Historical books

Best practices for digitizing historical books and paper documents – GCN


Best practices for digitizing historical books and paper documents

This spring’s COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have made the need for digital access clearer than ever. Public and private sector organizations were forced to scramble to keep working despite the office closings, and some were more prepared than others for the shift to remote work.

All organizations, regardless of industry, need records of their physical resources, and agencies that have offered digitized versions of these resources, available online, have found the necessary transition easier to navigate. Digitization is the best method of preserving books and other paper documents, but paper is a delicate material, and undertaking a digitization project is not as easy as it sounds.

A lack of digitization at the present time could mean a complete halt to activities and research in the event of unexpected shutdowns. These must-have best practices will help agencies start a digitization project and decide what factors to consider before starting.

First steps

No two digitization projects are the same, but they have one thing in common: they all require some planning. The development of a plan involves the organization of the paper supports and a vision of the final digitized product. Is a searchable database with cloud access for all employees in the organization required or just a digital image backup in case a disaster destroys the originals?

Agencies will want to know all they can about their collections. How many articles and of what types: loose-leaf, bound books, photos. They also need to know how much they are willing to invest in this project, both time and money, and decide whether to invest in new scanners or monitors or to outsource part of the project.

The Federal Agency Digital Guidelines Initiative (FADGI) is an excellent starting point for learning about digitization. Personal projects are not too difficult to tackle for people inexperienced in digitization techniques and preservation methods. However, for agencies with a multitude of documents or a collection that is too delicate or deteriorated to be digitized in-house, partnering with a seasoned digitization provider may be the best option.

Storage room

The way books and historical documents are stored makes a big difference in how well they last. But storage may be the last thing agencies consider when they are eager to embark on their own digitization project. After all, isn’t the point of digitization to move from paper documents to virtual documents?

Considering storage options in advance will streamline the scanning process, allowing documents to be properly stored once they have been scanned. Paper documents should be stored in archival quality, acid-free boxes or folders. All papers that have been exposed to potential contaminants (moisture, mold, etc.) should be kept away from other materials to prevent the spread of damage. Books and other bound documents should be stored flat to preserve the binding. Avoid the temptation to stack boxes. Storage enclosures should be kept at or near room temperature (68 to 70 ° F) with humidity as low as possible. Temperature-controlled storage facilities are a good option for documents that agencies plan to keep but don’t need in the office.

Work space and handling

As paper can be extremely fragile, handling books and historical documents should be approached with care. Minimal handling ensures that a document will have a longer lifespan, adding another advantage to scanning.

The physical area where paper documents are scanned is larger than you might think. The scanning workspace must be free of dust, dirt or any other contaminant. Staff should never eat or drink near the documents they are scanning and wash their hands if necessary. Staples, paper clips, or tape should be removed before scanning.

Archival quality tools may be needed, especially if the project involves working with old documents that are brittle or damaged. Archiving spatulas can secure books in a cradle scanner, and tweezers can help remove any adhesive before scanning. White cotton or nitrile gloves will protect photos and other delicate materials from oils or fingerprints.


Choosing a scanning method that does not damage books or historical documents is a top priority. Not all scanners are created equal and agencies may need to do some research to make sure their hardware is up to the task. For example, the scanner bed must be larger than the material to be scanned. FADGI guidelines can help agencies verify that their scanner settings are suitable for the project and the materials they are working with.

Bound documents often cannot be scanned in a flatbed scanner, and unless agencies are willing to split a book’s binding to browse or flatten it in a scanner, they will have to find another solution. . It could be a state-of-the-art book scanner or a DIY build of cameras, book chocks, lights, and cardboard.

Each collection has its own challenges and goals, and a digitization plan may need to adapt over time as agencies get a feel for the needs of the project. Whether digitizing in-house or working with a professional archives team, the key to a successful digitization project is planning ahead and knowing how the digital collection will be used. Doing it wrong the first time will only lead to a poor quality product which will cost more to repair later. Structured and educated digitization ensures that an organization’s collection remains useful and accessible for the future.

About the Author

Amy O. Anderson is Director of Anderson Archives, a digital archiving company in St. Louis, Mo.


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