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Heritage Hub Collections Care training

Online Collections Care training

How to preserve your community or family archive

Advice on how to protect and look after your physical archive


Collections Care 16: preparing for digitisation


Thinking about making copies of items/collections? Keen to save time and avoid damaging originals? Want to know how best to prepare?

Making copies of fragile or popular items reduces handling and the risk of physical damage, the number one cause of deterioration in archives
It’s good to keep an eye on how often items are used so you can see which ones are most at risk of damage. Keeping a note with your catalogue or list is a great way to do it – even a simple "five bar gate" tally will do.

Before copying anything it is good to remind yourself about copyright and data protection (see Collections Management 3,Collections Management 4). You could be breaking the law and depending on your situation, be at risk of a fine.

You can make a photocopy or print off a scan. If using a "flatbed" copier or scanner it is best to limit the type of item copied to those that are flat (so no squashed down books!), with sound surfaces – so nothing flaky or powdery (like chalk), not likely to fade (like watercolours) and not so big they stick out over the edges of the equipment. For anything else, support well underneath and take an image from above. It’s good to have guidelines available to remind people.

Making a digital copy will allow people to see something on a DVD or through a website. If you wanted to preserve the digital copy itself and keep it useable in the future you would need to treat it like another item in your collection, and keep information about it too (known as metadata). Things like what the digital file contains – is it a page of a book for instance, what the file type is – a PDF or a jpg, what version of the software was used and what you might need to open it, when it was first created, where it is kept, whether there are any rules about copying or viewing it and possibly other things too. (Digital Preservation 1)

Good information can be found elsewhere on making things available online, so we are focusing here on how to reduce damage from physical handling. It is best to think about the condition of an item and the potential for damage first. It will save heaps of time if you look at everything before you get all set up, to check if there might be any problems.

Just like anytime you handle archives, make sure surfaces and equipment used are clean, dry, and dust-free – you don’t want annoying specks or smudges on your items or on your images!

A golden rule worth bearing in mind, is NEVER deliberately take anything apart (unless you can easily put it back together using the same fastenings) in order to get a better image. You could significantly reduce the value of something, either now or in the future – it’s good to remember that values change, particularly over time!

If something is fragile or damaged in such a way that it can’t be imaged clearly, it may be possible for a conservator to prepare it (it may not need full conservation treatment or repair), or recommend ways to support or hold it to get a good image without causing damage (Collections Care 15).

And it’s best to keep reminding yourself to handle things very carefully both when checking or preparing items and during imaging. You may be distracted by the need to get a good image, or have a lot to do, and it can be easy to forget! It’s good to remember your aim is to protect items from the risk of damage!


Things you could think about ahead of time include:

  • Format – Is it a book, a bound volume, small flat item, rolled item, large flat item, folded, photograph? Does it need special handling?
  • Size – What is the overall size that has to be imaged? Will it be possible with your set up?
  • Support – Is a book support required? What shape does the spine of a book take when open at the page being imaged? What space needs to be made for this so that it isn’t squashed? Are materials fragile? Could there be any other stresses, strains or pressures that might cause damage?
  • Unfolding – Does the item need unfolding and will size then be an issue? Will more time or space be needed to safely open it and put it away after?
  • Sufficient space – Is there enough work space to prepare the document (or documents) and return it (them) safely to the protective enclosure afterwards? Will it be possible to keep everything in order as you go along?
  • Previous minor damage – Damage that does not affect text or any other information can be ignored as long as it is obvious that nothing is hidden. Is there a risk of further damage? How will we avoid this? Will more time be needed to handle it with care?
  • Blank pages – Do these need to be imaged? How do we show that there is no more information here?
  • Housing or enclosure* – Can it be safely removed from (and returned to) a housing such as a ring binder, or enclosure such as an archival polyester sleeve? Is the working area large enough to accommodate this safely?
  • Fastenings* – Will they restrict access or cover information? Are they contemporary and/or otherwise significant? Can they be loosened off temporarily? How do we handle and image the document without damaging it?
  • Fragile* – Is there a risk of damage when handling or imaging? Can it be supported for imaging? Is there an alternative version? Does it need conservation treatment first?
  • Previous major damage* – Is any item so damaged it can’t be handled at all without the risk of doing more damage? Is there an alternative item to image to provide the same information? Does it need conservation treatment first?
  • Obscured text* – Is any information hidden? Does it need conservation treatment first?

*it may be helpful to get more advice from a conservator

Page updated: 17/11/2020 Page updated by: Ally McConnell

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