Generally, we keep things that hold value, whether monetarily or purely sentimental. But even the most highly-valued collection of historical documents doesn’t cash in for a collector until it is sold. The market on significant historical documents fluctuates, and there is no way to know that the selling price at a given time is the best possible. For many collectors, that one-time sale can’t compare with holding on to history.
However, there is another option.
Digitizing your historical document collection means that while the precious originals remain in your possession, digital copies can be made available to online viewers behind a paywall or in reprints sold per copy. It also allows continued access to a collection during unexpected challenges, like the COVID-19 pandemic keeping potential viewers stuck at home. This second life of your collection can serve as an ongoing source of passive income instead of just gathering dust.
The Digitization Process
There is certainly an up-front cost to digitization, but you get a lot for the price. Partnering with a trustworthy digitization partner means that your originals will be kept pristine during the process and that the end result will be stunning.
For most projects, the digitization process begins with scanning or photographing each page. Sometimes, a high-resolution flatbed scanner is sufficient. Other times, originals require a specialty book cradle. Once each page has been digitally imaged, a digitization team performs digital restoration. Unlike digital preservation, physical restoration of the original often comes with a steep price tag and is limited in possibility. Digital restoration is done to agreed-upon specifications, ranging from “repairing” tears and folds, to removing water damage and handwriting notes that obscure text, or filling in faded ink and returning the image to the way it would have looked when originally printed.
The pristine image is then put through a process called optical character recognition, or OCR. This is done through a computer program that “reads” the words on any given page. How well OCR represents the text depends on the care taken in processing and time spent by a human team proofing what a computer can only guess at. Off-the-shelf OCR options do exist, but the text is typically so flawed that it prevents meaningful search possibilities.
Another layer of digitization is the addition of metadata to each file. This data identifies information like date of publication, author(s), title(s), and can be as in-depth as you need. While even sparse metadata can enhance search, detailed metadata can include subject of discussion, links to other publications, or special industry or company shorthand that would help savvy researchers navigate quickly.
Once the image, text, and metadata layers are saved in a single file, the digitization process can continue utilizing a highly-specialized website, depository, or digital library where users can access the new digital collection, using text and metadata search to enhance use.
Money in Your Pocket
Once a collection has been digitized, there are a few paths that lead to profit.
Many digital collections are made available for free access, but significant collections like those of some newspapers and magazines like Vanity Fair and TIME are only fully accessible behind a paywall. Users who pay a one-time or periodic subscription fee unlock decades of material.
Carefully proofed text and constructed metadata mean that your beautifully digitized collection is also a powerful research and reference tool—far better than the arduous task of sifting through a physical library for an exact phrase. Scarcity of original material, quality of digitization, and powerful search are all effective marketing tools that prove the value of paying for a subscription.
If you’d rather your collection be available to all at no up-front cost, a pay-to-print fee may be the answer. Researchers, students, and those with casual interest have full access to the information in the collection, but pay a small cost to unlock printing of the high-quality documents. Some digital collections retain printing rights but will mail paid-for copies to users who order them. Having these options to consider will allow you to continue profiting from your collection when physical access is impossible.
These digitized collections provide a steady, passive income, enhance the cultural landscape, and make previously inaccessible information open to the public. Exploring your monetization options means that the sentimental value of holding on to something significant can be multiplied with the value of providing a gift to the future.
About Amy O. Anderson
Amy O. Anderson is a Principal of Anderson Archival, a digital archiving company in St. Louis, Missouri. Anderson Archival increases the impact, relevance, and accessibility of historical document collections with a thorough, principled digital preservation process. Anderson has a software engineering background and first started working in the archival arena in the mid-2000s on a custom solution that integrated document preservation and web technology to develop a high-end digital library.