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General Collection Criteria Guidelines for HRVH

Collection Selection Criteria: what to digitize from your collection?
Digitization technology provides libraries, museums, archives, and other cultural heritage organizations the means to improve access to unique collections. But digitization comes with its own limitations, necessitating a well-planned project plan before any scanning can begin. One of the first and most important components of a good digitization plan involves the selection of materials to be digitized. The resources in this section are intended to aid in this important phase of the digitization process.

Digitization can serve many functions and has in the past been applied to cultural and historic resources in a myriad of ways.
  • In some cases digitization can be employed to highlight little-used portions of a collection, bringing them to the attention of a larger audience.
  • In others, digitization can provide enhanced access to fragile or otherwise restricted collections.
  • Digitization may also be used in a collaborative project involving multiple organizations to unite disparate resources that share a common subject or theme.
When selecting items or collections for digitization, collections managers would do well to ask themselves a few initial questions about subject matter, physical condition, audience and expected use, and the status of the collection inventories.
  1. Subject Content: It is important to compare the proposed digitized collection with the overall purpose of the organization. What is the mission of the organization? How will the digitization of portions of the collection best support this mission? What resources in the collection best document the themes that are important to the organization?
  2. Condition: What is the condition of the materials to be digitized? Will digitizing them help to further their continued preservation, or are they too fragile to even be digitized?
  3. Intended Audience: Who is the intended audience for the project? Is there enough of a demand for the materials? Does the organization have the infrastructure to deal with the increased demand on the collections that digitization will inevitably create? And finally, is the collection adequately inventoried or cataloged, or will such work need to be completed before digitization can begin?
The three sections below provide further reading on these topics and should be consulted before moving ahead with digitization planning and implementation.

Project Types and Models | Digitization Planning Matrix | Links

Project Types and Models
Most digitization projects serve one of three different purposes: Research, Education, or Outreach.
  • Research-oriented projects provide information for specialized researchers, whether professional, academic, or other, with access to unique collections. These projects typically consist of some sort of searchable database and serve in a similar capacity as a library catalog or an archival finding aid. Some digitization projects go further than catalogs and finding aids and provide direct access to digitized collections in addition to information about collections.
  • Education projects create a resource to be used by schoolteachers and students in the course of curriculum development and document-based questions (DBQ’s). These projects typically include a smaller selection of materials than the Research projects, and the materials are typically chosen by a team of historic record keepers and schoolteachers working in cooperation with one another. These projects may also provide much background information or lessons in addition to digitized images of unique collections.
  • Outreach projects are designed to educate or entertain the general public. These often take the form of online exhibits where items are selected specifically for their ability to document a specific subject. Similar to the Education projects, Outreach projects are typically smaller in scope than Research-oriented projects, and rely heavily on presentation and background information rather than sophisticated search capabilities. Outreach projects often function in the same manner as interpretive exhibits in museums.
Once the purpose of the project has been established, it is necessary to develop a design for the project that serves the needs of the purpose. The following models provide a few different approaches to digitizing library and archival materials. Each of the models has been designed with a certain amount of flexibility so that they can either be done exclusively by one repository, or be done by several repositories working in collaboration. They are also designed to encourage exploration of different models simultaneously or successively.
  • Subject (or theme) - oriented online exhibits: Databases based on this model include digitized images from collections along with narrative text and other graphic data. These “online exhibits” would serve the same purpose exhibits of physical objects in galleries and historic spaces: to inform, educate, and entertain through visual representation. Two good examples of online exhibits include the “Winning the Vote” concerning the Women’s Suffrage Movement on the website of the Rochester Regional Library Council, ( and the“75th Anniversary Celebration of the Bronx River Parkway Reservation 1925-2000” on the website of the Westchester County Archives, (
  • Descriptive Bibliographic Information Databases consist of searchable databases containing exclusively finding aids, inventories, box and container lists, and other cataloging records that provide access to collections of historical materials, whether they are in print, photographic, electronic, or museum object format. This model requires flexibility in order to allow for the variety of cataloging and descriptive practices used throughout the region. A notable project of this type is the Berkeley Finding Aid Project (an initiative to collect and integrate archival finding aids from repositories in California into a shared database available via the Internet). Regionally, the Huguenot Historical Society has gone the furthest in this particular direction, although they are not the only one.
  • Database of scanned images of collections in their entirety: This model requires searchable indexes and appropriate, often sophisticated metadata for each individual project. There are two different variants to this approach:
    • Item-based Collections - This model is used for collections of items of similar format such as photographs and postcards, sheet music, paged books, object collections, maps, audio or visual recordings, artificial collections, etc. This is the easier of the two types, since the format of all of the items to digitize is more or less identical, requiring less sophistication and complexity in the compilation of accompanying metadata.
    • Mixed Collections - This model is used for collections of personal and family papers, business and organizational records, other collections containing materials of different types and formats. The metadata for this model often includes complex finding aids with varying degrees of descriptive narrative that is typically more difficult to index than the metadata used with item-based collections.
  • Database of scanned images selected from specific collections: In this model, collection managers select representative samples from specific collections to be digitized and posted online. Finding aids or other relevant metadata for the collections should be included as well as metadata for the digitized objects.
Adopted by the Digital Advisory Committee of the Southeastern NY Library Resources Council, March 25, 2004.

Digitization Planning Matrix
  Question 1 Question 2 Question 3 Question 4 Question 5
Assessment Is there user support? What are local collection development policies? Does this form a national or international contribution? Does a similar product already exist elsewhere? Is this conservation or preservation?
Gains Does digitization reduce wear on the originals or open up access? Is the intellectual content of the work enhanced? Is navigation easy? Are disparate collections unified? Is use of the damaged original material enriched?
Standards Have suitable standards been followed? Are the originals available from a variety of hardware platforms? Is the software available and easy to use? Does the metadata conform to agreed standards? What are the archiving requirements?
Administrative Issues Do you have enough money? Have copyright and rights issues been secured? Does your institution have enough expertise? Is there a partnership with a commercial provider? Do the benefits justify the costs?
Credit: Guidance for selecting materials for digitisation from the Research Libraries Group (UK and Ireland) -

Planning & Selection: from North Carolina ECHO (exploring cultural heritage online). Provides guidelines for planning and selecting digital collections. Additional resources, links, and a bibliography are also available.

Guidance for selecting materials for digitisation: from the Research Libraries Group (UK and Ireland). A thoughtful article which provides a series of steps and questions to help define the selection process. Also presents a case study and a bibliography.

Selection of materials for digitization: from the National Library of Canada. Emphasis is on selection of materials for federal/national digital projects. Cites the criteria for the concept of the “Public Good” as a basis for federal/national projects, and a set of guidelines for “Digitization Proposals”.

Selecting Research Collections for Digitization: from the Council on Library and Information Resources. This is the online version of the publication Selecting Research Collections for Digitization by Dan Hazen, Jeffrey Horrell and Jan Merrill-Oldham. Contents include sections on “The intellectual nature of the source materials”, “Current and potential users”, and “Relationships to other digital efforts.”

Adopted by the Digital Advisory Committee of the Southeastern NY Library Resources Council, March 25, 2004

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