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Digital Foundations: Planning

Online tutorial in digital humanities skills and techniques.

Whether you have large volumes, manuscripts, illustrations, photographs, maps, audio recordings or cinematic film - you can digitise it! However, as with all projects, planning is the first, and most important thing you should do.

Media-specific challenges can arise so it's important to recognise the unique characteristics of different archival formats and plan for their capture accordingly. You will then be assured of creating the best quality final digital objects. The planning stage will determine whether, how, and at what cost digital resources are created, and how those resources will then be used.

To help you avoid some of the pitfalls, here are some recommendations and resources for planning your digitisation project.

Christmas card from year 1916

What can you scan? Items which are smaller than the bed of your scanner, for example, flat cards and single, loose pages; photographs; glass plate negatives; transparencies.

What can you photograph? Items that would require folding or bending in any way to fit on the bed of your scanner; documents that require the removal of staples or other fasteners; documents that display a strong “fold” memory and will not comfortably sit flat on a scanner bed; anything that is larger than the glass on your scanner.

Whether starting a large scale digital preservation project or digitising a selection of items from a collection, the first step is to review the following considerations:

ten shillings note for the workers of limerick

Planning for Digitisation When developing a plan for your digitisation project, you will need to consider some, or all, of the following:

Project Goals Firstly, decide why you are doing this project. Know what digital asset you want, and how you want to use it. For example, is the scan for preservation purposes or to increase accessibility? Establishing your goals from the outset will allow you to plan your project's requirements accurately.

Audience Consider who are you digitising for and how you wish to support the use of your digitised content.

Objectivity It is crucial that you assess the material you have and decide objectively whether it is a suitable project. Consider whether there is sufficient reason to justify pursuing this project over another which may prove of greater benefit to your institution, or the academic or public community.

Rights - Do you have permission to digitise, store, publish, or disseminate the material? This might be the stage that halts the entire project. There is no point in going through the whole project only to find you cannot do what you want with the digital files.

Answering each of these questions will help you to develop your project plan

  • What will you digitise?
  • How much will you digitise?
  • How long will it take?
  • How much will it cost?
  • Who will do the work?
  • Who will use the digital surrogates?
  • How will the digital surrogates be presented?
  • How will the digital files be accessed and stored?

Prior to undertaking your project, you must determine your resource requirements. There is a big difference between the resources required for a long-term preservation project compared to a short-term display in an exhibition or a printed publication.

Establishing your goals from the outset will allow you to plan your requirements accurately. From labour to time and equipment, here is a checklist of things you should consider.

Time - Depending on your project, you may have to get your work done to a deadline. If you plan to publish or exhibit your material you should find out when the material is needed to avoid delays. Knowing your timescale allows you to determine how much can actually be done and to inform other stakeholders if the project should be reassessed.

Labour - Do you have the expertise in-house to perform the tasks required? Do you have enough staff to complete the work in the time required? You might need to take on or reassign an individual, or employ professionals depending on the work.

It can also help to have a small team of stakeholders to support the project. A steering group made up of people who can advise on the material itself, the project goals and the end result, (e.g. publisher or designer) can keep you on the right track, troubleshoot problems and ensure everyone can be realistic about what can be achieved based on the resources available..

Finance - It is important to factor in the costs of not just the work involved in producing the final product (e.g. scanning, design, publication...), you might need to think about preparing the material to that it can be safely digitised, possibly outsourcing both those steps, and then the long term costs of storing and maintaining the digital content.

Equipment - You should use the best available equipment to suit the type and condition of the original material. You may find you do not have exactly what you need and so should adapt (e.g. rely on software to fill the gaps), hire in equipment or outsource the work.

Software - Software can help to make up the shortfall where your equipment is lacking however, it can also be expensive and should not be ignored when scoping the project.

diaries from world war one tied together in stack

Firstly, assess the overall condition of the item.  Check for any obvious signs of wear including brittleness, mould or any other damage which might affect the tools or equipment needed for digitising. If the item is too fragile or damaged, it may be unsuitable for digitisation.

Check the binding. If the volume is too tightly bound, scanning may damage the item or the resulting image may suffer curvature, or loose detail close to the centre of the pages. Note that most books should not be opened wider than 120° unless they do so naturally.

For folded inserts, use a book rest to support the main volume allowing the insert to lie flat. Note the format and size of any folded inserts as larger items may be too big for many scanners, and may need to be photographed instead.

Have you checked to see if the item is already digitally available in full text? Perhaps your copy holds significant distinction, for example, a seal, manuscript annotations, or a bookplate which make it a unique resource.

sepia studio photograph of young woman and dog

Where you have many loose photographs, organise them and, ideally, number them so that you can associate the physical photograph with the digital image. This is particularly important if any information on the verso, which will not be scanned, is recorded for metadata records.

Grouping together photographs of similar sizes during preparation will help minimise recalibration of equipment during digitisation, and so, maximise the efficiency of your workflow.

Before digitising your photographs, decide how you would like the final product to look. Do you want to digitise each individual photograph separately, or is it better to have them in situ within a photograph album? If the latter, the album should be treated as a bound volume – please refer to section above.

old map of munster region

The main consideration when approaching over-sized materials such as maps, posters and newspapers is whether it is actually possible to digitise with the equipment or software available to you.

If you cannot carry out digitisation in-house, perhaps the project could be outsourced? If this approach is taken, you will likely need to provide your chosen supplier with details of the total number of items in the collection, the dimensions of the largest and smallest items in the collection, the materials the items are composed of, and how the items are stored, for example, rolled, boxed, or on the wall.


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This project was seed funded by the Shannon Consortium's 2016 Take 1 Step initiative.


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