Digitization of Print Materials: A Solution in Search of a Problem?

Over the past few years “But can’t you digitize this [and throw away the original]?” has joined “but isn’t it available electronically?” as a justification for getting rid of print library materials.

While there are advantages to having materials in digital format, the digitization process should not be treated as an easy way of reducing a library’s physical holdings. University libraries have been carrying out interesting digitization projects for some while now, but smaller libraries may find digitizing material more challenging since they do not have the same resources to call upon.

Before starting a library digitization project, there are a number of questions that should be asked.

Does the material really need to be in digital format? What will be the benefits of having the material in digital format? Advantages of moving from print to digital format can include reducing the physical space needed by the library, allowing remote access to materials, and creating archival copy of print materials (useful if print material is in bad shape). If the digital copy is not be intended as a replacement for print, but rather as a backup copy or to give access to remote users, then no library space will be saved. The quality of the final digital product is also important; a good quality print copy is generally going to be superior to a poor digital copy.

Is the material already available in digital format or is someone else currently working on digitizing it? Since digitization involves a lot of time and effort, you probably do not want to digitize something that is already available in electronic format. For example, HeinOnline has digital copies of historical Canadian federal legislation and the Law Library Microform Consortium (LLMC) has digitized a number of Canadian federal and provincial statutes. The Alberta Heritage Digitization project has digitized a significant amount of historical Albertan legislation and made them freely available. Other resources of already digitized materials include the Internet Archive and Google Books.

Do you have the right to digitize the material or will this violate copyright? If material you want to digitize is copyrighted, one option is to ask the copyright holder for permission to digitize it. I have done that in the past where we wanted to digitize copies of print materials for internal use.

Once a decision has been made to digitize, you should think about how the digitized material will be used.

Does the digitized material need to be searchable? If users will want to search the text of the digitized material, then optical character recognition (OCR) will be required. OCR takes time and its accuracy depends on the quality of the original materials. Rose Holley, the Manager of the Australian Newspaper Digitisation Program, found that “raw OCR accuracy varied from 71% to 98.02%”. Accuracy of OCR from poor quality materials may be even lower, requiring time-consuming manual clean up. While the Australian Newspaper Digitization Program took advantage of crowdsourcing to improve the quality of the OCR text, this is not a practical solution for smaller libraries.

How will users access the digitized material? Who will be using the digitized materials? How will the library make it discoverable? For example, if you are replacing and/or supplementing library materials, links in the library catalogue will make it easier for users to find these materials. What format will the digitized material be in: PDF, text, or other? Will individually scanned pages be stored as separate files, or will they be combined into larger documents? What metadata will be used and who is going add it?

How are you going to digitize the materials? Will you carry out the digitization process in house or use an external digitization service? Can the material be destroyed by the digitization process, or do you want to keep the original material? Using an auto feed scanner means that you will have to cut the spines off books. However, choosing to keep the original materials may result in poorer quality of digitization. You should talk to other departments in your law firm (copy centre, litigation support) to see if they have carried out digitization projects; if they have, take advantage of their experience. If you have not digitized any materials before and are planning to do it in house, it is worthwhile to carry out a test run to see how long it will take and what problems there are that you have not thought of.

As with almost any endeavour, digitization projects benefit from proper planning, including a cost-benefit analysis. The more clearly you can articulate the desired results, the more successful the project is likely to be.


  1. Pierre-Paul Lemyre

    Since the focus here is on digitizing legal material, I think the efforts undertaken by many law societies in partnership with CanLII and Lexum should be mentioned as well. These joint efforts allowed to systematically increased the availability of historical case law in electronic form over the last few years. Here is a case study Lexum recently published on the subject: