Building a condition survey and tracking application for digitisation
After several years of collaborative work with the Wellcome Library’s Conservation and Collection Care team and invaluable advice and feedback provided by Gillian Boal, Conservation and Collection Care manager, I was able to draft and share a new tool, the Condition Survey/ Tracking Template, which can help digitisation project teams by standardising the survey process.
Scoping studies (preliminary assessments) are amongst the crucial components of planning digitisation projects and workflows. Over the past few years at the Wellcome, it had become apparent that there were numerous variables affecting our decisions about suitable equipment, acceptable damage and so on. It was imperative to consider the context in which a project was set up and establish clear criteria and principles. This led us to distinguish digitisation condition surveys from conservation surveys.
One would argue that conservation surveys also require context, criteria and principles. So, what distinguishes digitisation condition surveys from conservation surveys? Fit for purpose. The main purpose of digitisation condition surveys at the Wellcome is purely to facilitate digitisation. It is not about the care and treatment of items but rather to ascertain if they are stable and satisfy our criteria for image capture. In summary, the aim is to plan and provide the right level of support for digitisation. The survey template, therefore, allows conservators to move away from a typical conservation survey and focus on identifying what is required for each project based on the principles and criteria we established.
I am currently working with the Wellcome Trust IT department to build a new online database based on the Condition Survey/ Tracking Template and tracking spreadsheets we have been using over the last few years.
I wanted to develop a tool to streamline and support the core project team members. The following were some of my objectives:
- Streamline our survey processes to save time. Scoping studies are important but can be extremely time consuming. Therefore, a structured assessment is essential.
- Be able to capture not only information about specific conditions and the level of stabilisation required, but also the data needed by core project team members involved in digitisation, such as project managers, photographers and meta-data officers. For instance, knowing how many items contain fewer than 100 pages helps us decide how many items we are able to digitise within the given timeframe. It takes considerably less time to digitise an item when it contains fewer than 100 pages.
- Aid the integration of physical preservation and digitisation preparation. For example, during preparation we replace rusty pins or staples with brass paperclips and protect fragile items by encapsulation. The template is linked to other digitisation condition guidelines so that it is easier for staff members to find out what is required and follow the guidelines. There are also columns created for post-digitisation preservation.
- Be able to produce a summary table that replaces a lengthy report, is clear and provides figures needed for planning.
- Facilitate the sharing of data collected as a result of the survey prior to and during the execution of the digitisation.
- Improve the efficiency of tracking items during a project.
- Allow the data collected during a project to be easily retained and accessible beyond the duration of the project.
Fit for purpose
The template provides the conservators or surveyors with a set of criteria, various codes and their definitions, and a number of conditions that need to be identified, enabling them to carry out a structured assessment of collections for digitisation projects.
The template has a built-in randomiser so that a random sample survey can be carried out. Once a master list (containing all of the items to digitise) has been imported into the template, when the desired sample size is entered the tool will automatically select random items from the master list and populate the survey worksheet. The whole process takes only a few seconds.
A free-text field allows notes to be recorded, but for the sake of consistency most fields will contain dropdown lists. This helps us analyse the collected data more easily. The template includes a report table with pre-set formulas, so there is no need to produce a lengthy document unless required for some other reason. The number crunching is done for you as you carry out the survey, so you can review your findings at a glance during surveying.
The information collected during the survey can be very useful to the Library in long-term collection care planning once the digitisation project has been completed, and can be exported easily from the template. For instance, as a result of some of the findings from our digitisation projects, the conservation team can make recommendations for re-housing, handling restrictions and prioritising collections for conservation attention through our usual workflow.
As mentioned at the beginning, our plan is to develop a new database. It will enable us to store all of the data collected through our digitisation condition surveys and condition assessments. Furthermore, it will allow us to search across different projects quickly and easily.
Deborah Leem trained as a medical historian and is currently working as Digitisation Project Coordinator at the Wellcome Trust whilst pursuing her MA in Digital Humanities at UCL