Demystifying digitisation

In this blog post we want to tackle the big issue currently facing libraries, archives and museums: digitisation. It is something we are putting a lot of thought into here at Library of Society of Friends, and something we are aware lots of people are interested in – Quakers around the country, library users and remote enquirers all have expectations about what we can, and should, make available online….sometimes realistic and sometimes not!

Other blogs have covered this topic in great detail (for example, but we thought we’d talk about some of the issues and try to give some examples of challenges and opportunities specific to our collections.

To start at the beginning, what do we actually mean when we talk about digitising something, such as a book, archival document or photograph?

Generally, the steps involved in digitisation include the following:

Preparing the item……………..

Removal of any fastenings (staples, paper clips etc), in some cases complete removal of the binding (dis-binding), cleaning, flattening, repair of any creases, tears, folds etc. In many cases this work can be done by Library staff themselves but extensive work will need a professional conservator.

Torn page in tract vol crop

A torn page in one of our tract volumes – this would require conservation work by a professional before digitising for the best result.

Choosing method of digitising…………….

Assessing whether to scan with specialist scanner or photograph the document with a camera; choosing whether to do this in-house or with an external company (in which case obtaining quotes from different suppliers, choosing supplier and agreeing project specification). Different types of material benefit from different types of photography to get the best image results and cause least damage.

Typed report on carbon paper, 1918

These foolscap Conscientious Objector Information Board reports could be scanned on a specialist archival scanner quite successfully.

FH plan

Whereas these large scale plans of Friends House require photography with an overhead camera to capture successfully.

Carrying out the digitisation…………..

Setting up equipment (scanner or camera), processing the images, checking accuracy and quality of images (this can be a very technical process involving checking the colour of the image is true to the original document, adjusting cameras to stop reflection from shiny surfaced images etc etc).

We currently carry out this work on a small scale for bespoke orders. Taking the digital photograph of the painting, museum object, photograph, document etc can be challenging, but is also followed by work editing in image management software, researching copyright issues and creating the licence based on the intended use of the digital image (print, online, TV etc).

Describing and storing the digital images……………….

Each single image may require up to 10-15 pieces of information to be created and saved with it to ensure future access and preservation. This information is called metadata (includes details such as names of places, people featured, source of material, dates, as well as technical information about the type of software used etc).

Each image will need to be saved in a high resolution master file (usually a TIFF file) and also converted into a lower resolution access file for upload to the web or viewing on a PC such as a JPEG file.

Preserving the digital images……………………..

This has now created new digital image files which require long term preservation and storage – image files can be very large and may require extra server or hard drive space which should be planned in advance. You must also monitor the format of the images so you can change to a new format should the original become obsolete. PDF, TIFF and JPEG are all predicted to be long lasting formats, but you never know when technology will move on and they will become unusable – in the same way physical media such as floppy discs, videotapes and minidiscs have.


All this work goes into digitisation before any image can be viewed online.

Online access…………….

Making material available online is in many ways more challenging than creating the digital images. Usually an institution’s main website is unsuitable for making large amounts of digital images accessible. Our main website does not have the required functionality.

For the Friends Ambulance Unit World War One digitisation project, this meant we had to use an external web developer to build a bespoke site in order to make a searchable resource featuring the personnel cards ( This is a process which takes considerable time and thought.

Mock-up of webpage

Early mock-up for FAU site by our web developer.

There are not many collections which we could digitise and upload without a lot of context to present the material for as wide an audience as possible. This also takes time and thought to prepare.

For example, we think digitising the Great Books of Sufferings would be an incredible project – but it would take a great deal of work to make this series presentable for the widest audience possible. Creating the digital images would be no small task in itself, digitising over 40 very large volumes. But to present them online they would probably require transcription, not only to make them more readable for those not used to reading 17th century handwriting, but also to index them and make them searchable. Transcription of a series of records this large would be a huge task.

They would also require quite a lot of contextual information to explain what they are and to help people with the kind of information they hold.

GBS 7 1 p233 01 Hunts

Image of part of a page from one of the Great Books of Sufferings

Our digitisation story so far……………

We have digitised, or allowed other organisations to digitise parts of our collection to use in their own online resources. This has included digitising records relating to the No-Conscription Fellowship and related material for the British Online Archive website which created a special section on WWI War Resisters.

We also microfilmed a large amount of material for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum who then created a digital index of the records so that you could search for names, and other information. This was not a digitisation project per se but has expanded the digital access to these records.

We have digitised parts of George Fox’s journal for a pilot project in collaboration with Lancaster University who are now seeking funding to complete the website.

We have contributed digital copies of around 300 17th century Quaker publications from our collections to Early English Books Online, a hugely important resource for historians and other researchers all over the world.

With funding from the Wellcome Trust, we digitised posters and lantern slides from Friends Temperance Union and added these as thumbnails to our online catalogue so that people can see images of the items.


Friends Temperance Union poster


Page from short journal of George Fox (MS Vol 305) with colour chart used in digitisation to assess quality of image.

The future……………..

We are excited about ideas for future digitisation. Bearing in mind the complexity of the work, and learning from projects already undertaken, we are looking forward to a strategic and creative digitisation programme. We have lots of ideas but need to choose priorities which may be led by funders or wider projects in the organisation.

Watch this space!


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6 Responses to Demystifying digitisation

  1. Ben Beck says:

    Would love to see the post-1837 BMD registers digitised and online . . .

  2. Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

  3. Best not try to re-invent the wheel. Digitisation of archives as now going on everywhere. consider starting with JISC and IHR and digitise using emerging British practise and standards. For instance see The Gurney Collection here,

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Hi Kelvin, thanks for your comment.

      You are quite right, it’s very important to follow standards for best practice, and for interoperability. There are many examples of excellent and ground-breaking digitisation projects by large and medium libraries and archives, which inform the work we have done and will do in future.

      We would be really interested in a digitised Gurney collection…although your link is to the online catalogue – have Barclays digitised the actual collection?

  4. Andrew Hicks says:

    A fascinating article that sets out the complexity of digitisation so well. My own interest is the Friends Ambulance Unit China Convoy, a superb archive that is a relatively undiscovered adventure playground for scholars. While researching for my book, A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA I found many of the documents in a very fragile condition and the library quite rightly refusing access to the earlier news letters because they are so vulnerable and in terminal condition. In 1946 control of the China Convoy was transferred to the American Friends Service Committee so the archives for the FAU are in effect split between London and Philadelphia, a severe challenge for underfunded scholars. How amazing it would be if core elements of the archive from both sides of the Atlantic could be digitised, thus making them available internationally. The news letters contains some fine articles from talented writers, of which my book is only a tiny sample, the personnel cards (on micro fiche) are a great source for family history… there is such a wealth of reports and letters that reveal so much history. As a medical aid NGO, a prototype Oxfam providing Oxford with its first three overseas directors who invented small scale aid and development, it’s an important story that could surely appeal to the Wellcome Trust, not only as next door neighbours but also for its strong medical theme. In conclusion, thanks so much for your blog article and for being such an impressive and helpful team of librarians and archivists. I hope books such as mine justify the cost and effort of preserving such huge quantities of dusty old papers and may they soon be backed up as a digital resource for the wider world of scholarship. I know of only one PhD on the China Convoy… there should and could be many more of them.

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Thanks Andrew, great to see the article is inspiring ideas for digitisation. The entire Friends Ambulance Unit World War II collection (not just China Convoy!) is top of our list for cataloguing, repackaging and conservation work. We are excited about the possibilities for research in that collection too….and there are definitely parts of the collection crying out for digitisation!

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