Bulk digitisation



The British Library can manage your digitisation project from start to finish and help you fill gaps in your collection with our own comprehensive holdings

What is digitisation?

“Digitisation” describes a process where physical (or “analogue”) materials are converted into digital versions which can be understood and stored by computers.

Analogue materials can be any item which conveys text, image, sound or video – drawings, manuscripts or recordings for instance.  In a digital format their information can be preserved, shared or accessed more easily and effectively. Consequently, digitisation is being adopted by institutions the world over, particularly for use in maintaining records of culturally and historically significant information.

Let’s take an ancient manuscript. Previously such an item might have been accessible only in person and in a specific location such as a museum. Even then, it might been usable by an exclusive number of experts trained in handling such a fragile item.

In a world of digitisation, the same document can be converted into a format to be made available via the internet, turned into a searchable resource for academic use, or simply protected against further potential damage as time progresses.

With managed digitisation services, British Library’s expert team can guide digitisation projects from start to finish, tailored to your exact requirements.

How does digitisation work?

British Library digitisation projects typically follow a clear, well-defined flow of activities.

  1. Materials are received by the British Library and registered within our records
  2. Materials are prepared for scanning and allocated to a system for processing
  3. Captured using appropriate scanners, the resulting versions are checked for quality
  4. The files are sent for post-processing to make them as usable as possible
  5. Metadata is captured, noting essential details about the end materials (e.g. Title, Description)
  6. Documents are subjected to OCR processing (capturing text as digital information) and any derivative files are extracted
  7. The processed documents are subjected to another quality check
  8. The completed documents are supplied alongside a report on the production’s progress
  9. Original materials are returned to the client or sent for disposal as requested

Transforming original books into digitised versions, for example, usually involves scanning or photographing page after page using flatbed scanners. Some elements of structure in the ensuing images – such as page numbers, contents and indices – can be marked. They are then processed by optical character recognition (OCR) software to identify words and make the text searchable. With quality checks ensuring clarity and legibility, the resulting document is one with all of the utility expected in the 21st century – searchable, shareable and safe.

What is the result of digitisation?

When converted into a digital format, information is organised into units of binary data (bits and bytes) which computing devices are able to process. In this form the information can be transferred easily between devices, explored in new and inventive ways using software, and preserved against physical deterioration.

At British Library we are prepared to handle a vast range of digitisation projects: 3D scanning, 3D photography, bulk scanning, audio digitisation, glass plate scanning, loose leaf scanning, maps, manuscripts, medical records, metadata services, microfilm, OCR services, wide/low format scanning and many more.

Why digitise archives?

Through digitisation, the processing, storage and transmission of all kinds of information can be made more efficient, reliable and standardised. Furthermore, unlike analogue data – which typically loses quality with each copy or transmission – digital information can be stored and shared repeatedly without any kind of degradation.

Mass digitisation offers numerous potential benefits to society in academic and civic fields:

  • Previously rare items can reach new audiences - the general public are provided greater access to valuable resources on a much larger scale
  • Vital historical or cultural content is preserved against time, potential damage, and technological leaps in society making previous formats obsolete
  • Academics are supported in new, innovative education and research – digitised content transforms old materials, revealing previously undetected details

Who needs digital archives?

We’ve helped most major academic publishers to realise the commercial potential of their back files. We have also digitised the collections of learned societies and managed projects for government departments. So far, our studios have produced over 30 million images for our clients.

Through the digitisation of the British Library collection, our aim is to make as much content available to the broadest user base as possible.

Through our mass production of easy-to-access content which meets 21st century expectations for navigation and interactivity, we hope to help today’s researchers in the mission to advance human knowledge. For individuals or institutions, our vast digital catalogues also provide the opportunity to fill any gap in their collections.

What are some examples of British Library digitisation projects?

Partnerships have included projects with Google, Microsoft and digitisation company ProQuest. Project examples include – to name a few – our work on British newspaper archives (in partnership with brightsolid) as well as digitised copies of Hebrew manuscripts, and the Codex Sinaiticus – a manuscript of the Christian Bible penned during the 4th century.

What are best practices regarding digital archiving?

We have worked and partnered with industry specialists throughout our digitisation projects to continually uphold our leading position in digital preservation. Consequently all of our projects are governed by technical standards and guidelines developed through decades of experience.

What kind of care is take over materials?

All materials we handle are treated with the utmost professional care. Before engaging in any digitisation project, we perform an essential assessment of the suitability and durability of any materials in question.

In order to ensure the safety of any materials we receive, we employ expert conservationists – qualified in the handling of fragile and priceless materials and artefacts – to advise our team on all physical and storage requirements. The imaging processes we use are also selected specially to provide the minimum possible effect on the original materials.

All of our staff are highly trained to the greatest degree possible, and are qualified in Digital Imaging to a BTEC level 4 standard at minimum.

How are digital materials stored?

We store as many of our digitised materials as possible in our Digital Library System. This is a secure and scalable storage environment which constantly maintains multiple online copies of each item from our collection in different geographical locations.  With multiple copies held at any one time, items can be easily replaced should the need ever arise.

Monitored 24 hours per day, with clear audit trails for each physical and digital holding, we can offer secure storage before, during and after the digitisation project. Each item within the collection is digitally signed and validated, ensuring authenticity in the long term. The content is also accompanied by consistent and high quality metadata, allowing for effective record collection and fast, searchable information. 

How will I receive my digital files?

Following the digitisation process there are numerous ways to receive your files in different formats. Files can be provided directly on a hard drive or they can be transferred digitally. You can then store or upload your digital collections as you require. We are flexible and innovative with our approach and can use the best method for you and your archive. Alternatively, our partners at Ingenta Connect and Exact Editions may be able to provide a resource which gives your archive collection a wider audience either as a paid service or with free public access.

What equipment does the British Library use?

Our digitisation projects are completed from one of our specialist studios in London’s St Pancras or Yorkshire’s Boston Spa, each fully equipped with state-of-the-art imaging systems. With guidance from the British Library preservation team, both studios are monitored carefully for light and temperature levels, allowing your collections to be accommodated according to their specific needs.

Our core range of 22 overhead table-top scanners guarantee the highest quality, able to scan at up to 600 dpi optical resolution and to accommodate material sizes of up to A0. They are supplemented by a variety of specialist scanners including scanners for microfiche, rare books and bound originals. For more modern materials, our automatic robotic book scanner or our quick scanning kiosk can be used for superior speed and more affordable cost.

As part of our post-processing procedures we also use Photoshop and other Adobe software, as well as our scanner manufacturer’s bespoke software, to ensure optimal image quality and colour balancing.

Our team of digitisation experts

Who will handle my collection(s)?

The British Library digitisation team is highly qualified to handle projects from conception to completion, with decades of experience working with Library collections and those of our clients. We work continually to maintain optimum levels of staff training and expertise across our imaging studios in Boston Spa, Yorkshire and St Pancras, London. 

Staff at our digitisation studio in Boston Spa are either professionally qualified to BTEC Level 4 in Digital Imaging or working towards their qualification. In St Pancras we have a team of imaging experts working on various scanning devices who are specially trained in handling rare and fragile materials, with experience in a range of photographic fields.

Furthermore, our preservation team is always on hand to provide advice on the handling and storage of your collections. With experience of working with some of the rarest and most priceless items in the world – including copies of the Magna Carta and Lindisfarne Gospels – you can be assured of the highest standards of care.

Who will manage the project?

Project management expertise is provided by our trained PRINCE2 practitioners and the studios are run using continuous improvement methodologies, to ensure an efficient operation that provides maximum value to our customers.

If you are looking for a trusted, reliable partner to deliver your digitisation projects on time, on budget and to the highest standards, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

More from Imaging Services

Contact us

How to get in contact with our Digitisation Services teams

Specialist digitisation

We have specialist expertise in handling a range of material types and managing complex preservation requirements


All the information you need on the cost of our services


Power your business with cutting edge research direct from the British Library