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Local History - Digital Collections

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Vermonters can explore their history through events, books, historic sites, museums, historical society collections across the state. . . and online. Today digitizing local historical collections provides a new way to share a town’s past.

Digitizing historical collections lets you:

  • Make materials available to anyone, anywhere in the world
  • Build a collection that can expand; unlike printed books, online collections can be added to at any time
  • Make fragile materials available without anybody physically handling them
  • Keep digital copies in case something damages original materials
  • Build new ways to explore local history, like taking new residents on a virtual tour of town, connecting with former residents who have moved away, or celebrating important dates in town history 

This digital history toolkit is meant to provide a very basic introduction to a few of the key considerations involved in sharing local history online. This toolkit covers the following topics:

We've only provided a quick snapshot here, check out the additional resources page for more information:

And read the e-Vermont community story about the Russell Collection going online here.

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Planning for Digital Collections

Planning may be the most important part of digitizing local historical collections.

If you haven't had your collection reviewed by a professional preservationist, that is your first step. They will provide guidance on inventorying, cataloging, collection conservation and care. The Vermont Historical Society’s program for the League of Local Historical Societies offers information about how to have your collection assessed. Vermont Historical Society members can apply for a Collections Care Mentor to provide more in-depth advising.

Later sections of this toolkit help you plan for the digitization process. Two important issues related to this process are:

  1. Having a back up plan for digital storage to make sure the images don't disappear if a hard drive fails. You can back up the images on external devices to the computer, on CD / DVDs and Flash Drives, or virtually, in the cloud. Whatever you choose just be sure you aren't relying on a single computer to hold all of your work.
  2. Planning for how you will share your collection with the public. You can load the images onto a computer in the local library or historical society, burn the images onto CD’s or DVD’s to distribute, create an online gallery, put selected images in social media, etc. The final outlet will depend on your audience and the scale of project you have the capacity to undertake.

Once you've assessed your physical collection, determined your back up system, and considered how the public will access the final product, it's time to focus on the specifics of digitization.

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Software for Digital Collections

Although it's possible to simply save scanned images into digital storage, having some form of management software will help with organization, standardization, information retrieval, ease of use, security, data storage and back-up. Review software options for:

  • Features offered
  • Whether the software is proprietary or open-source
  • If the software is installed on a local machine or is accessed from the web
  • The ability to attach and display images
  • The types of data that can be catalogued
  • Cost

The most-used museum collection management software is PastPerfect with over 8000 organizations subscribing. Several Vermont Historical Societies use this software. Other similar options include Archivist Toolkit, Collective Access, Omeka, eHive and Archon.

With a little creativity you can also use general database software, not specialized for historical collections. Examples of off-the-shelf business database software are MS Access or Filemaker. Be sure you have someone familiar enough with these systems to set them up in a way that meets the needs of cataloguing historic materials.

You may also want software to edit the images produced by the scanner. Look up “digital image editing software" online for background on the available options for this task. A good resource for both information and reduced-price software for non-profits is TechSoup.

(Note: All software listed here dates from 2012; options may have changed).

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Equipment for Digital Collections

The basic equipment for digitization includes a scanner, computer, and monitor, plus any devices being used for data back up.

The scanner will have the greatest impact on the quality of images. There are several different types of scanners but flatbed scanners are the most widely used in libraries and museums. Popular scanner manufacturers include Epson, HP, Canon, Plustek and Microtek. An important consideration when selecting a scanner is whether the size of the scan area matches the size of what’s being scanned. See also the scanning section.

Note that flatbed scanners are designed for two dimensional objects. The simplest way to catalogue three dimensional objects or very fragile books is often by using a digital camera. Other specialized equipment is also available, if your budget allows for it.

The hub of a scanning station is the computer. Image files are large and image-processing can be taxing, so select a computer with a mid- to high-end central processor (CPU). Some computers come with what is called a graphics process (GPU) which is dedicated to processing graphics for high end use. For most digitization projects this level of graphics processing power isn’t necessary.

Two other computer considerations are RAM (you need a minimum of 6 GB) and hard disk size (you need 1 TB).

Having a good monitor is one of the best ways to ensure that the scanned image is a decent facsimile of the original. Look for display resolutions of 1600 x 900 for a 21 inch widescreen monitor or 1920 x 1080 for 22-24 inch widescreens. Also look for the ability to control monitor functions such as contrast, brightness and color temperature.

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Scanning Materials for Digital Collections

The process of scanning requires clear guidelines for:

  1. Scanner Settings: There are image standard guidelines available from organizations like the UVM Libraries’ Center for Digital Initiatives (found here) that can guide these settings. Recommended settings typically define file format (TIFF, JPEG), resolution (dpi or PPI) and bit depth (8 bit, 24 bit - quantifies color information of an image). 
  2. Metadata Format: Metadata is what describes how each image was digitized, its format, ownership, copyright information, and more.  It’s an important piece of information for managing and preserving digital files. Two examples of popular metadata standards used by cultural heritage organizations are the Dublin Core metadata standards and the Visual Resources Association's Core 4.0 standards.
  3. Handling Procedures: Historic documents and other materials are often fragile. When you first consult with a preservation specialist about your collection, be sure to get clear instructions on handling procedures, ones that you can pass on to those helping scan.

Once you have these guidelines established and your workstation set up with the appropriate equipment, and software, the actual scanning process does not require volunteers to have deep computer knowledge, as long as someone is there to help them get started. The basic steps are:

  1. Set scanner resolutions.
  2. Scan the materials.
  3. Enter the metadata affiliated with the image. Check the software you're using for where and how to enter this information.
  4. Adjust the file quality, if you choose to do so. Programs like Photoshop can help adjust colors, contrast, rotate images, etc. Some groups choose not to edit images.
  5. Save image into the software you've selected for managing the collection. Some software programs will save several versions of the image: the original, one for web publishing, and a thumbnail.
  6. Back up the collection - back up frequently and add in redundancies.

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Additional Resources for Digitizing Local History

Vermont Organizations Interested in Digital History

Regional and National Organizations Interested in Digital History

General Guidelines and Best Practices