To Outsource or to Digitise In-house?
This document is intended to inform the managers of analogue collections which have been identified for digitisation. It looks at the pros and cons of outsourcing digitisation work before contrasting these with carrying out work in-house.
After materials have been selected for digitisation, but before beginning to develop detailed project plans, it is vital to ask: "Should we be doing the digitisation work in-house or should we be outsourcing?" Careful consideration should be given to this question as it significantly changes all further project development.
Outsourcing may make more sense for those projects that do not have a great amount of material to digitise. Handing over the entire process to a specialised company with the experience and expertise, an established workspace, professional equipment and facilities, and tried and tested workflows certainly has its advantages.
However, such services do not come cheap and the contractor may not have had direct experience of carrying out similar work. For instance, a production house may offer cine-to-digital conversion but are they experienced in handling unique materials? Or accustomed to providing clients with required documentation describing the digitisation process? Don't forget that valuable, rare and fragile materials will need to be insured, and that it may not always be possible or desirable to let such materials leave their natural environment. Transportation and handling by third parties may not be an option at all for some fragile items.
You will need to create and monitor a Service Level Agreement with your sub-contractors. Also, someone in-house will require at least a working knowledge of the digitisation process in order to check completed work against your Quality Assurance system.
Digitising in-house may be more appropriate if you already have the skills and facilities, or if you would like to develop them, perhaps for future endeavours. For some, a hybrid approach, dividing the labour and combining the benefits of internal and external resources may be the best option.
Some advantages of outsourcing
- You don't have to find the money to buy and maintain expensive equipment - the subcontractor is responsible for capital equipment costs
- You don't have to recruit new staff or train existing members of staff - the subcontractor is responsible for hiring and the training of operators
- You don't have to find large spaces for people and equipment to be housed to undertake the project
- You don't have to develop an in-depth knowledge of digitisation
- It may be cheaper than digitising in-house if the subcontractor has labour saving technology or is able to achieve good economies of scale
- The subcontractor may be able to achieve a better quality result if they have high-end equipment
- You should be able to get a better fix on costs and timescales, since the subcontractor will have a good understanding of its workflows and will make a contract with you
Some disadvantages of outsourcing
- You don't develop institutional knowledge or capacity in digitisation and capture techniques
- There are risks associated in working with external parties to deliver digitised content of sufficiently high quality
- Someone in-house will have to develop an understanding of the digitisation process in order to deal competently with an external subcontractor. This includes understanding technical terminology, agreeing technical specification and quality control measures within a Service Level Agreement
- The subcontractor may not be able to accommodate your timescales
- A subcontractor may charge you more than it would cost to digitise in-house
- You will still need to operate your own internal quality control checking to ensure the quality of the subcontractor's work before you sign the invoice
- You will also need to arrange transport and insurance for valuable items, if they are allowed off your premises
- There may be some risk to your material if it is going off-site
When dealing with an external digitisation services
When dealing with an external digitisation service there are a number of issues you should bear in mind:
Prepare clear contracts
Make sure that your organisation has a clear contract with the subcontractor. Timeframes, costs and expectations should be clearly laid out. If digitisation work is to be outsourced to organisations with which you have previously enjoyed a good relationship, don't just rely on a 'gentleman's agreement'.
Select a service provider based upon past work
When choosing a subcontractor, ask for samples of their work and a list of previous clients. Make contact with some of these previous clients and find out about their experiences. Remember that the cheapest is not necessarily the best; so don't base your decision-making on cost or time factors alone.
Clearly communicate what is to be digitised
If the range and type of material is not discussed from the outset, the final cost could be much higher than the original estimate. For instance, scanning a collection of similarly sized photographs may be easily accommodated but digitally photographing oversized or cased photographs may not.
Consider collaborating with others when outsourcing
Often the more you outsource the cheaper the rate. In some circumstances it may be worthwhile joining with other organisations to increase the number of materials being sent. This does however, need to be carefully managed and all parties need to agree to common standards for digitisation.
Make sure you see samples of work before the whole job is done; build in a quality assurance procedure and budget time to check returned work.
You need to give some thought to metadata, especially technical metadata. Are you going to get the subcontractor to record this too? If metadata concerning the digitisation process is not handled in parallel to the digitisation process it may be difficult to produce later on. You might consider outsourcing the creation of other types of metadata work too (e.g. text transcription).
Consider partial outsourcing
Remember it's not necessarily a matter of all or nothing. You may only want to outsource part of your digital capture process or metadata entry. This is commonly done where there is a small quantity especially delicate materials.
Many high quality service providers do exist, companies experienced in the digitisation of photographic, moving image and sound materials. However, it is important to see all outsourcing as a customer-driven active process. Clear and frequent communication between all parties is imperative. JISC Digital Media has complied a list of Digitisation Services. While inclusion should not be taken as a recommendation, the list should provide a good starting point for your own research.
The idea of carrying out high-quality digitisation work in-house can at first seems daunting but it does allow for the development of valuable skills within your organisation. If you do decide to go ahead and carry out the digitisation work yourself JISC Digital Media operates a helpdesk service and produce a range of advice documents to guide you through every aspect of the process.
You may also be interested in our sister service JISC InfoNet's Contract Negotiation infoKit.