Digitizing your historical documents is a relatively straightforward endeavor: you decide which records you want to digitize, find the resources to do it yourself or hire a scanning company to do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Digitization is the process of scanning and converting source material (hard copy records and historical documents) into an electronic format.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:
Ready to digitize your records and keep the historical context? Call us at 800.359.3456 or email us at email@example.com, and we’ll work with you to come up with the best solution for your unique project.
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.