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Benefits and challenges of digitisation

A look at the benefits and challenges of digitising archive collections

There are significant benefits to the conversion of archive resources from physical media into digital media. However, there are also some complications with such processes that need to be kept in mind.

Benefits of digitisation

The first benefit of digitisation is one of preservation. Generating a digital copy of an archive item means that there now exists a version of that item which is no longer subject to deterioration. Provided that the digital file is stored securely, there is an argument that this item will now exist far longer than the original item.

Traditional archiving practices work really well for traditional documents. But some media don’t necessarily fit this approach. In the case of the Roberto Gerhard Archive, the 600+ reel to reel tapes have important information on them, but this information is not accessible by observing the item. It requires playback and repeated listening. As such, digitisation opens up the possibility of accessing the stored information on this media and allowing infinite replays of these recordings without any additional risk of damage to the item. For this reason, digitisation of media such as audio and video recordings in fragile physical media has been increasingly embraced by archives with the resources to do so.

Finally, digitisation increases accessibility of the collection. Now, instead of one person travelling to a location to look at a physical item, Archives are able to provide online access or digital copies to researchers anywhere in the world. There are limits on this, copyright law might prevent the availability of copies or dictate how those copies are made available, but digitisation increases the potential for accessibility and ensures that more options are available to those that need it.

Challenges of digitisation

Having said that, there are some challenges to digitisation. The most immediate is that making copies of a piece of physical media involves an inherent risk of damage to the resource. Most documents can’t be photocopied as this would involve other objects making physical contact with the resource, and the light used by photocopies can damage or age the paper.

As such, highly specific equipment is needed to photograph documents in a way that does not damage the original item. For the tapes in the Roberto Gerhard Archive, any playback has the potential to damage the physical media, and the reel-to-reel tape is already fragile and prone to demagnetisation. Through agreement with Cambridge Library, Gerhard Revealed researchers were permitted to play the tape back once only and obtain a digital recording from that playback. Thankfully, no tapes were damaged in the creation of this archive, though a small handful required a lot of work to make them playable.

Even when you have a digital copy of a document, this file is not immune to corruption. While it is far harder to damage a digital file, there is always the risk of corruption or that data might be lost through accident or disaster. Archives work with their IT departments to ensure that digital resources are stored and backed up so as to reduce the risk of data loss, but no solution is 100% effective.

Finally, digital files can be quite large, especially if they’re stored at full resolution, in a lossless format. As a result, a digital archive can require significant resources to store and backup its content. This adds an element of cost to the process, and a cost that needs to be continually accounted for to maintain the digital infrastructure.

Despite these concerns, digital archiving presents a unique opportunity to build meaningful connections between resources. As we will see with the Roberto Gerhard Digital Archive, digitisation has allowed us to make visible a whole element of this composer’s life that is otherwise inaccessible.

Over to you

What other advantages or challenges might exist in converting an archive to a digital format? What kinds of media might a digital format be a benefit for?

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English Electronic Music: Delve into the Digital Archives

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