Open Gov Goes Local! Transparency in Digitization Services

The Digitization Services or IDS (formerly known as the Special Media Preservation Division) is NARA’s primary source of in-house digitization and analog reformatting of motion picture film, audio, video, photographs, aerial film, textual documents, cartographic documents, microfilm, and microfiche.

2010 was a year of introspection and change for us. Inspired in part by the Open Government Initiative as well as our own organizational needs, we took a good long look at what it is we do and why we do it. We questioned the status quo and the “this is the way we’ve always done it” attitude to critically rethink our reformatting products and how we can best use our currently available resources to meet the needs of our internal NARA customers.

Inspecting motion picture film elements
Inspecting motion picture film elements

So, where are we now?  One prominent outcome of this transformation is the creation of the Products and Services or P&S web portal. This resource puts our customer front and center in the reformatting process. For example, typically customers know what they have to start with (say, a black and white 35mm photographic negative) and have an idea of what they need to accomplish when they contact us (say, get a digital file that can be used for publication on the web). They may not realize however that a low resolution compressed file suitable for online publication  may not be successfully repurposed for long term preservation or even just making a decent quality hard copy print out. P&S strives to bridge this information gap between archival staff and technical staff.

The heart of P&S is a series of summary charts for each of the original record formats handled by the division. Each chart starts with the expected reformatting end use which is mapped to one of three product categories:  preservation master, reproduction master and distribution copy. Each product within the category includes technical specifications to assure that NARA’s products align with institutional guidelines, industry standards and published best practices.

This approach exposes the technical details about possible product choices so that customers are informed partners with the technical experts in the decision-making process. P&S also has benefits for the Special Media Preservation Division in that it allows us to standardize and consolidate our resources and our quality assurance and quality control criteria and methods. More on this soon!

Reformatting equipment in the video lab
Reformatting equipment in the video lab


P&S was published to the NARA intranet in November 2010 and now it is available to the general public through While we do not perform work or services for non-NARA customers, we believe this information will be valuable to peer institutions and the general public with in interest in reformatting and digitization efforts.

Let us know what you think!  We invite your comments about P&S including feedback on our product options.

2 thoughts on “Open Gov Goes Local! Transparency in Digitization Services

  1. I loved looking at the P & S web portal and seeing all of the options for reformatting.

    One thing I’d like to say, though, is that online publication of records is increasingly requiring higher resolution images – with the ability to zoom now in the Online Public Access Prototype, it’s readily apparent that higher resolution images allow for a better experience as a researcher.

    I’ve heard a couple of times around NARA that images for online only need to be a certain size because beyond that the human eye can’t tell the difference — zoom changes that and we should be looking to change with it.



  2. You are right that NARA needs to improve the detail level of the image files delivered through the web. The specifications listed in P & S for scanning materials if sufficient to provide the zoom experience you desire. Much of what is on our website now was scanned at high resolution (described as preservation masters and reproduction masters in P & S). The problem was with ARC’s limited ability to deliver files. Reduced resolution distribution files had to be produced which are what dissappoints most customers when they see them. Currently, the Letter-Sized Distribution image (IMG-D2) is what is being supplied from the IDS labs for delivery through OPA and these files meet the needs of the “better experience”. Right now the ARC/OPA staff are working on targeted groups of legacy images to replace them with the higher resolution images that already exist.

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