Selecting Traditional Library Materials for Digitization

Report of the CUL Task Force on Digitization

I. Introduction

In April 2004 a Task Force on Digitization was charged to recommend a policy for selecting traditional library materials for digitization.  Providing increased access to digital information resources has occupied a prominent place in Library planning documents for some time. The Task Force approached its charge as part of this ongoing program (see, for example, CUL Goals and Objectives 2002-2007 I.3B, “select materials for digitization” and the Selection and Content section of the Report of the Digital Preservation Policy Working Group ).  This report offers rationale and strategies for deciding which materials the Library should digitize, and in what order it should digitize them.

II. Charge

The Task Force on Digitization was asked to:

III. Assumptions

The following assumptions and definitions guided our work: 

IV. Selection Criteria

Selection for digitization requires many of the same evaluative deliberations that guide traditional collection development decisions.  The selection of published materials for the stacks, or of paper materials for preservation microfilming, for example, require an assessment of value, utility, demand, condition, and collection relevance.  The Task Force concluded that these same criteria should drive selection of traditional materials for digitization at Cornell.  These values are well reflected in Cornell University Library’s Goals and Objectives 2002-2007 I.3B: “select materials for digitization on the basis of their potential for broad utility, unique value of materials converted, reflection of core strengths of Cornell’s holdings, and opportunities for building distinctive aggregations through national and international collaborations…”

At the same time, however, we were charged to develop guidelines for implementing digitization without this deliberative process in place, i.e. without professional selector intervention.  Hence our selection criteria recommendations are presented below in two different sections:

  1. Project Criteria.  Criteria to help determine how to prioritize collections or intellectual groupings of materials for targeted digitization, applied by library staff, consulting subject experts. 
  2. Production Criteria.  Procedures governing automated, or production digitization that would proceed systematically by non-selector driven criteria, such as by library shelf location, or upon demand by faculty or researcher request.

In establishing both sets of selection criteria, we drew extensively on the work of other research institutions and policy groups (see Appendix 1 for a bibliography).

IV.A.  Selection Criteria for Project Digitization

Cornell Library’s experiences with a variety of digital projects over the past decade—e.g. math books, Southeast Asian traveler’s accounts, 19th century American books and serials, core agricultural literature—are that selection for digitization is driven by a program whose purpose is to widely distribute materials that enhance scholarship and learning.  The Task Force found it difficult to conceive of digitization, even mass digitization, of traditional materials without first establishing programmatic parameters that take value and utility into account.   We also agreed that such programmatic parameters would need to be developed by collaborative teams of professionals, project by project, even though project implementation might be delegated to non-professional staff.

The following list represents the Task Force’s recommended criteria for project-based digitization:

1    Value

·        Collections of unique materials or subjects of supreme strength at Cornell

·        Materials that provide exceptionally broad or deep coverage of a subject or theme

·        Materials not well represented in other digital collections or projects

·        Collections that provide potential for generating revenue for CUL (per Goal I.3B)

·        Collections that offer potential to attract development opportunities

2   Utility

·        Demonstrated or potential demand

·        Responsive to Cornell research and teaching needs

·        Responsive to regional, national, or global research and teaching needs

3    Access

·        Provides value-added enhancements such as search capabilities, text manipulation, interpretive commentary, or bibliographic apparatus

·        Offers synthesized virtual collection, linking geographically dispersed originals

·        Provides surrogate access to fragile originals for preservation purposes

4    Innovation

·        Provides opportunity for building innovative relationships among institutions

·        Provides opportunity to forge new delivery models, metadata standards, technological advantages, entrepreneurial models, or modes of scholarly communication

5   Continuity

·        Considers the inventory of Cornell’s current digital holdings and projects in preparation and builds on them, where possible


We concluded that all targeted digitization projects should demonstrate at least some elements of items 1 & 2: Value and Utility.  But that of the hundreds of possible projects that would meet this test, the strongest projects—and those deserving highest priority—will also feature elements of 3 and/or 4: Access & Innovation.

IV B.  Production Criteria for Systematic Digitization

The Task Force struggled to conceptualize how production digitization could take place safely and logically without professional or curatorial participation.   We imagined two scenarios under which this kind of digitization might take place:  on-demand by faculty or researchers; or systematic, mass digitization of the stacks.  The Task Force concluded that production digitization without significant selector intervention might be undertaken under the following production parameters:

·        Assumes digitization of non-unique, or non-rare stack materials only

·        Assumes no destruction of originals without special collections review

·        Requires professional staff to outline “negative” criteria in advance (e.g. item incomplete, illegible, too fragile, copyright restricted)

·        Production must include training program in the safe handling and preservation of library materials

V.  Withdrawal of Paper Originals

The Task Force was charged to consider whether there are categories of materials that may be justifiably withdrawn after digitization.   Once again, we determined that answers would generally require definition on a project basis. Some collections, such as newspapers from Third World area collections, may require little more scrutiny than identifying their location in the stacks.  Other topics, such as American history for example, are comprised of volumes of historic artifactual importance and would require careful, item level inspection. 

Circumstances that may warrant withdraw of paper originals are:

  1. Duplicate Copies: more than one original held by Cornell Library
  2. Loss of content imminent (e.g. brittle paper)
  3. Items that survive in large numbers and that carry no demonstrable evidential, aesthetic, associative, or other physical value (Appendix no. 6-7)

VI. Appendix:  Bibliography

Digitization Policies and Guidelines

  1. Columbia University Libraries Criteria for Digital Imaging
  1. University of California Selection Criteria for Digitization
  1. The Library of Congress. Selection Criteria for Preservation Digital Reformatting
  1. National Library of Australia. Digitisation Policy
  1. Dan Hazen, Jeffrey Horrell, and Jan Merrill-Oldham. Selecting Research Collections for Digitization.
  1. Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections:
  1. Cornell University Library Department of Preservation and Conservation. Conservation Treatment: Library Materials to be Retained in the Collection in Original Format.

Task Force Membership:

David Block (chair)
Mihoko Hosoi
Terry Kristensen
Katherine Reagan
Steve Rockey
Linda Stewart
Back to Collection Development Policies Page
Revised and updated, 2/23/05
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