Digitisation research report

Executive summary

The digitised collections of cultural institutions represent a highly valued group of resources that are used by people from all walks of life in a variety of contexts ranging from higher education and schools, through to the research community, business and creative industries. In digitising collections, institutions are opening and encouraging use of previously difficult to access content; increasingly this content is being used to address complex national research and policy issues, and deliver socio-economic and cultural benefits for individuals as well as the broader community.  

Although cultural institutions are well aware of the multiplier benefits to be derived from digitised content, including convenient access, re-use and creation of new content, as these benefits are often intangible digitisation can be difficult to ‘sell’ to government and other potential funders. 

There is no single method or approach that will guarantee government funding support for digitisation; however, cultural institutions (or potentially a consortium or sector) can improve the likelihood of success by demonstrating that their digitisation efforts directly support ‘big picture’ public policy goals and objectives, such as a competitive economy or the national brand.  Demonstrating impact needs to cover social and economic benefits with a multi-dimensional approach that includes a compelling narrative, evidence-based data and traditional (usually quantitative) performance datasets. 

Government support for mass digitisation activities undertaken by cultural institutions is quite clearly influenced by the status of the political, economic, social, technology, and legal environments. Typically, countries that are highly ranked by the OECD for ICT/connectivity indicators have opted to integrate mass digitisation as a specific strategy within an overarching national digital or information policy: this approach combines public investment with quantifiable targets for the large-scale digitisation of cultural heritage materials.  Similarly, some governments have chosen to fund mass digitisation as a means to deliver economic efficiencies and/or stimulate employment during periods of economic decline. 

While the public purse provides the principal source of direct and indirect funding for digitisation across all cultural domains and is likely to remain so, there is an emerging trend to supplement this income through the development of collaborative arrangements and Public-Private Partnerships. 

At this stage it appears that, although still small in number, the most successful Public-Private Partnerships are those that combine large-scale public institutions with equally large private organisations. In this highly competitive funding environment, it is argued that private funders are looking for institutions that can demonstrate high levels of ‘attention and authority’ (basically patronage or throughput) over content, which is a criteria that obviously favours large-scale over small and medium-sized institutions. 

Another nascent trend emerging from the volatility of the online environment is a willingness to explore, within the parameters of the institution’s core public service mission, revenue generation options that go beyond traditional licensing schemes. Given that traditional funding models have been built on and reflect an ethical position that ties publicly funded institutions with equitable access, the concept of revenue generation remains very much at an experimental stage. Most institutions are continuing to support digitisation based on a mixture of funding generated from public and private sources: within this context most digitisation is critically dependent on support from the host institutions provide, especially in the form of resources, knowledge and expertise. 

The full report is available for download below.