Skip to main content
Pixelated image

Digitized or Not Digitized--That is the Question!

By Jessica Warner Beauchamp, DPO on Fri, 08/15/2014 - 09:58

When I first started working for the Digitization Program Office eons ago in the fall of 2009, the Smithsonian had just published its first Digitization Strategic Plan.  Several working groups from across the Smithsonian were tasked with hashing out various aspects of the plan, such as setting priorities for digitization, standards, and life cycle management for digital assets. 

Surprisingly (at least to me), one of the more challenging questions to be answered was—How much of the Smithsonian’s nearly 140 million collections objects, 157 thousand cubic feet of archival holdings and 2 million library volumes are digitized? 

This seems like a pretty straightforward question.  Just count up all the collections objects and see how many of them are depicted in a digital image and there’s your number.  Easy peasy, right?  Well, the truth is, it’s a lot more complicated than that, and there are a few components that need to be considered before the question can be answered accurately.

First, we need to start by getting clear about what we mean exactly when we say a collections object is digitized. 

Freer Sackler collection Japanese vase with floral patern, Accession No. S1993.32

Having a digital image (I’m using the term digital image here a shorthand of convenience—naturally some collections may be better represented by digital audio, moving images, or other type of digital asset) that represents a collections object is an important part of the story.  After all, these digital representations of collections objects make it possible for people all over the world to see and interact with parts of our collections.  But just because a collections object is represented by a digital image, that doesn’t mean we can call it digitized.

e-Record, Freer Sackler collection Japanese vase with floral patern, Accession No. S1993.32Just as important, and maybe even more important especially for researchers and scientists, is the record that describes the collections object(s). 

The record is what makes it possible to search for, find, and understand what it is we’re looking at.  Without the record and all its metadata, we’re kind of lost.  Even if we find an image of a Japanese vase—without a record, we won’t know what time period the vase is from, where it was made, how big it is, what it’s made of, etc.  If we want to search our collections database and find a particular vase or a group of vases, then having an electronic record is a big part of what makes that possible.

So to be truly accurate when we say a collections object is digitized, we have to talk about both the electronic record and the digital image.

But wait, there’s more!

The next step in order to know whether or not a collections object is digitized requires us to answer another question hiding inside our first question—just exactly how digitized is the collections object?  In other words, what is the quality of the digital record or digital image?  Are the electronic record and/or digital image good enough for us to call them digitized?  How do we measure that? 

This will depend on the standards that are used to measure the quality of electronic records and digital images.  Because the Smithsonian is comprised of art, science and cultural heritage museums, archives, libraries, and research centers, one standard definitely does not fit all.  When assessing how digitized the collections are, Smithsonian staff have flexibility to define standards according to subject discipline and/or professional best practices so they may appropriately evaluate the quality of electronic records and digital images that describe and represent a wide variety of collections objects.  

FICTIONAL Electronic Record Standard

FICTIONAL Digital Image Standard

A standard electronic record must include the following metadata:

Title, Object Name, Medium, Dimensions, Date, Geography, Credit Line, Acquisition Source

A standard digital image must have the following characteristics:

Minimum number of documentary images = 1; images must be in TIFF format; image resolution must be highest number of pixels per inch possible dictated by object. Surrogates created after 2004 must contain embedded technical metadata.


Once the standards are defined, then the collections objects are assessed according to a scale based on those standards.

Electronic Record

Digital Image


Not digitized, with no intention (collections that are not eligible for digital image creation—NOTE: in many cases, especially for our Natural History and Postal Museum collections that have duplicate objects that do not call for digitization)

Not digitized, but with intention
(object has a paper record only and there is an intention to create a digital record)

Not digitized, but with intention to create a digital image

Does Not Meet Standard

Does Not Meet Standard

Meets Standard

Meets Standard

Exceeds Standard

Exceeds Standard














Now that we’ve put all the pieces together, we can finally answer the question, How much of the Smithsonian’s collections are digitized?

Fiscal Year 2013 (October 1, 2012 to September 30, 2013):



Easy, peasy!