Purses and foldouts – unexpected challenges of digitisation

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By | Digital Developments

How do you digitise an entire library? I’ve been asking members of our Digital Production team to tell me about their part in the digitisation process.

Name: Deborah Leem

What is your job title?

Digital Support Team Manager

How many people in your team?

Four all together, including me. There are three Digitisation Project Officers: Cassidy Philips, Caoimhe O’Gorman and Emilie Bell.

digitisation workroom

A member of the team preparing a book for digitisation. Image credit: Deborah Leem.

And what does the team do?

My team and I assess and prepare items for digitisation. We check that the metadata is in order and address any conservation needs before digitisation. We work closely with the Internet Archive scanning unit and our in-house photographers, as well as with the metadata co-ordinator.

We organise the items in batches and deliver them, along with a list of items for photography containing relevant metadata. Once the items have been digitised they are returned to us and we match them to the inventory before returning to the stacks.

Wellcome Library stacks

Returning books to the stacks after digitisation. Image credit: Deborah Leem.

How does your work fit into the digitisation workflow?

We are at the very start of the digitisation process. So one of the first things I do is carry out a condition survey to decide if a collection is suitable for digitisation. I do this using spot assessments for conservation issues on randomly selceted items.

Once the items are digitised and the originals back on the shelves, the workflow moves on to ingesting the images into various host systems at Internet Archive and the Wellcome Library.

How long have you been doing the job?

About five years. When I started no-one else was doing digitisation on this scale, so we had to invent most of the processes and tools for doing the job. We now have a template for the condition survey to make sure we don’t miss anything. I blogged about this too, since we weren’t aware of anyone using something similar.

I also developed a tracking database and guidelines for keeping track of items as they move through the workflow. As we were a new team, I also had to provide training for team members.

What’s the best / most interesting thing about your work?

When I started it was that I got to create the job the way I wanted it set up – that was really challenging and interesting for me.

I also enjoyed getting to do lots of hands on conservation tasks with the conservation team, such as disbinding and repair work.

We also get to see the collections in detail and are often the first to spot interesting and unexpected things. And it’s not just about the content, sometimes the physical nature of the material provides a challenge. For example, we digitised a 2m long foldout…

La danse des morts : engraved from the fresco-paintings on the cemetery wall of St John's church at Basle

Foldout from La Danse des Morts laid out in full in the workroom. Image credit: Deborah Leem.

What’s the most frustrating thing about the job?

Wanting to stop and read the interesting things you find! But you have to keep the workflow going and you don’t always get a chance to go back and find them again. That’s why I decided to add an extra feature to the tracking database, which was to record any particularly interesting things we find as we deal with them.

What do you do with your list of interesting things?

Well we’ve blogged about some of them. The team also tweets regularly on the Wellcome Digital account about things we’ve found.

Finally, what’s your favourite discovery in the digitised collections?

One that really sticks in my mind was a casebook in the Ticehurst Hospital Papers, which had a money purse pinned to it. Initially we didn’t know what it was so we had to investigate further once it was removed from the casebook. I didn’t think we would ever find a money purse attached to the Notice of Right to Personal Interview document and it’s just a lovely item.


Casenotes 1890-1898 from the Ticehurst House Papers. Wellcome Library reference: MS 6245/6361.

Actually this prompted us to do in-situ photography so that we had a record of the original condition and arrangement of the item before it was removed to show what was underneath.



Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @LalitaKaplish.

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One Response to Purses and foldouts – unexpected challenges of digitisation
  • Miriam Lewis


    Really interesting! Thank you so much for posting. How does the 2 metre foldout mentioned above display now that it has been digitised? Has each section of the foldout been published as a separate image?

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