Erin Dickey

Digitization Projects, Project Planning

DAH Post #2: The “real” and the “ideal” in planning digitization


In response to Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web as well as the Getty’s Introduction to Imaging, in class on Wednesday Elizabeth asked what I thought was a pretty pertinent question about typical workflows for digitization projects. The question, as well as JJ’s answer made me reflect on a few factors in my own planning process in researching, envisioning, communicating, and applying for for grant-funding for a digitization initiative in my last institution, the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center (BMCM+AC). The requested grant funds were included as part of a funding request for a larger, 3-year expansion project–to include funds for physical expansion and renovation, collections care, and educational internships–currently underway.

Before I discuss that process, it might be useful to point out areas in both texts that I found particularly resonant, and that speak to the navigation that staff members must face between what would be “ideal” for any given institution, and what that institution can realistically manage. Among other considerations in project planning, Introduction to Imaging urges tying the decision of whether to begin a digitization project to the mission and resources of the specific institution, with special focus on how the collection is accessed by users and deployed by the institution and how those collection uses might change after digitization.[1] In their section “Who Does the Digitizing? Should I Do it Myself?”, Cohen and Rosenzweig explore the pros and cons of outsourcing digitization or doing it in-house.[2] Such a decision necessarily depends on timeframe and scale of the project, quality of surrogates required, and resources allocated.

Screen shot of, "Selections from our permanent collection"
Screen shot of, “Selections from our permanent collection”

The digitization project at BMCM+AC was conceived as an extension of the museum’s current online gallery of selections from the permanent collection, which is added to on an ad-hoc basis as works are rotated out of storage for exhibitions and photographed. The project was to take place after the launch and ongoing buildout of the museum’s new website, which was designed with an future “online archive” section in mind. The budgeted funding for the digitization component of this project as well as for the website represented a small fraction of the total received grant funds for the expansion project. Therefore, it was anticipated that the digitization initiative would necessarily take place in phases as additional funding became available. The end goal of the project is a searchable interface accessed via the BMCM+AC website for users to explore the permanent collection (which includes ephemera, prints, and 3D materials as well as paintings, drawings, and photographs), as well as the institution of a more sophisticated collection catalogue that includes archive-quality digital surrogates.

In the research phase of grant-writing, I found a number of models and tutorials for the kind of end product and work process applicable to the project. Consultation with colleagues in the process of brainstorming about the website redesign and user interface for digitized surrogates added to the list. Here are a few:

  1. Connecting to Collections webinar series – “Caring for Digital Materials: Preventing a Digital Dark Age”. I can’t really overstate how incredibly useful Connecting to Collections is–their webinars (and there are many of them) run the gamut of Things You Need To Know in the GLAM world. This series of webinars on caring for digital materials was profoundly helpful as I was considering possible practical applications of a more systematic digitization effort within BMCM+AC.
  2. Omeka – I first learned about Omeka, an open source web-publishing platform tailored to display of GLAM collections and exhibitions, in the above series.
  3. Collective Access – Another open source collections management and publishing software. What it makes possible: An institution’s front end collections interface of Collective Access can be accessible through web portal (and now, I think, directly through the owner’s WordPress website via plugin, but I haven’t yet tried that), while the back end can be run as the institution’s primary collections management software. Omeka can perform similarly, but I believe Collective Access has more appropriate architecture for the back end.
  4. The New Museum Digital Archive – Built using Collective Access, something like this archive was, for me, the ultimate aspiration for the end phase of BMCM+AC’s digitization efforts. Obviously, an institution like the New Museum has far more resources to enact a project like this, but I found it useful to have it in my head while considering the first phases of the project.
  5. Jack Tworkov Catalogue Raisonné (you may have to register with an email address to view the raisonné) – Shown to me by BMCM+AC’s webmaster, this interface represents something similar to a more easily realizable user interface for the museum’s online archive in the near-term.

    Screen Shot of Catalogue Raisonné
    Screen Shot of Catalogue Raisonné

In envisioning how the workflows required might realistically take place in an institution with a small staff, I was inspired by a talk at the 2014 Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC) on incorporating volunteers into long-term museum projects. The presenters, staff members at a mid-sized museum, discussed volunteer recruitment, orientation, and management for their institution’s multi-year digitization and cataloguing effort. They stressed (1) targeting recruitment to a limited number of volunteers with specific skills, (2) making sure volunteers could commit to a specific amount of time per day, week, or month over a longer period of time, and (3) strategically planning training sessions and volunteer meetings, as well as appointing volunteer “leaders” to minimize drains on staff time and maximize efficiency in staff oversight responsibilities. My responsibilities for the BMCM+AC included intense volunteer recruitment and coordination efforts for the museum’s two biggest events of the year. In addition to a large number of one-time volunteers, the museum also has a small cohort of dedicated “repeat” volunteers–usually retired professionals and area artists/arts enthusiasts–as well as interested student volunteers and student interns from the nearby UNC Asheville. With careful planning and the framework above allowing for a judicious use of volunteer labor it began to seem just possible that the museum, with the addition to staff of two new grant-funded interns, could begin the laborious work of digitizing and cataloguing its collection with a uniform standard, with the end goal of providing digital access to items in its collection not currently on exhibition.

I left the museum in July, 2015 for grad school at Chapel Hill. In the time between the receipt of the grant and my departure, the museum renovated and reopened its original exhibition space, renovated its new collections storage space and moved its collections, launched its new internship program, and hired an executive director. The museum has since launched its updated website, redesigned in-house by the museum’s webmaster. It will open its second physical space this spring. The first phase of the digitization project will commence soon after.

I think that the selection of planning process elements above, though incomplete, demonstrates something about digitization plans and workflows in small institutions with limited staff and resources that JJ alluded to in her answer to Elizabeth’s question: namely, the often messy navigation between the “ideal” (as represented by Digital History and Introduction to Imaging) and the “real”. While it is important to develop a clear plan for digitization that takes into account the needs and input of stakeholders, considers funding requirements and staff needs, and reflects the institution’s mission and history, it is also important, especially in a small institution, to stay fleet, flexible, and creative in approaches to issues that may arise in planning, workflow, seeking funding, and user access. And perhaps most important: to enjoy the problem-solving process.


[1] Howard Besser, “Why Digitize,” Getty Research Institute: Introduction to Imaging, Revised Edition, accessed January 24, 2016,

[2] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “Who Does the Digitizing? Should You Do It Yourself?” Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, accessed January 24, 2016,



  1. Hi Erin, What a great idea to reflect on your own experience with a digitization project that involves digital art images. I’m actually working to finish a similar reflection of my own on my blog. We can compare our respective successes and hurdles. Until now I have not thought about these projects in a comparative way with each other, and doing so has actually provided me with a lot of insight into the variability and inconsistencies that come with digitization projects across various institution sizes and types (in my case a small, non-profit historic preservation organization, a non-profit AAM-accredited art museum, and Special Collections at a large public university).

    I love that you point out the very real gap between the ideal and the real in planning digitization projects. I’m sure that even at a large institution with deep endowment funds there has to be so much good communication between individuals, departments, institutional leaders, and sources of funding that need to be on the same page to make a digitization project “ideal.” I think the idea of best practices in Digital Art History may not be the most cookie-cutter or well-documented set of guidelines, and this lack of guidance can sometimes play out in digitization projects.

    Maybe this is a little broad, but I know that a most helpful criterion for decision-making at my level as an individual in collaborative digitization projects has been a clear sense of which materials to prioritize digitizing and realistically looking at resources – of funding, of the precious time of volunteers and employees, and a timeline to determine a realistic workflow. Adjusting expectations doesn’t reflect a failed project and creativity stretching resources is a reality for work in a smaller museum, school, or arts center.

  2. I would be interested to see how well the plan to utilize volunteer labor actually works out with the BCMC+AC project, since volunteer commitment and institutional expectations of volunteer commitment are not identical. In my years in the VRL, I have had only 2 “volunteer interns” successfully commit to and complete aspects of digitization projects. But I have had many show up at my door wanting to volunteer. The gap between interest and understanding that volunteering actually means showing up and doing the work is pretty sizable. So I don’t usually depend on building volunteer labor into my workflow or funding requests because of that. So what could make the difference at BCMC+AC, or what are the drivers that cause particular volunteers to show up (in every way that means)?

    That was a great experience to have had early in your career!

    1. It was a great experience! I should clarify: the volunteer workflow was not actually written into the grant. Like you, I’ve similarly had experiences with volunteer recruitment and coordination that would dissuade me from tying the specific plan I mention to a funding request. Instead, my aim in envisioning (or, in this case, being inspired by) a plan including strategic use of volunteers was to take at least a little of the pressure off of staff–of course, the museum now has funded interns to take some of the workload, as well as an additional staff member.

      I tested out a version of the model I describe above a few months before I left, coordinating the cataloguing of the museum’s library on LibraryThing (, with work spearheaded by two retired librarian volunteers and one of the museum’s interns. I found that all three were highly motivated, thoughtful about the project, and incredibly generous with their time. I know I got lucky. 🙂

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