Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

19 November 2013

Fail to prepare for digitisation, prepare to fail at digitising!

Planning a digitisation project can be a lengthy process with consideration required for strategic alignment, funding models, workflow, and metadata – all of which should be led by a clear definition of the overall purpose of the digitisation project. What must also be considered are the practical aspects of digitisation bearing in mind the condition and format of items, and identifying what needs to be done to items to make them camera ready.

There are potential risks from digitisation as books become objects when being copied, and therefore may not be handled, positioned or viewed in the conventional way. This increased handling can accelerate the normal process of wear and tear. In order to minimise these risks the items should be checked over before appearing in the imaging studio. These checks are run by our Preventive Conservation team who make initial condition assessments of items to be digitised; recommend any treatments to stabilise or repair items; and advise on handling and transport, camera equipment, lighting and cradles. We are Collection Care after all!

The outcome of pre-digitisation checks fall broadly under five headings which will be covered in this post, and we’ll share some examples of what to look out for.

1. Items that can be digitised in their current state

Good condition, flat, loose leaf items, and bound items where all the content can be seen easily, and that open well, can be digitised.

Four images in a grid. Top right: a selection of books rest flat on a table. Top left: a books rests open on a table, the picture taken from above. Bottom right: a book rests open on a table; the picture is taking from a lower vantage point showing the bottom edges of the pages and spine. Bottom left: loose leaf materials along with a notepad and pencil rest on a grey surface.
Items in good condition which open well can be digitised easily. Depending on size limits these items may be suitable for scanning


For folded inserts, digitisation is best facilitated through use of a book rest to support the main volume allowing the insert to lie flat. A support can be arranged underneath to provide a flat base for large foldouts. Take note of the format and size of folded inserts as large items may be too big for many scanners, and may need to be photographed instead.

Two images side-by-side. Left: A large foldout advertising a concert is unfolded and the book closed on top of it, showing just how much larger this foldout is when unfolded compared to the book itself. On the right is a small document attached to a guard volume. It is much smaller than the volume itself, so a piece of paper the size of the volume is placed behind the smaller item to provide support and prevent damage.
The value of a good measuring tape cannot be underestimated! This bound book (left) is 260 x 210 mm, but the insert extends to 770 x 500 mm. In guard books (right), the insert may be smaller than the volume in which case a sheet of paper can be placed behind


Guard-books which contain miscellaneous single documents or groups of documents usually open well, and if items are in a good condition then they can be photographed or scanned. If inserts are smaller than the volume then a backing sheet will need to be placed underneath to hide items behind. Size and positioning can vary through the volume so items may have to be repositioned under the camera/scanner. Items with wax or shellac applied seals and vulnerable manuscript items should not be scanned under glass as this can cause damage or make existing damage worse.

Some items may appear to be badly damaged but may still be imaged safely. For example if an item has a broken binding where the boards are off and the sewing has failed, it can be treated like single leaves. If the boards are completely off, but the sewing and text block are still intact then it acts like a bound volume.

2. Items that may need some preparation

It may be possible to photograph rolled items without preparation. If the roll is particularly long then it may need to be photographed in sections with weights positioned to prevent the item rolling up between shots. Where rolled items are distorted and do not lie flat easily (even using weights), they may need some relaxing and pressing first. Bound items which have been rolled need to be relaxed and flattened for digitisation.

Two images side-by-side. Left: a rolled item is placed on a black foam wedge and opened slightly--the remainder of the scroll is still rolled up at both the top and bottom. This is held open with a snake weight on each side of the rolled item. Right: a variety of rolled items rest on top of one another. They are crumpled and crushed due to incorrect storage.
 Some rolled items can be digitised using weights (left), while others (right) may need some care before imaging


Folded items may need to be photographed separately and in sections as they can be much bigger than they first appear. It is important to know how much space is needed as a different location and set up may be needed to capture large items.

Two images side-by-side. Left: a small folded item rests on a table. In its folded state, it looks comically small compared to the table. Right: The item has been unfolded on the table, held open with weight bags around the edges, and fills nearly the entire table surface.
Items may be larger than they seem! This fold out map requires a large working space which imaging studios may not be capable of accommodating


Past stationary remedies such as pins, treasury tags, fasteners and adhesive tapes can damage paper. Rusting induced by a high humidity environment can stain underlying paper. Preparation time may be needed to remove pins, fasteners and threads. Tape removal can be more time consuming involving the work of a conservator. You can read more about tape removal in our Conservation Revealed blog post.

Bad storage and poor housing can cause problems making items difficult to handle and lay flat. These items may need to be prepared for digitisation by relaxing and flattening – this is a relatively simple job, however if there is a lot of material it can be time consuming.

Two images side-by-side. Left: A few folder/binders sit in a box. The items contained within the folders are too large for the folder and the box, so they are crushed and damaged. Right: an item which was once bound by thread is now fanned out to show the broken threads.
Poor storage (left) and broken threads (right) can make items difficult to handle


In all of these cases, time has to be factored in for preparation of material.

3. Items that may need minor conservation work

Ideally dirty items should be surface cleaned to remove loose dust and dirt before imaging. Ingrained surface dirt is very difficult to remove so the item may have to be imaged as it is, or even excluded if the condition is detrimental to the project. It’s worth keeping in mind that the appearance may be part of the ‘story’ of the material.

Two images side-be-side. Left: a book with a damaged cover rests on a table. The cover is brown-ish in appearance, looking rather scuffed and degraded. Along the edges of the cover pieces of board are lifting up and tearing away. A piece of paper has come loose from the textblock and overhangs from the boards, showing damage along the edges as a result. Right: A book open to show tears running horizontally along a couple of pages.
Damaged covers (left), and torn pages (right) can be digitised after minimal localised conservation


Outside leaves may be more badly damaged than text blocks, and it may be the case that a few leaves in a text block are torn. These items may be digitised after minimal localised conservation. It may also be possible to place torn loose items into Melinex sleeves to hold flat as an alternative to other preparation/conservation.

Mouldy items can cause damage, losses, staining and weakness to paper. For health and safety reasons, this material needs to be checked by a conservator. It may need to be dried if active and should be cleaned to remove mould spores before being safe to handle.

4. Items that may need more extensive conservation work

Extensive tears and detached sections may need to be repaired. All folds are vulnerable to tearing. If bindings have to be pulled for rebinding, digitisation can take place beforehand – single pages may be easier to handle.

Two images side-by-side. Left: A book is open to show two foldouts advertising concerts. The foldouts have been unfolded, and the foldout on the right-side page has a large tear running the length of one fold vertically. Right: Another book is open with a foldout unfolded advertising a concert. This foldout is in two pieces. There is tearing along the fragile fold lines.
Already damaged material such as this torn foldout is vulnerable to further damage. Check if any items are scheduled for conservation work which may make digitisation easier


5. Items needing handling input as an alternative to conservation

Some inks such as iron gall ink can cause degradation of otherwise good quality paper. Where the damage is extensive and the paper is very brittle, it may be quicker to image with a conservator handling and setting up the items with the photographer.

Two images side-by-side. Left: A book open to pages with text written in iron gall ink, which appears in a brown tone against a soft white paper. There is quite a bit of haloing around the writing, suggesting that the ink is degrading and potentially causing the paper to be fragile. Right: A few pages are loose from a volume.
Having a conservator in the imaging studio to handle ink burn through (left) or loose leaves (right) may be quicker and less expensive than arranging full conservation work


Some bound items may be in very good condition but have restricted openings. Tightly bound volumes often result in text disappearing into the gutter of the book. These types of items can be difficult to digitise and adaptations to book cradles using straps and weights may be needed to enable them to be handled. Most books should not be opened wider than 120° unless they do so naturally. Openings throughout the volume should be checked for opening characteristics. Generally books should be positioned so that supports hold the item open at a safe angle for that item. Opening characteristics can change as a book is worked through, and volumes may need to be adjusted regularly to ensure the item is sitting correctly. Angled book rests can be placed on one side to allow the page being imaged to lie flat.

A grid of four images. Top left: A rigid tight back rests with two black foam book wedges on each board. Snake weights hold the pages down on either side, and the slight curve of the spine rests in between the two foam wedges. The photograph is taken from a low vantage point and straight on, so you get a clear, straight-on view of the bottom of the textblock. Top right: This is shot from a similar vantage point, showing a book resting on two foam wedges as in the previous image. This book is a hallow back, so the hallow of the spine is allowed to open in the gap between the wedges. Bottom left: A paperback book is opened to a 90 degree angle, showing that it is not able to open further without potentially damaging the spine. Bottom right: Another book is opened, but it is very tight and only opens to a small angle. Two hands are visible in the picture opening the book.
Opening characteristics of books: Rigid tight back in conventional reading position (top left), hollow backed book in conventional reading position (top right), tight paperback 90° opening (bottom left), tight binding opens to barely 90° (bottom right)


You may decide that highly valuable items should be accompanied and/or handled and set up by a conservator or curator. This time and cost will need to be factored in to the project.

Decisions about preparation sometimes depend on the purpose of the digitisation project, e.g. to publicise the collection or to provide a study source. This may affect the level of preparation needed for digitisation, i.e. whether or not to relax and flatten items. Digital copies may raise awareness of physical items and increase demand to see the original – so decisions about future access need to be addressed. Planning for a digitisation project is vital to ensure the success of your project, with the emphasis on balancing the benefits of producing a digital copy against the risk of damage during the imaging process.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)
Imaging Scientist


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