Staffing Structure: Roles, Skills & Efficiency

Administrators, Technicians & Operators

Within any digitization project there are many roles that need to be filled. It’s critical to consider the relationship between these roles, and the skill/experience required to effectively fill them. There is no community-wide definition of these roles, and moreover the exact needs and structure of each institution will vary. In many smaller institutions one person will play more than one role. For the discussions in this document we use the terminology as defined below:  


Role Name General Responsibilities Required Technical Experience Required Management Experience Role in Guidelines Alternative Terminology
Project Manager Administrative Planner. Establishes overall plans for digitization program. Interfaces with other departments and stakeholders to prioritize the digitization of candidate collections. Allocates department resources, makes staffing decisions, and applies for grants. Tracks productivity metrics and delegates projects. Moderate. Should have general familiarity with digitization process and the capabilities and limitations of various hardware and software therein. High Creates Guidelin wes Program Administrator
Technical Manager Technical Planner and Overseer. Helps translate overall plans into specific workflows. Writes documents like Standard Operating Procedures. Manages the Quality and Control processes and handles calibration and maintenance tasks. Trains technicians and operators. High. Should have experience as a power-user and formal technical training in digitization. Moderate Creates Guidelines Lead Technician Technical Lead Technical Planner
Technician Responsible for the actual digitization. Is comfortable setting up for new projects and seeing them through to completion with minimal input and guidance from the Technical Manager. Understands the underlying principles that are informing the decisions of the Technical Manager and Project Manager. Moderate. Ideally should have functioned in previous projects as an operator and/or received training in digitization. Low Understands Reasoning Behind   Guidelines High-Level User Power User Skilled Operator
Operator Responsible for the actual digitization. Is comfortable operating a digitization system once a Technical Manager sets it up and provides specific step by step instructions. Basic. Ideally should be given moderate training and detailed guidelines and operating procedures. None Follows Guidelines Student Worker
Assistant Provides an additional set of hands. Helps with tasks like transporting collections from storage to the digitization area, loading/unloading film carriers, and organizing items in the digitization queue. None. Should receive training regarding internal procedures and basic terminology. None Follows Guidelines Runner Production Assistant Intern

Operators Compared to Technicians

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

Continuing Education

Digitization is a nascent and rapidly evolving field. Therefore, continuing education for digitization technicians, administrators, and managers is essential.

Several conferences each year provide paper presentations and panel discussions on the topic of digitization. These are held at staggered times throughout the year and in different cities, simplifying the logistics of attending at least one conference per year. Several such conferences that are widely attended in the United States include:

In addition, more formal training can be provided by industry vendors. The Digital Transitions Division of Cultural Heritage (DTDCH) includes training and calibration services with every hardware package, and also offers half-day to multi-day training and consultation options on an à la carte basis. In the last several years, the technology for remote training has also improved, allowing DTDCH to provide webinars and remote video conferences to supplement in-person training.

Finally, there exists within each institution the opportunity to implement mentor and peer-to-peer training programs. When carrying out such a program, the Project Manager and/or Technical Administrator should formalize the curriculum to avoid propagating bad habits. The creation of an internal Standard Operating Procedures document (outlining step-by-step procedures and policies for different workflows) can help with such formalization, as can comprehensive digitization-program documents such as this one.

“To keep up with this rapidly evolving field I take online courses related to my position and specialty, attend workshops and conferences, train on new equipment and software, have attained the certified digital preservation and curation trainer status from the Library of Congress, and serve on numerous committees at my Library that maintain a handle on digital assets management and migration.”

 Marge Thompson, Manager of Digital Photographic Services, Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska

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