YI LogoIndustry Canada's Youth Internship Program (YIP) 2015 – 2016

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Across Ontario, many of our Youth Interns are hard at work on digitization projects: creating databases of local newspapers, scanning and making local history and genealogy documents available to the public, helping to preserve at-risk paper documents, converting slides and VHS tapes to electronic format, just to name a few projects. As physical documents age and our world becomes increasingly electronic, digitization is an important way of protecting fragile documents and making them accessible to a wide audience. This newsletter, we thought we'd take some time to go over the basics of digitization, talk about some examples, and provide some useful resources.

What is Digitization?

In general terms, digitization refers to the process of converting something from analogue to digital format. Basically, it involves taking a physical object and creating as close a copy as possible in a format that can be displayed or manipulated on a computer.

The copying process isn't perfect, and information may be lost as it's converted into the 1s and 0s that all digital files consist of – ask anyone who prefers vinyl sound recordings to CDs or MP3s. But there are many benefits to digitizing documents and many settings where digitization can be a useful project to undertake.

Archival and Museum Materials

Scanning historical documents and photographs is perhaps the most obvious project associated with digitization. Creating a digital copy of a document can be an important step in preserving it or manipulating it to gain further information.

Digitizing historical documents allows organizations to keep a high quality copy in the event that the original is destroyed. Many irreplaceable documents have been lost to fires, mishandling, or water damage, to name a few threats. Digital files, however, do not decay or disintegrate in the same way and can help ensure that information is not lost when a document is destroyed. For example, film made of cellulose nitrate may combust if not carefully handled and stored, not only destroying the film but also causing a fire hazard. A digital version of that file preserves the information without the need to store unstable negatives.

Additionally, while a brittle paper document may be damaged with repeated handling, a digital document does not break down with repeated viewing. Providing digital copies of materials can help preserve them by reducing the amount that the original needs to be handled. This can be taken one step further: a digital image can be digitally modified or enhanced in ways that would be physically impossible or harmful to the original. For example, altering the brightness and contrast settings on an image file can help make faded text more legible.

Digitization can also provide the general public with quick and easy access to a file. The Along the Shoreline database, for example, provides a searchable collection of digitized historical documents that are relevant to Northwestern Ontario. This collection is available to anyone, without people having to travel to view the documents in-house.

When documents are made accessible to a wide audience online, this benefits the public by allowing them to access historical documents they may not have been able to otherwise. It also provides an opportunity for the organization to discover more about their collection and engage with the communities involved. As part of the Library and Archives Canada's Project Naming, thousands of historical images related to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities have been digitized. The public can access these online and help to identify the people, communities, and locations in the images.

VHS Tapes, Cassette Tapes, and Films

As technology progresses, some analogue formats are becoming obsolete. Videotapes have been almost completely replaced by DVDs, Blu-rays, or video files. Cassette tapes have been replaced by digital formats, including CDs and digital delivery systems like iTunes.

As old audio-visual formats are replaced by new ones, though, that raises the problem of access. It may have been easy to pop a video into the VCR and watch a movie twenty years ago, but nowadays, that's not so simple.

Some public libraries have chosen to offer digitization services to patrons: converting home videos to digital files, for example. This not only converts videos from analogue to digital format but helps to ensure that people's family videos aren't a casualty of the progress of technology. On a larger scale, for the past fifteen years, the National Film Board has been working to digitize their collection of over 13,000 films, preserving them and making them available to a wider audience online.

3D Objects

In a previous newsletter, we talked about 3D printers and touched on 3D scanners. These scanners, like all digitization devices, turn an analogue object into a digital one. In this case, though, the object is a 3-dimensional item that can then be viewed on a computer or manipulated and printed using a 3D printer.

The Smithsonian, for example, famously created a 3D portrait of U.S. President Barack Obama. There are also exciting applications for the medical world: customizing fitted devices, more accurate medical imaging, and even an ultrasound procedure that allows blind parents-to-be to hold printed models of their unborn children.


Over the course of the Youth Internship Program, we've had a number of interns work on digitization projects involving newspaper collections: scanning and adding digital copies of newspapers to public databases. These newspapers have the benefit of being searchable, if using Optical Character Recognition or a transcription and easily accessible to the public. They circumvent the need to sit at a microfilm reader and scroll through rolls of documents. Our Digital World's project, INK, provides close to a hundred thousand newspaper issues from the past 200 years. Other organizations, like Canadiana, are working on digitizing periodicals. A number of public libraries have worked on making their local newspapers available to the public in digital format.

Things to Keep in Mind

If your organization chooses to take on a digitization project, there are a number of factors to keep in mind, including:

  • Technology Changes: Just as analogue storage, like videotapes, becomes obsolete, so too do digital storage devices. Floppy drives are rarely included with computers today, and any files stored on a floppy disk are much harder to access today than they were fifteen years ago.
  • Damage: Digital copies are vulnerable to viruses, data loss that is caused if the image is compressed, or even just the storage device physically breaking down.
  • Copyright: Just because it's possible to convert something to digital format doesn't mean that it's legal. Copying a commercial videotape to DVD, for example, may be a violation of copyright laws.
  • Searchability: One of the strengths of digitizing a collection is being able to search through the collection with ease. What metadata will you add to make images more findable? Will there be transcripts for text files?
  • Accessibility: Who will be accessing these documents and how? Digital files allow documents to be easily and quickly shared with an audience. They also can make it easier for people with assistive devices to access the content. A digital transcription of a scanned document, for example, can be read by a screen reader, making the document more accessible for someone with a visual impairment.

Success Story – Stephanie White at Nipigon Public Library


In the past few months I have been working on digitizing different types of historical records. My main focus has been sorting through scanned historical newspapers and uploading them to an online digital archive. Once the newspapers are saved I am then responsible for using an optical reader program to make the text searchable, this allows people to find all records that include words or names that they have searched. Recently I have also started to help a local senior to digitize her old 35mm slides so that she can share digital copies with others.

Both of these projects are about preserving history, on both local and personal levels. I have enjoyed these projects because I am interested in history and believe in preserving it. I feel that ensuring the survival of historical newspapers dating back to the 1940s is of great importance and am glad I can be involved in this effort. There is so much that I am learning that I never knew before about a community that I have lived in for most of my life. I feel that helping to scan old 35mm slides is very important because if the originals get damaged in any way they would be lost forever and that would be a great personal loss to their owner. It is important to preserve our history so that we can remember where we came from and those who came before us.

To see the town's historical records go to: http://news.ourontario.ca/npl/results?&fz=0&rows=20&sort=dateSort+asc&st=kw&v=t

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The Government of Canada provides funding for this initiative.
Le gouvernement du Canada offre de l'aide financière pour cette initiative.