Go With the (Work)Flow: How Things Get Done in the RDC

One thing we’ve learned about digitizing Baylor’s unique collections is the importance of front-end planning for the overall success of a project. It’s the crucial step that separates a “well, that went smoothly” project from a “nightmare of epic proportions” project.

The challenge with workflow planning is that it’s the least glamorous part of almost every project, so giving it its due isn’t usually our first point of interest. Lots of digitization outfits fall into the trap of rushing to get items onto scanners as quickly as possible, assuming that things like useful filename identifiers and quality controlling will just work themselves out over the course of the project. Unfortunately for them, this is rarely the case, and failing to plan ahead becomes the first step in a rapid spiral into a project with no direction, frequent backsliding, and endless frustration.

So how do we avoid these pitfalls with projects that can encompass hundreds of thousands of items and up to a dozen different employees taking part in the process?

1.    Practice restrained exuberance. No matter how exciting the source material you’ve been tasked to digitize, letting the awesomeness of the items overwhelm your better judgment is a classic rookie mistake. Taking time to dispassionately evaluate the materials gives you a better handle on things like the items’ physical state, the extent of the collection (number of items), logistical challenges, and content-related concerns.

2.    Go with what works. Years of experience (and trial and error) have provided us with some practical tips that work with projects of almost any size. In the end, it comes down to some little things that make a big difference: get an accurate estimate on the number of items; use filenames that make sense (texas-johnson-diary-001-01.tiff) so you can find things easily; scan using best practices (300 dpi tiffs for preservation, etc.); and assign people to the kind of work that suits their personalities. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel for most digitization projects, and if you have to be inventive, make it an upgrade, not a complete redesign.

3.    Figure out who’s doing what. DPG staff handle the higher-level planning and ultimate quality control on all projects, but graduate assistants and undergraduate student workers carry out the bulk of the actual digitization and file manipulation for most projects. That means explicitly assigning portions of a project among one to ten people, something that can be a major hassle, unless you …

4.    Create a spreadsheet. Free tools like Google Docs offer our group a fast, free, cloud-based solution to keeping large groups of people in step with one another over the course of a project. Google Docs offers spreadsheets, documents and more with customizable levels of access so we can see at a glance where any project stands.

Workflow spreadsheet for the Browning Letters Project

5.    Create a workflow chart. DPG Manager Darryl Stuhr is a big fan of workflow charts, and his creations are virtuoso-level masterpieces of data management. Take a look at this piece (currently taped in his office window) for our Baylor University News Releases Project. These visualizations of how things work help him plan each byte from scanner to preservation server and online access.

Darryl Stuhr's workflow chart for the BU News Releases Project

6.    Stay on top of everyone’s work. Managing data is only half of the task; keeping the team on task is the other. It takes a great deal of effort to ensure students are scanning at a high level of quality, that files are ending up where they’re supposed to be, and that the final product is a collection people will find useful, accurate and interesting.

7.    Celebrate successes. Adding end-of-project pizza parties to our workflow has been a fun way to reward hours of often-repetitive effort on the part of our student workers. (College students like free pizza; who knew?) But often it’s the simple act of saying “Thank you” and celebrating together that makes the difference.

So if you’re setting out to start a major digitization project, keep these tips in mind. This may be the blog post that prevents you from regretting tackling one in the first place, and who knows? It may even give you an excuse to celebrate with pizza.

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