A Tale of Two Pressures
Non-profit institutions must live in two worlds: philanthropic and political. Fortunately, digitization is a strong tool in both worlds. Philanthropically, a preservation-grade digitization program provides better stewardship of collections, reduces handling, aids research, and broadens access. Politically, a preservation-grade digitization program provides a boost to the marketing reach, fundraising abilities, and brand quality of an institution.
Enticing Collection Acquisition
Preservation grade imaging can be used to entice holders of valued collections to bequeath those collections to a particular collection. When an individual or organization looks to donate a valuable collection to a non-profit, they may be motivated by a variety of goals. In most cases providing public and researcher access to the collection and the protection of the collection are high priorities. An institution with the capacity and track record of providing preservation grade digitization can offer strong assurance of both access to and protection of the collection.
You Can’t Cite What You Can’t Access
A researcher who finds potentially useful physical documents/objects spread across several institutions will tend to choose to visit those institutions which have the broadest potentially relevant collections, as their travel is often restricted by time and cost. So even if a majority of relevant material is distributed across several smaller institutions, their holdings will often be overlooked.
Digitization completely changes this equation. Institutions that allow specialized and generic search engines to locate material in their digital collections and participate in cross-library access efforts like Digital Public Library of America will have their results listed on equal-footing with institutions like the Library of Congress. Since the “cost” to “visit” smaller institutions is only a few seconds, rather than a long flight and hotel room, researchers are significantly more likely to examine and cite those collections in their research.
Moreover, it is becoming increasingly common for scholarly research to begin and end with a digital-only search. When a properly formed search can return a deluge of relevant digitized collections it is difficult to justify a significantly more costly (in terms of both time and expense) search through physical archives. As the world’s holdings are digitized this trend is likely to continue, relegating to obscurity those collections which have not been properly digitized.
Quantifiably Equal Quality of Presentation
Smaller institutions following tight imaging guidelines such as FADGI 4-Star [see FADGI & METAMORFOZE] can provide PDOs of quantifiably equal quality to those of The Getty Research Institute, The Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and other marquee institutions. Using the high-end equipment and workflows designed to meet and exceed these standards ensures that resulting PDO can be reused far into the future and stand side-by-side with those from any institution in the world.
Small institutions often have the world’s leading collections of niche topics, and can leverage digitization of these collections to increase their reach globally. With larger institutions a researcher often starts with the institution and discovers and learns about a particular collection as a result. But the opposite is often the case with smaller institution; a researcher finds a collection and then learns about the institutions as a result. Digitization of such niche collections simultaneously fulfills the philanthropic goal of enriching community access to that collection and, as a result, increases the visibility of the institution itself, bringing tangible, world-wide recognition.
The Social Media Value of Immediate & Deep Content
Digitization is the perfect companion to social media. A Tweet about a specific person’s physical visit to a physical institution is rarely reshared outside of their immediate friends. It lacks context and depth; there isn’t any way for the audience to immediately engage. The reader may add “visit this museum” to a crowded mental to-do list, but without depth, it’s more than likely the post will be forgotten moments later. In contrast, a social media post about a release of a digital collection provides deep and meaningful content to immediately dive into. This social value also incentives traditional media coverage. For instance, Engadget, The Verge, and others covered the release of full-resolution downloadable images from the New York Public Library’s special collection of maps. The release, and the coverage surrounding it, created strong engagement and public awareness, as exhibited by thousands of likes and retweets on Twitter.
“This is absolutely incredible!!!!! As a teacher these maps are invaluable!! Thank you so much for doing this!”
– Aleta Boddy, commenting on the Open Access Maps Program of the New York Public Library, which garnered nearly 10,000 likes on Facebook, and 3000+ retweets on Twitter.
Branding and Brand Consistency
Digital reproductions of collection items are one of the most common points of interaction between a Cultural Heritage Institution and the public. The images might be viewed directly on the institution’s website, in a newspaper article, in a magazine feature, or in an academic publication. In all cases, they will, quite literally, inform the viewer’s image of the institution. In the world of marketing this is called “brand interaction” and is critical in the creation and maintenance of positive high-quality branding. Therefore it is essential that institutions take care in the quality of digital assets they make available which might contribute to their brand. Digital images which are anything less than preservation quality can become a pandora’s box of mediocre imagery; once a digital asset is released in any public form it can be nearly impossible to recall or control. The sensible recourse is to digitize only at high quality, ensuring that all digital assets an institution creates will help, rather than hurt, their brand.
“The visual branding of the Philadelphia Museum is intricately tied to the quality of the photographs that are used to represent the objects in the collection, Museum events and its numerous activities. In an era when the phone cameras most visitors have are capable of capturing a 12-megapixel image, we feel that it is crucial that the quality and technical standards of the images produced by the PMA photographers be heads and shoulders above the crowd.
We have found that it is far too easy for images taken with inferior equipment by well meaning but undiscerning amateurs to somehow become mixed into our archive, alongside professional photographs that we have worked hard to create. We work hard to prevent these inferior quality images from accidentally becoming part of the stock used to communicate the PMA brand.
This is why a set workflow that starts with a detailed and color correct image, clearly defined labeling, and processing standards becomes crucial. The quality of such files along with their embedded file data helps us to identify and track the use of images that are produced with our brand in mind. While we can’t always prevent less than ideal images from surfacing throughout the various channels that use images, it does help us identify and remove these problem files from circulation.”
– Justyna Badach, Photography Studio Manager, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Early in the digitization movement, few institutions of Cultural Heritage could digitize more than a menial fraction of their collection per year. Operating at the slow pace of multi-shot or scanning systems, the completion of digitization seemed more of a fanciful concept than an attainable goal. With the advent of rapid capture solutions built around high-resolution single-shot digital backs and high-speed workflow software like Capture One Cultural Heritage Edition, this pace has quickened by orders of magnitude.
Today’s modern systems and the following of preservation-grade industry standards ensure that the day will come, sooner rather than later, that most institutions have the majority or entirety of their collections online. At that point, the publicity and interest surrounding yet another institution reaching such a milestone will be quite low. For now, however, there is a distinct first-mover advantage for those institutions completing digitization in the next few years. Thus, it is crucial that institutions that wish to use digitization as a market differentiator adopt a digitization program that includes sufficient quality to maintain a consistent and professional brand, with sufficient planning and equipment to achieve the digitization goals in a timely fashion.
“We’ve reached an important milestone at the Freer |Sackler, an effort we’re calling Digital Zero. As of this writing, we’ve become the first Smithsonian museum to digitize their collections. This is a great opportunity for scholars and researchers as well as our everyday virtual visitors to have 24/7 access to our works of art.
What exactly is Digital Zero? For the Freer|Sackler, it means that we’ve photographed and uploaded our entire collection into a digital asset management system — more than 40,000 objects and almost twice as many images, from Whistler’s Peacock Room to the tiniest unnamed ceramic sherd. We have examined the rights information on every object and marked them appropriately. We have reviewed records, both complete and incomplete, and deemed them acceptable to make public.”
– Courtney O’Callaghan, Chief Digital Officer, Freer|Sackler, The Smithsonian Institution