As we’ve defined above, a Technician has significant technical skill/experience and can be given autonomy over day-to-day operations. Their experience enables them to not only follow guidelines and procedures, but to understand their underlying rationales. This understanding allows them to adapt when faced with novel challenges. In contrast, an Operator has limited technical skill/experience. They are comfortable following specific documented procedures in a step-by-step manner but are not familiar with the underlying reasons why these procedures should be followed.
An Operator that is given additional training and accumulates sufficient experience becomes a Technician. Many institutions choose to use, or are limited by administrative policy to use, Operators in the form of student labor or temporary workers for mass digitization programs, which generally precludes their progress from Operator to Technician. Student labor or temporary workers have one main advantage and several disadvantages. The advantage is that they are less expensive in direct compensation. However, they are rarely invested in the outcome of the project they are working on and may require extensive training to adequately fulfill the duties entailed by an operator-level employee. Full-time, long-term employees have better technical preparation and are more strongly incentivized to ensure relevant guidelines for quality are closely followed, such that errors are minimized, and are caught and corrected when they do occur.
The hard costs of an Operator are usually quite low compared to a Technician, making their use seemingly attractive. Often, however, the hidden costs associated with their use can add up. Student labor is often provided on a revolving basis, with new students rotating in every 4-18 months. This requires overhead of training and management, often consuming a significant percentage of the total project time. It also implies a higher rate of error and a lower rate of productivity, as these two metrics typically improve with the experience and training of an operator. It is often the case that a student becomes especially proficient and self-sufficient only in their last few months of service.
Such cycles of short-term training and retraining, as well as lower underlying technical proficiency, often lead to a variation in the quality of the work-product of a digitization program. It also competes with resources (e.g. time) that could otherwise improve technical institutional memory and overall institutional capabilities (e.g. continually evaluating and improving internal processes, training of long-term staff, inter-institutional academic research). The acquisition of talented full-time, long-term technicians reduces the time spent training new staff and will increase productivity in almost all cases. The most important asset in any digitization program is its people, and many institutions have found that the increased productivity, lower error rates, lower training burden, and high quality of work more than justifies the salary of professional long-term staff.
“Having staff that have real photography experience is invaluable. The process is much more than just clicking a button; it is easy to for someone who is trying to be helpful, but does not really understand what they are doing, to create hard to detect, problems from someone who is trying to be helpful but does not really understand what they are doing. There should be at least one photographer available at all times to help keep images accurate and the equipment running smoothly.
Free and student labor can be more trouble than they are worth, especially if the work is mostly project based. Not only might there be attendance issues, but turnover is often high. Finding new staff and retraining require much higher management costs. Handling and security are a major concerns in libraries and museums. It is easy to give a primer on what to do, but complex objects like books require a lot of hands on experience to fully understand what an object can really take.”
– Ian Bogus, MacDonald Curator of Preservation, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
“When an institution commits to embarking on a digitization project by purchasing the best equipment available for the task (such as the products available through Digital Transitions), the same standard should prevail when it comes to staffing, not only for the short term, but more importantly, for the long term”
– Barbara Katus, Manager of Imaging Services, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts