The State of Digitisation

Picture “Basement Books” is taken by Vaguery and published under a CC-BY license

The last decade, a tremendous effort has been made to make more cultural heritage data, both metadata as well as the actual content, digitally available for everybody to re-use. Many studies have shown that that giving free access to this data without any restrictions has great benefits for many different purposes such as education and research, but also tourism and the creative industry. Heritage that once laid dispersed over the world and was hard to reach, if possible at all, can now be accessed, connected, linked and categorised in ways not possible before.

The flagship project of the European Union, Europeana, now contains the metadata about more than 23 million digitised objects in its database from all over Europe. This is an awful lot, but recent studies have showed that in the UK, only around 10% of all content in Libraries, Archives and Museums is actually digitised. Currently the UK is together with the Netherlands, Germany and France the top contributor to the Europeana portal. Therefore it is very likely that in other European countries even less material is digitised.

Digitisation is a costly process. Especially when you realise that the actual digitisation is just one part in a chain of selection, conservation, movement, meta-description, rights clearance, preparation, delivery, use and preservation. In 2010, the Collection Trust made an attempt to calculate the costs of the digitisation of all of Europe’s heritage and made an estimate around 100 billion Euros. In comparison, the cost of delivering one Joint Strike Fighter is €147.41m, equivalent to the cost of digitising 1.93m books, or 2-3% of all individual titles held in libraries.
Of course not every single piece of content ever made needs to be digitised. A recent ENUMERATE study has shown that institutions intend to digitise around 60% of their collection. It is however still a lot of money and effort.

In the ENUMERATE study, around 2500 institutions in Europe responded to a survey about the state of their digitsation process. Although this is only a sample, and of course there may be self-selection bias, it nevertheless indicates some broad patterns and shows some clear differences between the different types of cultural institutions: museums are for example way ahead of libraries and archives, audiovisual archives are very expensive to digitise and most institutions would like to have doubled their contribution to Europeana within two years.

At the end of 2010, the EU published a report that concluded that its member states must do more to digitise Europe’s cultural heritage and not simply leave that work to the private sector. Otherwise Europe risks slipping away from a digital Renaissance and “into a digital dark age.” Digitisation is especially urgent for older documents that are decaying and old movies and television shows where the reels are simply vanishing. The need for digitisation is now more than ever and although some attempts have been made, the pace in which this happens is still too slow, which means that some material is already starting to vanish forever.

Currently, when a museum is considering a digitisation project, it has three options:

  1. To secure internal funding with which to commission the work;
  2. To secure grant-funding with which to commission services or;
  3. To enter into a Public/Private Partnership

In the current environment, options (1) and (2) are increasingly constrained, and option (3) is really only viable to larger institutions with established brands and a critical mass of high-value content.
Source: The Open Digitisation Project discussion paper, click here for more info

To speed things up, several initiatives have started to look for alternative ways to digitise important collections which are not likely to be picked up anytime soon because of lack of funding or no commercial interest. The Internet Archive has started a project where they hand out digitisation machines to libraries. These allow them to digitise a book for 10 cents a page, and let them do it in superb quality. Last year at the Open Knowledge Conference, Brewster Kahle from the Internet Archive gave an interview on the importance of this project and how this is developing.

A somewhat similar project is DIY Bookscanner Here the authors explain how you can easily build a bookscanner yourself that delivers high quality scans and does not damage the book. Their effort is to get a bookscanner in every hackspace in the world. These kind of machines can drastically decrease the costs for an institutions. All the technical documentation about the machines, as well as the software that runs it, is openly licensed.

A more recent attempt is the Open Digitisation Project, led by the Open Rights Group and the Collections Trust. Their goal is to “provide open-source, community-led solutions at key points in the digitisation lifecycle, with the ultimate aim of delivering digital content directly into the public domain, from where it can be repurposed, shared, re-blogged and used as the basis of innovative products and services (including services generated by the museum themselves).” The project is still at a really early stage and will be closely followed by the Open Knowledge Foundation. The organisers will share their experiences at the Open Cultural Heritage stream at the OKFestival in Finland.

In the thousands of cultural institutions in the world, millions of objects are lying there to be made available to the public. The actual scanning of the objects is just one of the steps in the challenging task of selection, storage, preservation, adding rich metadata, rights clearance and publishing and all these different steps bring even more issues. However, with these new grassroots initiatives, digitisation is now also in the reach for the smaller institutions. This means that they too can engage in the discussion about opening up their collections, connecting them to others and share this with everybody in the world.

If you are interested in following this discussion further, join our Open GLAM mailing list!