Curbing the High Costs of Digitization

Working at a special collections library, I am only too aware of the high costs of providing digital access to historical materials.

Sure, it’s wonderful to be able to view historical photographs or manuscript collections or even published volumes online. But it can take a lot of resources to get those materials on the web. From the imaging technology to the staff time (and expertise) to the server space for the digital files, posting significant amounts of archival materials online can be quite expensive.

So I was intrigued to learn about Project Gado, an open-source digitization robot – yes, robot – that is helping to scan the collection of 1.5 million historical photographs at the Baltimore Afro-American Newspaper.

Originally developed at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Africana Studies, Project Gado is now continuing its efforts to create a tool that will help small repositories digitize archival materials. (The project seems aimed at photographs in particular, but I think other types of non-fragile loose pages could be excellent candidates for robot scanning.)


A demonstration of Gado 2 in action.
Video courtesy of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Africana Studies.

The Baltimore Sun recently published an article about how the Afro-American Newspapers are using the device. You can also browse some of the images digitized to date here, and learn many more details about the project in this video presentation from a recent computing conference, PyCon 2012.

Of course, having an open-source digitization robot does not equal free digitization.

Project manager Tom Smith reported at the PyCon conference in March that the second generation robot, known as Gado 2, has scanned 11,000 images at about half the cost of normal digitization. He hopes that adding an additional machine might do even better. Apparently, the operator and the robot do about twice the work of one person; maybe an operator and two robots could do the work of 3 people, and so on. The project recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to help pay for the staffperson who oversees and supplements the robot’s work at the newspaper. The project also offered supporters of that campaign a kit to build their own Gado 2 robots for about $500.

You may not want to trust Gado 2 with fragile or priceless archival materials, and it’s clearly not intended to work with bound volumes, like diaries or ledgers. But if you’re ready to tackle a major digitization effort with photographs or other sturdy sheets of paper, Gado 2 may be worth investigating further.

If a scanning robot is too far out for your institution, you may still be able to cut costs the old-fashioned way: with volunteers. The National Archives, for instance, is relying on hundreds of hours of volunteer labor each month as it digitizes its large collection of Civil War Widows’ Pension files, a unique resource for genealogists and historians.

Again, don’t mistake volunteer work for “free.” Institutions with robust volunteer programs dedicate significant staff resources to recruiting and managing their volunteers. But dedicated volunteers could help make a daunting process more manageable.