CRM Journal

Book Review

Digital Imaging: A Practical Approach

By Jill Marie Koelling. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, in cooperation with the American Association for State and Local History, 2004; 112 pp., illustrations, notes; cloth $69.00; paper $24.95.


By the time the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library (NDL) Competition had officially come to an end in March 2003, the award program (1996-1999) had succeeded in helping 33 libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies across the country digitize collections of historical materials and make them available online as part of the library's American Memory website ( Among criteria used for evaluating Ameritech NDL award applications were the significance of the collections, their usefulness to students and the general public, and technical and administrative viability. Consideration was given to geographical location and the extent to which the collections complemented or otherwise enhanced the Library of Congress's own collections digitized by the NDL program.

When all was said and done, more than 200,000 historical items relating to the American experience—photographs, sheet music, letters, diaries, and books, to name a few—had been scanned, catalogued, and released to the public over the Internet. The program also inspired a number of reports and other publications on the participants' experiences, of which Digital Imaging: A Practical Approach may be considered one of the most recent.

Jill Marie Koelling worked for seven and a half years as curator of photographs and head of digital imaging at the Nebraska State Historical Society, an Ameritech NDL award winner in 1997-1998, and her book is a distillation of that institution's experience with its first digital project, Prairie Settlement: A Story of Determination, and the many others that followed. The title, Digital Imaging: A Practical Approach, is somewhat of a misnomer. While practical in the "how-to" sense of the term, the book reaches beyond the technical aspects of the process to highlight the myriad decisions that must be made and the shifts in thinking about preservation and access that must occur at historical societies, libraries, and other collecting institutions contemplating an integrated digitization program. With its combination of technical information, reading list, examples, illustrations, and lessons learned—all interwoven with refreshingly comprehensible prose—the book dovetails nicely with other volumes of the American Association for State and Local History book series and will serve digital imaging novices both inside and outside the history and museum professions equally well.

Although unconventional (which the author herself admits), Koelling's idea of beginning Digital Imaging with a glossary of terms so that her core audience of collection managers, curators, museum directors, registrars, and collections volunteers can "speak 'digital'" accounts for the book's effectiveness as a digital imaging primer for custodians of historical records. These days, the release of a For Dummies reference book is as good a gauge as any of the absorption rate into the American mainstream of what was once considered esoteric or highly specialized. While Digital Imaging is hardly for dummies and unlikely to help its readers "compose top-notch sports, travel, and people pictures" as Digital Photography…for Dummies (IDG Books, 2003) claims, Koelling's book is written and arranged in such a way that it will appeal even to those who might not need or want to eat, drink, and sleep digital imaging but who realize they can no longer ignore the virtual elephant in the room.

Koelling demystifies digital imaging by defining the technical terms up front and then presenting processes and concepts in ways that are intellectually accessible to the digital imaging novice. Readers are less likely to emerge from the book speaking digital (Koelling actually keeps the digital-speak to a minimum) than feeling more comfortable with the terminology and more confident about incorporating digital imaging and digitization programs into their daily work.

Digital Imaging covers issues central to the success and sustainability of digitization programs in libraries and museums, such as project planning and management, ethics, technical specifications, metadata, and cataloging. Whereas the NDL established specific requirements in some of these areas, award winners were on their own when it came to the others. Koelling includes alternative approaches and solutions, most notably those of the Utah State Historical Society, a 1998-1999 Ameritech NDL award recipient, and the Colorado Digitization Program, so that readers are less likely to come away from the book thinking "this is how Nebraska did it" than "this is how it ought to be done."

Metadata standards for digital imaging are probably the hardest concept to sell, but they are among the most important features of a successful and sustainable digitization program. Perhaps one reason metadata lacks the appeal of, say, a scanner or a digital camera is that the effects of a standardized method for recording information about an image file might not be seen or felt for years. Today, practically every collecting institution recognizes the benefits of institution-wide standards for organizing and describing items in its custody, even if the institution may be light-years away from integrating its collections databases (the Holy Grail of the virtual library world).

In the broader digital imaging world—where metadata is still considered esoteric and where compliance with MARC, Dublin Core, or any other standard is usually voluntary, and where inexpensive scanners, digital cameras, and database application software proliferate—any library, archivist, or collector anywhere with the financial means to do so can implement a digitization program. Although Koelling does not dwell on metadata, she leaves no doubt about the value and potential of Dublin Core and other standards over the long term. The measure of the success of Digital Imaging may well be the extent to which Internet searches across collections and across collecting institutions, whether large or small, are mundane realities 10 years from now because digital imagers took Koelling's practical advice to heart.

Martin J. Perschler
National Park Service