Digitizing your historical documents is a relatively straightforward endeavor: you decide which records you want to digitize, find the resources to do it yourself or hire a scanning company to do it for you, scan the records, and receive digital images. 

Once you complete the digitization project you’re likely going to either put the source material (physical copy) in storage or destroy it. The historical record is electronic now, so why would you keep it on hand anymore?

But what happens if you’re looking at your newly created digital resources and the file name doesn’t match what you’re seeing, or you’re just not able to find a document that you know was available in hard copy? If you haven’t destroyed the source material yet you’ll have to go get it and do a cross check. If you have destroyed it already, well…

There is a way to capture the original historical context of the record while at the same time enjoying the immense benefits of digitization. Read on to find out how!

Digitization Explained

Digitization is the process of scanning and converting source material (hard copy records and historical documents) into an electronic format. The reasons for a digital transformation are innumerable and will depend on your particular circumstances, wants, and needs, though we’ve put together a collection of the most common reasons to do it. 

But once you decide to scan your documents and create a digital collection, you should understand the ramifications of choosing one method over another. In this article we’re focusing on the method that allows you to capture the historical context of your historical material but in a digital format.

What The Heck Is “Historical Context?”

Historical context is the ability to see the original record as it existed prior to digitization.

The Big Reason Why Historical Context Is Important To You

Because if you digitize your hard copies and archival material and get rid of them (which is usually the point of digital preservation) but you don’t do it properly, you’ll forever lose the ability to understand how the historical material existed as a physical version. 

For example, let’s say you have 100 boxes of client files, and that each file is 100 pages long and organized in plain manila folders. Since a box holds ~2,500 pages, that means there are 25 folders per box. The folder label has the file information, such as a name and social security number (“John Smith 123-45-6789”), and the pages are inside the folder and divvied up into five distinct files using staples so that individual records related to John Smith are physically separated. 

In front of each stapled file is a sheet of white paper that has some handwritten information. If you know that each file has five sections, and that each section is organized in the proper order, you may tell your scanning partner the following:

  • Create a digital folder for each physical folder and index it by Name and SSN. 
  • Inside each folder will be 5 stapled files. There’s a cover sheet in front of each file which does not need to be scanned and can be disregarded. 
  • Scan each file as a distinct PDF. 
  • The first PDF should be indexed “Name_SSN_File A.pdf.
  • The first PDF should be indexed “Name_SSN_File B.pdf.
  • The first PDF should be indexed “Name_SSN_File C.pdf.
  • The first PDF should be indexed “Name_SSN_File D.pdf.
  • The first PDF should be indexed “Name_SSN_File E.pdf
  • Disregard the separator sheet (the white page in front of each stapled file).

If those are the directions, and your scanning partner follows these directions, you’ll get 2,500 folders (100 boxes x 25 folders per box) with five PDFs in each folder. However, since the cover sheet in front of each file was disregarded and not scanned (per the instructions), it won’t be included with the digital files. 

So the project’s done, you’ve scanned all 100 boxes and have all the digital files in your system. You’re looking for John Smith’s records and notice that “File B” doesn’t match the type of data that’s usually in File B, but can’t figure out why. In the old times with the hard copies, you could grab his folder and check out the pages, the cover sheet for notes, and so on. Not anymore.

At this point, if you’ve just stored the hard copies somewhere you’d be able to expend the time to go find the hard copy and check it out. Maybe the cover sheet had a sticky note explaining why the file is different, or something like that. 

If you’ve destroyed the files because you figured you did the scanning properly, uh oh! 

How could this have been avoided? Scan the cover sheets. 

Since the cover sheets exist in the physical form, it doesn’t hurt to digitize them along with the files, even if you think you don’t need them. At the worst, you just skip through the page because it’s not needed, but in the best case you’ll have the ability to see the original record as it existed in hard copy to ensure you have all the data that you started with. 

How To Preserve The Historical Context Of Your Digital Records

Wondering how you can preserve the historical context of your records when you go through a digitization? Here are some tips for the different types of materials:

Regardless of which method of digitization you move forward with (traditional vs Digital ReeL), you should consider capturing the record name at the highest level so that you always know where the subsequent files and images originated. “Highest level” for the different material types means the following:

  • Microfilm label – get as much information from the film roll box label as you can, and include all sides of the box if there are multiple labels. 
  • Microfiche Title – capture all data from the title strip of the microfiche sheet.
  • Aperture Card Title – capture all data from the title block of the physical aperture card.
  • Box label – if there’s a cover sheet on the box, get all the information from that sheet. If the box has any writing on it, you can capture that, as well.
  • Folder label – If your hard copy paper records aren’t in boxes (maybe they came from shelves or cabinets), capture all the data on the folder; the tab, any writing on the folder, or sticky notes.

It may not seem like you’d want to do this at first, but when you boil down the benefits of keeping records separate it might make sense. By keeping records separate once they’re digitized, you’re preserving the original hard copies: you’re already familiar with records organized in this way and it prevents mistaken merges of files or potential loss of data (by not knowing where it is when you renamed it and broke up the individual images). 

  • One file per microfilm roll – you know how to find your microfilm now (by roll), so by keeping it the same way in a digital form can keep your searches simple. You can always add OCR text search if you want to add that extra bit of speed to your searches. 
  • One file per microfiche sheet – your physical fiche are organized by sheet, so by keeping your electronic records in a “per fiche” system, you’ll continue your current method of organization but in a faster, digital way. 
  • One file per aperture card – just like microfiche, keeping the cards as single units replicates your original collection and provides the context you can always review. 
  • One file per box – if your records are organized in boxes, creating a digital replica of a “box” (such as a digital folder per box) can give you context into where the individual file was originally kept. 
  • One file per folder – even if you plan to break down folders into single pages or individual files, you can create the historical context of the original folder by either creating a digital folder and putting all related images/documents inside the folder, or creating a single document per folder.

To take the historical context of your records one step further, you can use Digital ReeL to virtually replicate the original record and create an exact digital copy. 

  • Replicates the physical record in a virtual format
    Your original hard copy record (microfilm roll, microfiche sheet, aperture card, bound book, folder, etc.) is presented as it existed in its original physical form, but now in an easy to use digital format. Instead of just having an image of a microfiche sheet, for example, you can interact with the record and see all its nuances for reference. 
  • Distinct from cropped images
    “Cropped images” are the result of scanning and putting together documents once they’ve been processed. For example, if you have a roll of microfilm (~2,500 images) and you get a PDF file, the images are “cropped” (or “framed” as it’s also called) from the microfilm strip and the stitched together to create a digital file. What’s missing is the physical microfilm strip that shows how the images were originally oriented and arranged.
    In Digital ReeL, you get to see the original microfilm roll in it’s physical form so that you don’t have to worry about keeping the hard copy anymore, because you’re not losing any data or context. 
  • Can export, bookmark, adjust images, redact, etc., but you always have the original record
    Digital ReeL allows you to export images and files in traditional formats (PDF, TIF, etc.), as well as have “bookmarks” on your documents to quickly find records. Other features, such as image enhancement (adjusting and optimizing images) and redaction (removing/blacking out data), allow you to manipulate your records but keeps the original intact, providing versatility for your users.

Next Steps

Reach out to us today! Click the “Get Your Quote” button below, fill out the form, and we’ll quickly reply to you to discuss your project.

Further Reading

Take a look at some of our other articles about digital transformation and digital preservation:

“Traditional Microfilm Conversion vs. Digital ReeL” compares the general digitization process (PDF and TIF image creation) with our Digital ReeL virtual replication process. If you’re looking for the most accurate historical representation of your records, you need to read this!

“Digital File Formats & Conversion Project Delivery” provides an overview of how you can receive your data and images once they’re converted to digital. Topics include files types (such as PDFs, TIFs, JPGs), image formats (bi-tonal, grayscale), and delivery method (USB, FTP, Digital ReeL).

“The BMI Project Review Process” illustrates our process to turn your project from an idea into a reality. We go through numerous steps to ensure that you’re getting the best solution for your unique project, and the input and experience of our entire team to develop and deliver your success.