Steps to Build a Digital Archive: Scoping

Having dealt with why it is going to become critical for organisations and institutions to build a digital archive the next question is, okay, how do we go about it?
The first step in building a digital archive is Scoping.(1)
My experience is that when most people think about digitisation they think about pressing a button on a scanner. How hard can that be they ask? Surely that does not take much skill?
The truth of the matter is that digitisation or even managing born-digital files and the wider process of building a digital archive is a highly complexed undertaking that requires significant skills and resources. The process of capturing an item into digital form is only one of many in the process of building a digital archive. To do digitisation and manage born-digital files well, involves expensive equipment, skilled people and an enormous amount of time… and while one may reasonably expect the cost to come down over time (especially once the backlog of analogue collections is complete) the cost is certainly not going to go away, it is going to be ongoing for decades and even generations. There are no short cuts. So before you start down the road to building a digital archive, it is worth knowing what you are letting yourself in for.
This is why the Scoping step is so critical. Scoping involves aligning building a digital archive with the vision and mission of your organisation.

Scoping is the first step in the journey of building a digital archive

One of the goals of Scoping involves getting buy in from everyone – from the chairperson of the board to the the most junior staff member. Why? Because building a digital archive is like having an accounting function in your organisation – it has got to be done well, with great consistency, without any end, and it requires significant skills and resources to keep it going. In other words, it becomes fundamental to the functioning of the organisation and so requires complete buy-in from all. We don’t debate the necessity of an accounting function, likewise there should be no debate about building a digital archive. There often is, however, partly because the digital era is something new so people are still getting their heads around it, so it needs debate and engagement by all so that the matter can be settled.
But the Scoping process is not just essential while our organisational culture is getting used to the digital world, it is also fundamental for ensuring that the digital archive we build is one that genuinely serves the vision and mission of the organisation. Aligning the digital archive with your organisational or institutional vision and mission is critical to its long-term sustainability. There is no debate about the critical nature of an accounting function in your organisation simply because it is so fundamental to the survival and endurance of the enterprise. Building a digital archive becomes that fundamental in the minds of all when it is built in line with the vision and mission of the organisation.
How does the digital archive support the vision and mission of the organisation? Well it is very easy for a digital archive to simply become that activity in the background that “those interested in history” are involved in, or perceived as a drain on resources because those running it are wanting to collect everything and digitise everything. For a digital archive to support the vision and mission of the organisation it needs to give priority to collecting, preserving and giving access to material that supports the primary purpose of the organisation. In this sense, building a digital archive is no different to building a physical archive. If you are a museum, there is a purpose for which you exist and your collections tend to reflect that purpose. If you are a business, the digital material you collect would reflect your activities, your achievements and your market. The quick access to high quality material in that collection should support other functions such as marketing, communications, team building, product development, organisational identity and so on.
So practically what form does a Scoping exercise take? Well at the upper end, particularly for large organisations with extensive collections, it would certainly involve the creation of a digital archives strategy. For smaller organisations it may simply involve a clear agreement between the stakeholders what is to be accomplished and how it supports the vision and mission of the organisation. It is always best to write this down so that it can be referred back to from time to time, even if that referring back is to adapt and refine it.
Scoping is a solid first step toward building a digital archive because, for your specific institution or organisation, it answers the question “Why is our organisation building a digital archive?”

Other blog posts on the topic of Building a Digital Archive:
Why Build a Digital Archive anyway
Steps to Building a Digital Archive: Screening
(1) When we were working on the National Policy on the Digitisation of Heritage Resources for South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture, Roger Layton of Roger Layton Associates came up with a model for understanding digitisation in terms of 10 processes. In an Annexure to the Policy our team adapted the model to the actual process of running a digitisation project and to building a digital archive. Scoping is the first of the 10 processes. Based on its experience Africa Media Online uses its own adaptation of the model in its training and consulting services and our blog posts refer to our own adaptation. Any shortcomings in what we present are our own doing.