A View of Regional Digitization Centers

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As a part of work for an OhioLINK strategic task force, I have been exploring the creation and operation of regional/collaborative/shared digitization centers. This is a report of findings to date after an open call for information. The report is structured with questions to be explored when considering a regional digitization center followed by narratives from conversations with the Collaborative Digitization Program (formerly the Colorado Digitization Program), the Mountain West Digital Library, and the Ohio Historical Society. My thanks go out to Leigh Grinstead, Liz Bishoff, Karen Estlund, Angela O'Neal, and Phil Sager for their assistance.

I am still interested in talking with collaboratives about similar programs, both "on the record" and in private conversations. Please get in touch with me if you would like to chat.

Questions for Exploration

Here are some items to be considered when forming a regional digitization center collaborative that came from the conversations supplemented with reading materials from various projects around the country.

  1. Who does the digital conversion? Is it staff at the hosting institution (where the equipment is located), or does the institution contributing the materials perform the scanning operation at the host institution?
  2. Where and when is the description done? Description of the digitized item was universally done by the contributing institution, but the location (at the scanning center or at the contributing institution) and timing (before conversion, during conversion, or after conversion) vary. Answers to the first question -- whether contributing staff members are performing the conversion -- affect this question.
  3. Is contribution of materials to the Ohio Digital Resource Commons required? If the regional scanning center is used to digitize materials (or in the case where the consortium is subsidizing a scanning service to perform the digital conversion), what conditions are put in place for contributing those materials to the central repository.
  4. What is the cost structure for use of the regional scanning center? Options range from complete subsidy by consortium (most notably when the CDP funded the equipment at their regional scanning centers) to contributing institutions being charged at cost recovery rates by hosting institutions. There can be various cost structures applied, such as a consortial subsidy for equipment and training with labor supplied by contributing institution or contracted from hosting institution.
  5. What training is offered? Topics for training range from optimal use of digitization equipment to digitization project planning to metadata creation standards. The training can be based on group instruction, one-on-one consultation with contributing institutions, or a combination of both.
  6. Who will fill the role of "metadata editor"? The need for a collective expert in metadata creation was found in many of the projects. This person is typically charged with training contributing staff on the appropriate use of local metadata conventions, coaching individual staff on particular projects, and reviewing records that will become part of a consortial database.

Report from the CDP

In 1998 the project began as the Colorado Digitization Project (CDP) and they started with a survey of institutional needs and institutional capacity. Within the first year found a need for scanners at many institutions public and academic libraries, as well as historical societies and, museums. Starting in 1999, the CDP established seven regional scan centers over five years, distributed throughout Colorado such that no institution was more than an hour and a half to two hours from a center. This narrative is derived from research and phone conversations with Leigh Grinstead and Liz Bishoff.

The original climate that generated the interest in scanners was one where institutions did not want to outsource digitization because they didn't want the materials leaving their direct control. The CDP, on the other hand, did not want institutions to buy cheap scanners that would result in lower-quality scans. The CDP purchased the scanners ($2,500 each, in 1999 dollars) plus desktop workstations and created a training program for the use of the equipment. The center provided the location for the equipment and hands-on assistance with using the equipment; it was incumbent on the staff at the institution with materials to be digitized to perform the scanning themselves. Before using the equipment, those performing the scanning had to attend a CDP "Introduction to Digital Imaging" training session on the proper use and techniques for obtaining high-quality images. Scanning projects that received CDP funding had priority over other users of the equipment, but there was little contention for the equipment at the centers. Descriptive metadata could be keyed at the time of the scan; CDP provided a web-based template (called "DC builder") or staff could use their own system (an ILS, ContentDM, etc.). Contribution of the associated metadata to the CDP union catalog of metadata -- Heritage West -- was required for CDP-funded grant projects. Images were locally hosted.

In 2003, the CDP conducted an evaluation of the scan centers in the form of focus groups. They found two different responses. First, institutions on the western slopes of Colorado made much heavier use of their scan centers. These institutions tended to be smaller and/or economically disadvantaged, and the availability of the hardware and software to conduct the scanning operations was more critical. In front range libraries, where institutions tend to be better-funded, the centers were not as heavily used for projects and tended to be used for training and demonstration sites; these participants felt that the greatest value in the CDP came from the professional networking and training opportunities the locations, the grants that the CDP provided and the creation of the best practices and website that brought all this together.

The regional scan centers are not used today. The primary reason is the diffusion of experience within the community that was spurred by the early success of the centers. As funding cycles continued, institutions purchased their own equipment (generally replicating the equipment at the centers) so as avoid the need to transport materials and staff to a regional center for larger projects. The focus of grant funding within CDP also shifted from image-based collections to EAD and sound collections. There is still an "Introduction to Digital Imaging" workshop, but the focus is now on requirements for in-house equipment and/or what to seek from a vendor in an RFP. The imaging workshop is typically taught as part of a three-day workshop series with an "Introduction to Digital Project Management" (storage, preservation, handling socially sensitive materials, how to display them) before and "Introduction to Metadata" (focused on Dublin Core) after. The biggest issue facing the consortium now is oversized scanning; only the very largest university library would have this kind of equipment.

The Colorado model of teaching staff at the institution on the use of the equipment along with the creation of regional scan centers was picked up by several states: North Carolina; Alabama; Kansas; Missouri; and Wyoming (except that regional centers were not practical due to the wide population dispersion). Tennessee is working under a current IMLS grant to build three regional center plus a suite of mobile equipment.

Liz suggests that we should look for ways to support collaborative efforts within the institution with museum and archives on the campus. The Florida Center for Library Automation (FCLA) has a program in place where the local university library is the contact in partnerships with public libraries and local museums.

Leigh noted that in recent years, CDP projects include a "metadata editor" that is hired to look at record quality and work with individual institutions to improve records. Having a metadata editor, someone familiar with the CDP guidelines and the field in general, look at four or five records at the very early stage of a project is critical to the success of the quality of the rest of the project. In a recent project, nearly half of the partners were going to export records out of a local collection management system. It was discovered that the records were not consistent; local implementation/practice of cataloging standards has a higher overall impact than community best practice. Having a local cataloger participate on the team migrating the records from a local system to a central system is key to success.

Mountain West Digital Library

The Mountain West Digital Library (MWDL) was established approximately six years ago. My contact was Karen Estlund at the University of Utah; although the University of Utah was the lead institution in the MWDL project, Karen has been with the project only since August 2006. The MWDL is made up of a federation of ContentDM installations at seven institutions in the region (five in Utah: Univ of Utah, Brigham Young Univ, Utah State Univ, Weber State Univ and Southern Utah Univ; and two in Nevada: Univ of Nevada Reno and Univ of Nevada Las Vegas; plus the Utah State Archives). Metadata is harvested from these ContentDM installations via OAI-PMH to a portal operating at the University of Utah. (Up until the recent past, MWDL used the ContentDM Multi-site server; they recently switched to using OAI harvesting.)

Content is ingested into the MWDL either through digital conversion centers at the regional institutions or through the efforts of the contributing institution. The regional institutions perform digital conversion for contributing institutions at cost-recovery rates. These regional centers use the equipment and staff at the hosting institution, and are very busy at times resulting in difficult choices to balance needs of the host institution with that of requests from other institutions.

The regional centers also conduct on-site training and technical education at contributing institutions about best practice for digital conversion. The on-site program includes a technical evaluation of the equipment to be used to ensure that it can produce conversions that meet the minimum requirements for the MWDL. In the course of this evaluation, staff at contributing institutions are taught some technical aspects of scanning such as the actual DPI scanning capabilities of the hardware versus interpolated resolutions (and why this is important). Staff also receive an introduction to Photoshop for de-skewing and other standard practices. They also are instructed in the Western Standard Metadata Best Practices. This hands-on approach -- with the contributing institution's people, equipment and materials -- enables strong connections between the contributing institution and the hosting institution. It makes the contributing institution feel like a part of the larger program. Most contributing institutions with local digital conversion operations will FTP files to the ContentDM server at the regional institution; some institutions contribute materials through the transportation of a portable hard drive.

Each regional hosting center is responsible for the digital preservation of the material on their server. At this point there is no common agreement across the MWDL for standards on digital preservation; this is an area of work to be addressed in the near future by the cooperative.

The cooperative is starting work in several new areas. First is the digital conversion and posting of oral histories from contributing institutions. While it is anticipated that such resource will be highly valued, quick progress on this project is hampered by the same permission problems that face similar projects with relatively old audio. The cooperative also has a state LSTA grant for a Utah institutional repository with a portal connected to the MWDL. The state archives are also beginning a program to post state government documents, including items related to the Olympic Games held in Utah. The hands-on approach to training staff at contributing institutions is very labor-intensive and uneven across the project participants. MWDL is in the process of hiring a program director, and a component of that job description is to provide this kind of training across the project.

Ohio Memory Project (Ohio Historical Society)

The Ohio Historical Society (OHS) provided scanning support for the Ohio Memory Project (OMP). At the beginning of the project in 2000, institutions contributing to the OMP generally wanted to send materials to OHS to be digitized. By the end of the grant-funded phase of the project in 2003, most institutions shifted to using their own equipment. OHS will still digitized for some cultural heritage institutions on a contract basis, although the primary focus of late has been on oversized materials that must be digitized on specialized equipment.

OHS staff will work with contributing institutions on a one-on-one basis as well as conduct workshops on introduction to scanning. Many of the participants are from contributing institutions that have had staff changes and the new staff want to know how to use the equipment purchased during the grant-funded phase of the project. There is also a desire for more advanced training, such as Photoshop basics.

OHS staff recognize that a compromise is needed between institutional capabilities for scanning and the very best practices in the field. They have found it hard to establish and mandate an absolute standard for the parameters and quality of digital scans. Institutions that scan their own materials are responsible for their own storage and preservation.