Digital collection development

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Table of Contents

1 Overview 2 Types of Digital Documents 3 Assessing the Collection’s Viability 4 Determining the Collection’s Purpose 5 Establishing the Collection’s Scope 6 Structural Considerations 7 Standards and Selection Aids 8 See Also 9 External Links 10 References


Digital libraries are high-tech vehicles for allowing previously limited resources to be accessed by simultaneous users without regard for time or place. Far more involved than merely popularizing selected collections to increase a user base, creating a digital collection requires serious, systematic planning, with substantial cost and time investments and repercussions. Because choosing materials for selection involves a number of far-reaching and technical considerations, potential digital library projects should be evaluated by an interdisciplinary team with expertise in collection development, metadata, cataloguing, and information technology. Informed decisions about digital collections should be based on sound analysis, documented as policy, and should include plans for the storage and maintenance of digitized resources and their originals.

Types of Digital Documents

Digital collections consist of documents which have been converted to digital form. All printed information is stored in one of two different formats: analog or digital. Analog is the familiar “paper and print” type, the historic format for books and other printed communication prior to the late 20th century. Digital (or electronic) documents appear as print to the human eye, but are comprised of data bits which are readable by computers. Documents created on computer software are called “born digital” and require little conversion to become fully usable as part of digital collections. Although their initial conversion processes are different, once they become part of a digital collection, traditional analog and born-digital documents share the same concerns with regard to access and maintenance issues, storage space, security, and other technical concerns.

Assessing the Collection’s Viability

The best candidates for digital collections are resources which demonstrate enduring value, demand, non-duplication, collaborative potential, enhancement of intellectual access, enhancement of image quality, intellectual property rights criteria, preservation criteria, technical feasibility criteria, and intellectual control criteria (Columbia 2001). The resource should be original, of lasting value, and one whose copyright will permit the intended digitization and usage (FAO).

Copyright is an extremely serious and difficult issue which must be pursued with diligence and care. The Library of Congress provides a useful overview of U.S. copyright and fair use restrictions, “How to Understand Copyright Restrictions,” on their site (

Digital librarians can search registries of existing online collections to avoid duplication of effort and resources. The NISO Framework Advisory Group supplies an updated list of registries, as well as a wealth of information on digital collection selection criteria and development (NISO 2004, pp. 4-5).

Determining the Collection’s Purpose

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) cites three broad reasons for creating a digital collection:

1) Preservation: protecting a rare or delicate document from physical handling by allowing users to interact with its digitized form instead of with the original. This digital form is called a “surrogate.”

2) Accessibility: enhancing a document’s research value by offering previously impossible interactive options, such as full-text searching.

3) Reuse: broadening a document’s intended audience and purpose by widening its exposure and appeal through active hyperlinks and/or through innovative associations with sound, video, or other multimedia.

Digital collections may fit into some, or all of these categories. Whether presented in a new context or in a traditional standalone “book-style” format, with increased holdings, user access, and over time, digital collections may grow beyond their initial intended purpose.

Establishing the Collection’s Scope

Whatever purposes motivate the desire to create a digital collection, digital librarians must situate these goals within the concrete realities of their own institution. Print-based collecting levels are rated as minimal, basic, study, research, and comprehensive (University of California 1996). Digital collections adhere to these same rankings, and must be viewed within the scope of the institution’s existing holdings.

Digital collection developers must investigate additional questions such as:

How large is the potential project to be digitized? This includes measuring the physical dimensions of the resource, the number of pages, and its age and overall condition. Extensive or fragile projects will be considerably more expensive and time-consuming to process, and must be factored into the overall project plan and budget accordingly.

Does the library possess enough viable and related candidates for digitization to constitute a “collection”? As is true with traditional print resources, single holdings are not considered a “collection.” To function successfully, digital library collections should be robust enough to appeal to viewers.

How widely will the digitized collection appeal to the institution’s target audience? Unless an exceptional case can be made and supported for a particular collection, digital collection development should adhere closely to the same guidelines and policies mandated by the library’s governing institution for print collection development. Both types of resources must obtain administrative approval, serve the needs of institutional stakeholders, maximize the financial investment they require, and justify their allocated share of the budget.

Structural Considerations

Technological infrastructure. Digitization puts a substantial strain on processing equipment, server space, and network capabilities to create any type of digital collection, even one intended to remain on local servers or on CD-ROM. Digital collections accessible online require additional space, access, and security measures. A library’s involvement with online access to digital collections ranges from linking, mirroring, serving, or archiving them (University of California 1996).

Interoperability. Industry standards such as the NISO Framework endorsed by the Digital Library Federation (DLF) maximize the value of digital collections by standardizing their system requirements to facilitate multi-platform access. The DLF anticipates an era of communal digital contributions, “a time when whole ‘virtual collections’ will be assembled and completed from the hundreds of disparate items held at numerous institutions” (DLF 2004).

Sustainability. In additional to technical support and maintenance, digital collections require ongoing financial support. “Administrators may assume that libraries can convert everything they own to digital format […] Recent studies suggest digitizing a book of average size costs between $1600 and $2500, to which must be added the cost of refreshing the storage medium every 10 years” (Johnson 2004, p. 147).

Standards and Selection Aids

Up-front, comprehensive planning for digital collection development is something no library can afford to omit. The DLF provides the most comprehensive listing of standards and practices for digital libraries (

The following decision-making matrices and flow charts are available to assist digital library developers in assessing selection criteria:

1) Oxford University’s "Decision Matrices and Workflows, Appendix B,” available at or in PDF at

2) The Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Selection for Digitizing: A Decision-Making Matrix,” available at

3) The Research Library Group’s “Decision-making matrix to support selection activities in the digitisation process,” available at

See Also

Digital library ( Digital preservation ( Library collection development (

External Links

Columbia University Libraries: ‘Selection Criteria For Digital Imaging’ (2001).

Council on Library and Information Resources: ‘Strategies for Building Digitized Collections’ (A. Smith, 2001).

Digital Library Federation: ‘DLF Endorsement for Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections’ (2004).

Digital Library Federation: ‘Strategies for developing sustainable and scaleable digital library collections’ (D. Greenstein, 2000).

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): Information Management Resource Kit, ‘Digitization and Digital Libraries.

Library of Congress: ‘Building Digital Collections: A Technical Overview’.

Library of Congress: ‘Selection Criteria for Preservation Digital Reformatting’ (2006).

National Library of Australia: ‘Digitisation Policy, 2000-2004’.

NISO Framework Advisory Group: ‘A Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections’ (2004).

University of California, Berkeley Libraries: ‘Digital Library SunSITE Collection and Preservation Policy’ (2001).


Ayris, P 1999, ‘Guidance for selecting materials for digitisation’, Joint RLG and NPO Preservation Conference Guidelines for Digital Imaging.

Columbia University Libraries 2001, ‘Selection Criteria For Digital Imaging’.

Digital Library Federation 2004, ‘DLF Endorsement for Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections’.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) n.d., ‘Digitization and Digital Libraries, Unit 4.2’, Information Management Resource Kit. Retrieved October 16, 2006, from

Hazen, D, Horrell, J, & Merrill-Oldham, J. 1998, ‘Selection for Digitizing: A Decision-Making Matrix’, Selecting Research Collections for Digitization, Council on Library and Information Resources.

Johnson, P 2004. Fundamentals of Collection Development & Management. Chicago, IL.: ALA.

Library of Congress 2006, ‘How to Understand Copyright Restrictions’.

NISO Framework Advisory Group 2004, ‘A Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections’, (2nd ed). Bethesda, MD: National Information Standards Organization.

Oxford University 1999, ‘Appendix B, Decision Matrices and Workflows’. and

University of California, Berkeley Libraries 2001, ‘Digital Library SunSITE Collection and Preservation Policy’.