Step 2: Select appropriate materials

Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should

By Anna St. Onge, Director, Digital Scholarship Infrastructure, York University Libraries

Selecting appropriate materials for your DHSS project should be informed by several factors that could impact student success and the outcome of the project. Technology allows for exciting experimentation and narrative display. However, a robust scholarly assignment should involve critical reflection and documentation about how students selected their content. What follows are some elements to help guide this aspect of project planning around an assignment.

Selecting appropriate materials for a DHSS project ensures that the project can be hosted in a public forum, that materials are cited and contributors are given appropriate credit, and that permissions (be they legal, community, ethical, or moral) have been cleared and documented. One of the appeals of engaging with rich, underused archival fonds and collections can also be a liability: if the scope, intention, and boundaries of a project are not thought through prior to engaging with the material, there is a risk that students will get lost in the details or prioritize content that requires additional permissions or preservation considerations that fall outside the timelines and resources of the work.  While the role of failure in DHSS scholarship is an important pedagogical factor, planning ahead and establishing selection criteria can reduce the risk that students will be prevented from completing and sharing their work.

General Considerations

Purpose of the project

Will digitization facilitate discovery, access, and wider use of selected material? If not, seriously consider your motivations for digitization. Will digitization be in service to larger goals? Will the digitized objects provide illustrative images? Will they provide samples to help contextualize a larger collection? Will digitized objects help contribute to an argument or add dimension to the project’s narrative or an educational resource?

Target audience(s)

Your students are the primary users of their assignment, but will the broader community have access to these digitized items? Will they be able to reuse and repurpose them?  Since considerable time and resources are invested in digitization, it is useful to think about how content can appeal to different kinds of audiences and stakeholders.

Students will also want to consider what content, context, and additional details are required for audiences to understand and make the best use of digitized materials.

Intellectual value[1]

Scholars have also emphasized the need for researchers to consider the intellectual value of their selections when it comes to digitization. Will digitization add intellectual value to the original source material? Will digitization provide new opportunities for access and scholarship? Will it address gaps in current scholarship?

Ethical considerations

Having custody of material is not analogous to having the right to copy or digitize said material. In addition to seeking and clearing copyright with rights holders (and retaining documentation of said permission), scholars should also consider other kinds of rights and permissions they may need to seek from individuals, families, literary estates, organizations, and communities before proceeding with their work. Could digitization of material and hosting it in an unmediated online environment pose undue risk and harm to marginalized individuals or communities? Have third parties been consulted and their consent solicited regarding use of archival material on hold with institutions? Obtaining a copy of an item from an institution is a separate process from obtaining the right to publish and circulate a copy of the item online. Having access to a content provider does not automatically sanction your ability to share it with other researchers. Similarly, you may want to consider how the use of  particular types of proprietary software, engagement on certain online platforms, or integration of certain applications may mean that you will not be able to extract, migrate, or reuse your work in the future.

Selection of material

Who is selecting?

We recommend that whenever possible, students should be directly engaged in the selection process. By experiencing some aspect of the digitization process or the records creation and curation life cycle, students gain an appreciation for the time, labour, resources, and skill required to generate, interpret, document, and preserve “born digital” and digitized resources. Actively engaging in selection also implicates students in critical knowledge creation and curation. If students are making selections on behalf of a larger project, build in opportunities for the project team to discuss criteria as a group.

Some aspects that should be considered when going about selecting items include:


What is the quality of the content you wish to digitize? Different uses of the digital surrogate may require different qualities of digitization (e.g. a thumbnail JPEG may be used to reference a complex data set, whereas a high resolution TIFF may be required to capture all of the richness of a photographic negative). Higher digitization quality supports long-term preservation of the original source material since it minimizes the need to handle original material. Higher digitization standards will impact storage, project timelines, and software used to manipulate the content you develop. When selecting from an existing collection or archives, which objects will provide representative samples of the whole collection? What are some of the exceptional characteristics of a sample that could be selected for close study in a digital environment?

Fragility and format

Analogue material held in archives and libraries may require special handling due to its fragility. Conditions that contribute to the fragility of material include deterioration, sensitivity to handling or the environment, oversized or awkwardness in handling, and loss of critical aspects of value or authenticity through digitization. Part of your selection process should include the consideration of which digitization tools and methods are best suited, based on the format and fragility of the material  you wish to digitize. Do you have access to the appropriate resources to complete your work without placing unnecessary strain on the original materials. Always consult with the institution responsible for the material, as it may be aware of additional factors that you may not have considered.


How unique are the items you wish to digitize? Archival holdings and special collections are made up of an assortment of unique and mass-produced materials. Materials may be deposited in archives due to their association with a particular individual or organization, rather than their uniqueness. Due to the proliferation of mass digitization efforts in North America and Europe, it is possible that objects that you have selected for digitization have already been digitized. If so, we would advise that students work through a strategy of how to integrate that material through linking and reuse.


Do you know the provenance (e.g. the chain of custody) of the object? Who created it? Who preserved it? What circumstances led to its creation, preservation, and deposit at an institution? Do you have (or how might you obtain) citations for the objects that you wish to digitize? Will online users be able to retrace your steps to the institution that holds the objects? If the provenance is not clear, how might you build in methods that users could contact you with information?

Visual appeal

Finally, many of the assignments that this manual recommends are visual in nature. Is the material you are selecting visually appealing in an online environment? Which aspects or parts of the material are important to highlight? Are there particular items that embody the spirit of the project that you would want to highlight? Will digitization of the material reduce its visual appeal? Will relevant text be legible? Will you be transcribing and describing content in a way that will allow the greatest degree of accessibility possible? Will images translate well in an online environment?

Copyright and other rights

Copyright is a key consideration when selecting material for digitization, or incorporating digitized material into an exhibit, project, or teaching tool. This manual advocates for the use of textual or visual material in assignments that are now in the public domain to minimize potential risk and liability for students working on online projects. If an instructor wishes to select material in other formats or material that requires permissions and clearance, we strongly recommend that students be involved in this process and that additional time be budgeted to account for the necessary communication that is required.

Remember to retain all contracts and permissions if the content falls outside the public domain. In the event of any copyright inquiries instructors will be able to quickly retrieve these records. Provide contact information to receive and respond to any inquiries and provide that information with the digitized content.

Copyright at York University

Here are some key online resources related to copyright at York University:


Works that are not protected by copyright are said to be in the Public Domain, and you are free to use them in any way you choose. That means no restrictions on copying and adapting, no need to seek permission, and no uncertainty about your rights as a user.

A work typically enters the Public Domain when its term of copyright expires. Determining whether or not a work is in the Public Domain can be complicated, however, as the term of copyright often differs depending on a work’s authorship, format, date of publication, and country of origin.

For more details on how to determine if a document or object is in the Public Domain, see the Public Domain chapter in the York University Libraries’ Open Educational Resource: Planning and Selecting for Digitization.


While you may have the legal right to copy and digitize material, other rights and ethical issues should be considered. Instructors and students should identify and discuss any concerns that are not typically covered by copyright legislation. Consult with the community of origin to seek permission, buy-in, and feedback prior to digitization. This might involve documenting any elements of Traditional Knowledge that may require additional protocols or context prior to digitization. Students may need to seek our or identify third parties who may have not consented to broad distribution (e.g. online publication) of archival material and may not be aware that their records are held by the institution. Instructors and students should investigate if digitization could pose undue risk to privacy or personal security of vulnerable community members. Wherever possible, projects should have expanded practices of attribution to acknowledge contributors to content that has been obscured or underdocumented.



For additional case studies and readings on user rights, community consultation, and other considerations prior to digitization, we recommend assigning these three short readings:


For additional resources and readings about copyright and DHSS in a Canadian context, see the Resource section of York University Libraries’ Open Education Resource: Planning and Selecting for Digitization.


Are there additional constraints that you must consider when making your selections?  What kind of storage infrastructure do you have access to for this assignment? Can you and your students access software platforms and tools through the Libraries? What about your target audience: what tools will they use to access the assignments? Do they face connectivity challenges?


For more detailed information, see York University Libraries’ Open Education Resource: Planning and Selecting for Digitization.

  1. Adapted from: Dan Hazen, Jeffrey Horrell, Jan Merrill-Oldham's Selecting Research Collections for Digitization-Full Report — Council on Library and Information Resources. August 1998. Retrieved November 16, 2017, from
  2. Adapted from content created by the University of British Columbia available at . Additional input from Patricia Lynch, Director, Information, Privacy and Copyright, York University.


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Step 2: Select appropriate materials by Samantha Cutrara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.