Getting started with digitisation

What is digitisation?

Digital content creation is the act of making a digital copy or digital recording of analogue information, where that information can reside in a document, artefact, sound, performance, geographical feature, or natural phenomena.

Digital content creation includes data entry and transcription, digital imaging, photography, sound and video recording and transfer – in fact any analogue-to-digital transfer. It excludes transcoding or migration of digital information into a different digital format or media (digital-to-digital transfer), software manipulation or programmed machine creation of new digital information (born-digital information), and analogue output of digital information such as printing or audiovisual playback (digital-to-analogue transfer).

Seven good practice tips for making it digital

For those who are just getting started with digitising or creating new content using digital formats, we have put together seven good practice tips that can help make it digital.

Tip 1: Have a clear purpose for your content

Making content digital doesn’t automatically make it of value, especially if it's poorly labelled or difficult to find. A vital first step is to select and match your content to an identified need. Be clear about what outcome you expect – for example are you aiming to protect original items by digitising them? Is it more important to teach people how to create digital videos or permanently keep access to the videos that they make? Are you expecting an orderly and structured user experience or will you encourage any quantity of diverse content to be created for searching through?

Tip 2: Choose appropriate formats

Whether digitising content or creating new digital content, your hardware decisions (that is, the kind of equipment you use to create digital content) should be fit for purpose. Using lossless or uncompressed formats for copying or creating source files will allow the greatest flexibility for making edits and access copies while keeping the digital master safely archived. Choosing openly published interoperable formats also provides the best chance of your content being usable across different software platforms and into the future.

Tip 3: Describe your content well

To ensure your digital content can be stored, found and used over time, it needs to have good metadata (that is, descriptive information) attached or tagged to it that describes what the content is, where it came from, and who can use it. If you find you are generating digital content with filenames such as IMG_001.JPG, 1.WAV, or UNTITLED.AVI, rename them now! Good metadata is accurate, clear and meaningful. As a general rule of thumb, the more information you can include, the better.

Tip 4: Work out in advance how your content will be managed

Any digital content that amounts to more than a few dozen items needs to be managed as a collection. This means continuing to develop it over time by adding, removing and updating content as required, and being prepared to migrate the individual items between different hardware and software platforms as technology changes. It also means planning for ongoing back-up and maintenance, along with using a repository, content management or database system that supports open standards.

Part of management is also deciding who has authority to access and make changes to the collection and who has overall responsibility and ownership of the content within. Although someone with IT skills may be needed to administer the hardware and software, a different set of skills is needed to make judgements about changes to the content. This process can be assisted by the creation of a collection policy that documents what the collection is about, how changes are made, who can access the collection and who is responsible overall.

Tip 5: Structure your content for easy discovery

If you have web-based content available to the public, your web-site or content system should be designed to expose your collections to search engines. The vast majority of public users will come to your content through a commercial search engine like Google or Yahoo, not through your front page URL. Optimising your web content so search engines can index it will ensure your content can be discovered more easily.

For users who come directly to your front page, or where you have authentication or a login that restricts access to subscribers, navigation aids and search tools should be designed to help expose content that a searcher may not know you hold. A blank search box or an A-Z structure is off-putting for users that don’t know exactly what they are looking for. Discovery features like tag clouds, multiple navigation choices, showcases and widgets can help your content be found more easily. Make it easy and attractive for users to browse.

Tip 6: Inform potential users of what they can do with your content

These days, users often want to download, interact, copy and re-use content that they find online for their own purposes. With these expectations in mind, users need to be instantly informed about what they can and can’t do with your content rather than being given blanket legal statements, locked-down formats, or requirements to send off for written permission. Having clear rights statements and copyright licence statements that focus on permitted behaviour rather than prohibited behaviour will help protect the integrity of your content while encouraging users to return to your site (or collection).

Tip 7: Implement a backup and long-term storage plan

Digital technologies rely solely on machine-readable media that can decay or fail rapidly without visible signs of damage. Such failure can happen in days, weeks or months, and may lead to the complete and irreversible loss of your content. That means back-up and long-term storage options have to be a core part of your digital project planning from day one.

A back-up requires you to have a minimum of two copies of your content – your currently accessed content and a separate, up-to-date copy. Back-ups should be planned daily or weekly depending on the volumes of content available or being created, and should ideally involve a further off-site back-up to protect against theft, fire or natural disaster.

Long-term storage requires a different strategy from back-up. It involves planning for archival copies of your content to be migrated between different storage media over time, and a contingency for transfer of content to another agency should your organisation or service face closure. This is where your choices of appropriate formats, descriptions, collections policy and rights statements really come into their own.

The digital content lifecycle

The life cycle below emphasises that, with good practice, digital content can remain used and useful for an indefinite period.

Diagram of the Digital Content Lifecycle: Selecting, Creating, Describing, Managing, Discovering, Using & Reusing, Preserving.
  1. Selecting: for analogue or new content, selecting what should be made digital

  2. Creating: putting content in a form to make it usable

  3. Describing: describing content so it can be organised

  4. Managing: managing content to keep it usable and available

  5. Discovering: organising content to make it findable

  6. Using & Reusing: ensuring content can be used and re-purposed

  7. Preserving: managing content to keep it usable and available long-term.

The guides in each of these sections walk you through a discussion of the basics you need to know about each stage of the life cycle, some principles to bear in mind for planning, and the standards, tools, and resources we think can support you in developing good practice.