YCW Digitization Project 2019

Beginning a new digitization project with the UAlberta Museums collections

Christina Borys - 02 December 2019

A photograph from Belgrade, with a home in trees on the hillside



Hello! My name is Christina Borys and I am currently the Collections Assistant – Digitization here at the University of Alberta Museums (UAM). This position is partially funded through the Young Canada Works (YCW) at Building Careers in Heritage program offered by the Government of Canada. The YCW at Building Careers in Heritage program sponsors internships for students and recent graduates to develop work skills and gain professional experience with organizations from the heritage, arts, and cultural sectors. Over the next six months, I have been tasked with a digitization project here at the UAM, developing tools and resources for collections and unit staff, and testing out my resources through photographing collections and uploading them to our database and new search site. 

I recently completed my Master’s in Library and Information Studies this past spring at the University of Alberta, and I have previously completed my Bachelor of Arts here as well with a double major in anthropology and classics. My undergraduate degree is really what sparked my interest in cultural heritage and memory institutions. I was lucky enough to be able to study abroad several times during my undergrad: I attended a semester in Cortona, Italy; an archaeological dig in Oppido Lucano, Italy; as well as a field school in Belgrade, Serbia, which spurred a passion for travel as well as a deep exploration into the ways we connect with spaces through objects and (surprise!) photography. While on my field school in Belgrade, I completed a photography project allowing me to explore film and street photography by taking pictures of my everyday surroundings. Though this project focused on the affective aspect of photography, my later work digitizing Métis scrip documents allowed me to see how photography can be used for cultural memory work and preservation. I am excited for the opportunity to learn and grow in this position as a recent graduate and a new professional in the field and to start putting all that theory into practice!

Throughout the next few months, I will track this project and some of the challenges and successes along the way. Digitization has become such a large part of cultural heritage institutions and will inevitably play a part in any future career I hold in this field, so I am looking forward to being able to obtain hands-on experience in this area and work through a project from start to finish. Hopefully, through providing a reflection of my own experiences doing this project, I can offer some helpful tips and tricks to those wanting to take on a similar project.

Laying the Groundwork

The University of Alberta Museums consists of 29 registered museum collections distributed throughout the university campus, each with its own curators and support staff. Understanding the structure of the museum collections was crucial in determining how to move forward with this project. With 17 million objects and specimens, these collections are as diverse as they are large. One of the biggest challenges with this project is developing a resource that will work for all our collections. The second biggest challenge is working with primarily three-dimensional objects. While there is a wealth of information out there on how to work with scanners and digitizing books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, and other paper and 2D objects, there is very little information on how to prepare and photograph 3D objects/specimens. This is largely in part because there is so much more variation when photographing an object/specimen, both in the types of materials being digitized and in the settings used to photograph them. Often a camera involves a level of customization and subjectivity that you don’t require when scanning.

Taking these two challenges in mind, this past month has been dedicated to working on the background information in order to do this project, that is all the research and planning that goes on behind the scenes. My research started with a literature search of the digitization standards from various institutions, organizations, and governing bodies, and compiling a document highlighting their standards and best practices. We also conducted interviews with several curators who have already done some digitization work with their collections to get a better understanding of what is already being done in collections and how this project could be the most helpful and useful to them. 

Some of the most helpful resources I found are:

  • Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative (FADGI)→ Formed in 2007, FADGI is a collaborative effort of several federal agencies to create a set of sustainable technical guidelines and practices for digitized and born-digital materials. The Still Image Working group released the Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials in 2016, which provides detailed and comprehensive information on the digitization practice and offers standards for various types of materials. This technical guideline is based on the technical guidelines released by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 2004. While the FADGI guideline contains much of the same information, the NARA guidelines have recommendations for the digitization of objects and artifacts, where the FADGI guidelines only deal with two-dimensional objects.  
  • Universal Photographic Digital Imaging Guidelines (UPDIG)→ The UPDIG Coalition has members from a variety of professional photography associations from around the world with the intent of establishing photographic standards for photographers, designers, printers, and image distributors. The UPDIG Photographer’s Guideline represents the industry consensus on technical information such as colour management, monitor calibration, resolution, file formats, and more. 
  • Canadian Museum of History (CMH)→ CMH released their new Digitization Standards in 2014, which references the FADGI guidelines. While the CMH standards are particular to their organization, they offer many examples of artifact photography and show how the FADGI guidelines can be used in practice and adapted by different museums. It should be noted that the 2014 standards are in French only, but the earlier 2006 version is in English, and while it offers slightly different information, it still proves to be useful.

Even though there are many standards and guidelines out there, digitizing ultimately depends on the resources available at your institution. So while the FADGI, NARA, and UPDIG guidelines offer valuable information and aimpoints, given the technology, financial, and personnel resources available to the UAM, their guidelines were often out of scope. Through our conversations with curators, we also found that the practices for digitizing objects/specimens and the resources available to the collections were as varied as the collections themselves. Creating a single prescriptive standard was not the way to go, instead, we decided to reframe the project as developing a suite of resources for the collections that they can then use and adapt to meet their own digitization needs. Going forward I feel that our biggest challenge will be to maintain the balance of the individual collection needs with the need for standardized practices. 

There are a ton of digitization resources out there, but not a lot for photographing 3D objects/specimens. Some helpful resources I found are:

Digitization Resources

Standards and Guidelines
Other Institutions
Other Helpful Resources