Jennifer Edmond: Learning to say 'No' - Strategic considerations for archives in the digital world

published under CC-BY-SA license


A good strategy equips you to use the resources you have to take advantage of the opportunities around you, and understand the relative merits of alternative paths. But in the fast-changing environment of the digital world, it is often hard to find firm ground from which to think, much less act, strategically. Taking as its basis experiences from both university strategic planning and those of the Collaborative EuropeaN Digital Archival Research Infrastructure, (or CENDARI) Project, this paper focuses on some of the key questions that must be answered by new or mature archival digitisation programmes, placing them in the context of the business strategy discourse and larger European developments affecting archival end users and service providers.



It seems rather a large understatement to say that acting strategically in an institutional context is difficult. When I was hired in 2005 to take on a role leading the development of a university research strategy, my qualifications were not so much that I had specific experience in strategy development, for I did not. What I had instead was the ability to step back from operations and map out larger patterns of influence and possibility, skills I had developed as a part of the essential generic toolkit I built up over the course of a rather traditional PhD training in German literature. In addition, I had a relatively broad experience of working across disciplines and across professional silos within the higher education context. These two planes of experience intersected in a manner that convinced the then Dean of Research at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland that I could be of use to him in the development of strategy, and thus was my engagement with this knotty concept initiated.


What is strategy?

At its heart, acting strategically means being able to shut out the noise of the urgent, short-term requirement, and focus at least in part on developments of long-term benefit. Strategy is about doing the right things, not just about doing things right. When described in this way, strategy can seem simple, but in practice, this stance of detached oversight of operations can be very hard to achieve, a statement that is true for universities and cultural heritage institutions alike.

Because I had no formal training in strategy development, I was dispatched at an early stage in my career as a strategy professional to seek out some formal frameworks for my work, and where better to turn than to the business strategy guru, Professor Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School. In his presentation to a week-long Executive Education course on strategy that I attended in 2007, Porter gave his students an overview of some of the key things a strategy should not be, and these rules have unfortunately described much of the strategy I have seen since. They are, in short:

  • Strategy is not an aspiration (as in the statement: “our strategy is to be number one”)
  • Strategy is not an action (as in the statement: “our strategy is to seek funding”)
  • Strategy is not the aspects of operations that are important (as evidenced by a proliferation of strategies)
  • Strategy is not what you have done in the past

Although Porter was speaking specifically of a commercial context, I find that these four principles are usually easily grasped by non-business audiences when considered in the context of the game of chess. Everyone recognises at some level that chess is a game of strategy, and as such, the following statements from a fictitious player about his potential approach seem particularly odd:

  • "My strategy is to win"
  • "My strategy is to capture pieces"
  • "I have a knight strategy"
  • "My strategy is to be good"

So the problem is not that we can't recognise strategy, at least not when we see it in certain contexts. Removed from those contexts, however, the definitions and attributes of strategy become muddled. There are good definitions available to guide us, however, such as: "The continuous and collective exercise of foresight in the integrated process of taking informed decisions affecting the future."[1] or "an integrated set of choices: what is our winning aspiration; where will we play; how will we win; what capabilities need to be in place; what management systems need to be instituted?"[2] But that fact that these definitions return us to the sphere of private sector industrial competition exposes one of the most common enemies to strategic thinking, namely, strategic planning. Many organisations, public and private, spend a huge amount of time on the strategic plan, and this process sometimes becomes a subterfuge for the essential lack of a core strategy, or indeed of any basis upon which to make high-level decisions about what will and won’t drive the activities of the organisation – those "right things" that need to be chosen before we can embark on doing them right.


Archives strategies

The challenges to finding focus amid all of the noise inherent in any strategy development process can be seen relatively clearly in a few examples of the strategies regarding digital content that large cultural heritage institutions have developed and published. There are not very many available, and those that are can be very instructive both for what they do and do not focus on. The first one I would like to discuss is that of the US National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA. One notable aspect of their statements on strategy is how they break Porter's rule against proliferation: indeed, the NARA digitisation strategy is comprised of five sub-strategies, each of which outlines an aspect of the organisational approach to developing digital content: partnering, digitising without partnering, making already digitised material accessible, reflecting digital content in the catalogue, digitising to preservation standard, etc. In spite of what I would see as an already very operational bias within their strategy, however, NARA supplements their digitisation strategies with a further set of digitizing objectives. Interestingly, the objectives give a lot more of the high level context for NARA's activities than do the strategies themselves: improving customer service, enhancing preservation, using resources effectively, promoting access and enhancing user understanding of records, etc.[3]

A similar focus on digitisation as a process to be integrated rather than a specific set of activities and opportunities also appears in the Digitization Strategic Plan of the Smithsonian Institution, where one of the main goals of the strategy is to create digital assets.[4] Finally, the University of Manchester Library sets out five "Strategic Principles" for Digitisation. Interestingly, some of the strongest connection between local actions and the high level goals of the institution is outlined here, addressing how the library will prioritise content for digitisation, adapt extant structures to make the best use of the new content streams, and outlining what additional resources may be required to make the most out of the results of the digitisation programme.[5] As such, the University of Manchester Library is able to address digitisation not just at the level of something they want to do, but how they will make their digitisation programme a success for the library and the university. And herein lies the heart of a strategy.


Learning to say "no"

Why is the creation of a strategy so difficult? On some level, I think it is because so many of the individuals in universities and cultural heritage institutions alike really care about the legacies in their care. Like the bumblebees, who are not supposed to be able to fly, but do, cultural heritage institutions tend to want to (or feel pressured to) do a huge amount with limited resources. We cherish curiosity and openness to new opportunities, and it actually takes a lot of courage to limit the scope of operations to a few things we can do and do well when there are so many interesting possibilities visible on our horizon. But at the end of the day, resources are always limited and usually scarce, and, as the well-worn trilemma from the business world puts it:

You want it good; you want it cheap; you want it fast.

Pick two

This idea of "satisficing" (satisfying sufficiently) is at the heart of strategy, and it is an acid test of the robustness of any institution's strategic positioning, on digitisation or any other issue, to see whether that strategy allows them to say "no" to an opportunity that may be attractive, or indeed lucrative, but not push forward the central concerns of the institution. Ironically, the ability to say "no" imparts strength and not weakness and resonates deeply with an organisation’s base of confidence and the surety of their course. This beknighted position of self-confidence is not easy to achieve, as we have seen above, but the stepping stones along the way involved knowing what the key assets and competencies within the institution are, knowing what critical opportunities are emerging in the external environment, and knowing how to act systematically to achieve the best possible match between the two.

So how does this work in practice? While it may not be a digital library or archive, the strategy statement of the Collaborative EuropeaN Digital Archival Research Infrastructure (or CENDARI) project illustrates what a concise statement of priorities can look like, and how it can signal the areas in which the project will be proactive, and those where it will remain largely and consciously inactive. According to the statement, the CENDARI project will:

Pilot a digital research infrastructure for historians (in our two pilot areas) that is easy to use and essential to their research goals, leveraging extant analogue networks to enhance usability of digital resources.

The words in bold face are critical for their clear expression of areas where we focus our contribution, areas where we "satisfice", and areas where we choose not to play a role. Let me expand upon these key terms and their implications:

Pilot: we break new ground, but will not necessarily create something comprehensive;

For historians: we do not imagine appealing to every kind of potential user (and indeed even among historians we have two more narrow user communities);

Easy and essential: these are a sine qua non for CENDARI, and we place a great emphasis on these aspects of our work;

Leveraging … enhancing: we are not charged to digitise new content – indeed, this is something we simply do not do – or networks of researchers or institutions. These are resources we have mapped out from the outset of the project, and we build almost exclusively upon others' work to date to further our own.

To translate this into something a digital archive can use takes a certain amount of vision and imagination, but this kind of "strategic planning" can also be advanced through the application of a few relatively simple and straightforward questions, revolving around why you want to digitise, what you want to digitise, who should do your digitisation and how. I believe these four categories can be address through seven key questions, which I discuss upon below.


Key Question 1: Who is your audience?

There is a tempting openness inherent in the development of any online presence. The fact is that it could be used by anybody. But the corollary to that fact is that it won't be used by everybody. Traditional contextualizing mechanisms (for example, human archivists) are very good as customizing on the fly the message and the richness of the context a particular user requires. A trained professional can very quickly gauge not only the core of a researcher's question, but also their level of expertise and their end goals. But the software code behind a user interface doesn't know whether it is talking to a world expert or a curious neophyte, nor whether they seek to answer a simple question or write a monograph. Institutions therefore need to be very clear about their core user base, and deliver a digital presence that meets their needs squarely. It may be that the primary goal of the project is in fact not to provide online access at all, but to ensure preservation of fragile resources, a requirement which will focus the investment of time and money available to the project on a certain set of parameters: quality of the captured image, robustness of the technical infrastructure, etc. To then decide to provide online access to these materials is another project in itself, and should be scoped independently.

Of course it is easier to build one form of digitisation project upon another one, but where there are such multiple layers, the incremental increase in resource costs for each new facet must be recognised. Certain components already developed may meet some of the needs of a new audience, but if the stretch is too far in terms of meeting user needs, it will damage, rather than enhance, the institutional relationship with their user base. Something must lead, and something must follow – this is the strategic position which will keep a clear focus on what must be delivered to meet institutional goals, and what would be nice to have, but potentially also a source of distraction from building something fit to address the initial problem. Too often institutions feel that they must digitise, eg to please their funders, or because everyone else seems to be doing it, and therefore do so without a clear sense of what the real goals and audiences for the programme might be. This is a classic example of the ambition, enthusiasm and curiosity I mentioned earlier, and while these can be great strengths in many ways, it can also lead, if unchecked, to the launch of improperly scoped digitisation programmes, which can hinder rather than enhance institutional online presence.


Key Question 2: What impact will you/should you/do you want to have?

Impact has become something of a dirty word over the past few years, emerging as a proxy for the quantitative indicators of return on investment which have been discredited, but not replaced, as a way of viewing the value of cultural work. Let us therefore understand impact instead in terms of audiences – perhaps not your current audiences, but future ones you might imagine reaching and engaging just beyond the current furthest reach of your known user base.

Current EU Policy has adopted the rubric of a "reflective society", and institutions working in the cultural heritage space have much to gain by capitalising on this still amorphous mandate to better link individual lives and choices with history and heritage. The common horizon-scanning tool known as a STEEP or PESTE analysis can be a good prompt towards imagining where these points of enhanced transfer might develop, structuring the mental exercise along five possible tangents:

  • Sociological Factors (how might demographic changes such as immigration or ageing of the population create new questions archival materials could contribute to answering?)
  • Technological Factors (how do we understand technological change, but also how does this change the way we think, collaborate, or can contribute to global scale challenges?)
  • Environmental Factors (are there aspects of legislation, or political pressure points arising from environmental change which will alter requirements for certain types of information?)
  • Economic Factors (are researchers, for example, finding new “markets” for their research, or are new models of commerce looking to feed theor content pipelines?)
  • Political Factors (what do shifts in funding patterns, policy, and the impact of EU expansion mean for possible use of archival materials?)

There is a proactivity in this stance which may not always abide comfortably with the traditional archival values of curation, preservation and access, but the potential benefits of informing strategic decision making with this sort of foresight can be immense, and worth navigating the rapids of cultural change to achieve.


Key Question 3: What portion of a larger project could stand alone as a pilot?

Pilot projects are great ways of getting to know the true costs and benefits of a digitisation project. Scoped wisely, they can meet their own goals, for example in reaching a key audience or exposing a particular collection, testing not only institutional capacity, but also focus and audience receptiveness. I found it quite interesting that none of the digitisation strategies I discussed above were willing to express as a part of the scope of the strategy itself what content would be digitised or given priority for digitisation, in spite of the fact that this is a key issue faced by every organisation. The desire to see the end result of a full, well-imaged, well-described digital facsimile of an institution's holdings may be a laudable one, but it can also be a source of paralysis and a political nightmare. Having a sense of where to begin and how to pace a digitisation process will build confidence, focus and realism in the organisation and among its stakeholders.

The key decisions underlying the definition of a pilot project will be determined by what an interesting but manageable corpus of material might be, but also by what lessons you want to learn, and, perhaps most critically, where you will stop. Will you create images only with basic metadata, or push all the way through to a full web-delivered exhibition? Will you OCR or transcribe, or provide descriptions only? What tools and standards will you apply in both the collection description and the storage and delivery mechanisms? Far better to see the ramifications of your preferred answers to these questions play out on a four-figure budget than a six-figure one.


Key Question 4: Should you digitize in house or outsource?

One of the key numerical formulae that guides my day-to-day work (and believe me there are not many, I trained in literature for a reason!) is as follows:

S*1.35/215 = D

In this equation, S stands for the salary of an individual working for me. The formula adds in employer costs for pension and social insurance, then divides by the statutory number of days in our institutional working year. The result is the daily rate for any person on my team, which I can also express as an hourly or weekly rate.

This may seem terribly quotidian, but for me, having this detail easily to hand is a powerful tool, because being mindful of exactly what it costs to employ each of the specialists who works for me make it easy for me to make quick cost/benefit calculations when the temptation arises to ask them to take on special projects or work outside of their specialty areas. This is not to say that I never use my own people to deliver aspects of emerging, new or external projects: quite the contrary, as it is a good opportunity for them to grow and deepen their knowledge as well as a good way for the organisation as a whole to test its abilities and capacities.

But at the other end of the spectrum, it would be a false economy to take a fully-trained collections expert away from his regular duties in order to image or transcribe for a large-scale digital collection (unless of course your institution happens to be overstaffed, although I have yet to meet one that is). There are many companies out there based in regions with low wage costs and low overheads offering services from image capture and basic metadata to full double re-keyed transcription. While there may be reasons not to use these services (and obviously your due diligence on the companies must be rigorous), knowing the true costs of the "in-house" versus the "outsourced" solutions will help you make informed decisions, and these decisions will also shape the scale and scope of your digitisation project.


Key Question 5: How and with whom should we partner?

A core element of many of the digitisation strategies I discussed above was partnering, an appealing proposition that removes some of the burden of funding a digitisation project, but also assists in identifying and actively engaging a core user base for the project.

Partnering can, however, be a double-edged sword: funding partnerships developed with a user group, work only when the partner recognizes the real costs of the project as a whole, when their interests in the material lead to the same minimum specifications as you would yourself apply, and when digitisation of the content in question is of some value to the archive as well as the external partner.

But partnering can and should be viewed in a wider context than just a convergence of interests around certain bodies of content. The digitisation ecosystem is full of potential partners, many of whom will provide advice, consultancy, tools or access to audiences for little or no investment on your part. Networks like the Archives Portal Europe network of excellence (APEX) project play a critical role in enabling this kind of knowledge and experience sharing; projects like Europeana share very openly useful documentation of aspects of their work, such as their licensing agreements and metadata model; research infrastructures like CENDARI will be only too glad to help your content reach users in our core constituencies, etc. Viewing partnerships in this way will help you make broadly informed choices about how to conceive or construct your digitisation programmes, and will help you develop at the technical forefront without requiring you to understand the detail of the options available, and increase in easy ways the potential impact of your project.


Key Question 6: What do you mean by "access?"

Cultural heritage institutions, by and large, share a central commitment to facilitating public access to the materials they are entrusted with. But access comes in many forms, and, given that the infrastructure to deliver virtual collections is not free either to use or to maintain, considerations must sometimes be given to how much material can be provided without barriers and when a collection should be held behind a pay-wall or other limitation to access.

In some cases, this will give an archive the ability to protect a revenue stream, although in reality I have only rarely seen such cases. More often, it creates instead another module of the infrastructure requiring regular attention and management. In other cases, however, the restriction of access to certain collections for certain periods of time can be an effective method of guaranteeing a temporary exclusive access that will help unlock funding for a digitisation project, and/or allow digitisation to proceed while a period of copyright or other license is allowed to run down its period of validity. While these compromises can conflict, especially in the short to medium term, with the spirit of the institutional mission, the barriers they present can also be minimized, for example through the negotiation of free or non-consumptive access to metadata for the purpose of discovery and/or aggregation, even when full text cannot be made available. The key thing to remember here, as elsewhere, is that there are a number of options between making all accessible and none, and it will be a key function in your institutional strategy to guide your positioning along this continuum.


Key Question 7: How do I need to inform my decisions?

Perhaps the most important lesson to learn before you create a single digital image or metadata record is that there is a lot of experience, and therefore a lot of potential assistance, out there. Anyone who is currently running a successful digitisation project started, at some point in the not too distant past, from a zero baseline, and most of us who remember those first steps into the unknown world are more than happy to share our stories with others coming along after us.

In particular, you will probably want to find yourself a good conversation partner or two with a handle on the technical aspects of the process of creating a digital archive. With the best will in the world, technology providers can often be blinkered by the tools that they know best and work with most comfortably, so finding someone who can give you an overview of the options without making any recommendations will give you a solid starting point for making decisions. Don't expect this to be a linear, or at times even a coherent process – the world is full of silos, and you will be surprised how many experts have deep knowledge of a very narrow core of the possible tools, standards, formats and platforms you may want to consider.

A second layer of informing yourself about the realities of your imagined project is to come to terms with the real nature of the commitment a digital project requires. As with the old deterrent about how a puppy bought as a gift "isn't just for Christmas", digital projects have a tendency to grow tendrils and roots into all parts of your organisation, and the ongoing requirement for their development and maintenance is an order of magnitude greater than that of the published volume. Be aware when you are scoping of the many stages ahead of you, and you will have no unpleasant surprises, and be sure to include such stages as content selection; content preparation (eg preservation, location, pulling, refiling); basic descriptive and technical metadata collection; creation of digital surrogate; quality control of digital copies and metadata; making files publicly accessible (internally, or online); maintenance of digital copies and metadata; migration of digital objects into new formats and systems; integration of digital objects with emergent aggregators/portals etc. Being aware of the scale of the undertaking and communicating this is another plank in the planning for success. Some of your interlocutors may not want to hear this unseemly level of detail, in particular funders who want to see digital objects created, but are themselves naïve about the true costs of their request over the long term. But if a long-term responsibility is to be taken on by your institution, then you are best served by being up front about the true costs and realistic about the investment to which you are committing.


Finally, you will want to inform your decisions as well by looking at projects that have already been delivered with a similar scope and scale to what you are planning. Looking at digital projects is perhaps the best way to inform your opinion regarding the things your project will want and need, and about features and options you don’t feel are necessary. Do beware of the success stories, however: for every viral phenomenon of a high-profile, media-friendly project created by a group of students for zero budget there are dozens of other, equally good if not better, projects which have languished. Aim for a clear target, meet the needs of your audience, keep your resources within what your project can bear and you will have a successful project and peace of mind besides. In the challenging world of digital archive creation and maintenance, this is a far more rare and valuable achievement than any amount of coverage on the evening news, and far more achievable too, if your strategy is in place, keeping you aware of your commitments and on course to achieve them, without undue concern over externalities or distractions from outside of your scope. Ironically, the most empowering word in this process is the one that keeps those distractions at bay and your confidence on course: the word "no". Use it well, and you need not doubt that your digitisation strategy will serve you and your institution.


Geoffrey Lockwood and John L. Davies: Universities: The Management Challenge. (Society for Research into Higher Education & NFER-Nelson, 1 January 1985). 
Roger Martin, "Don't let strategy become planning" in: HBR blog network, 5 February 2013 ( (viewed 20 February 2014). 
National Archives and Records Administration, "Strategy for Digitizing Archival Materials for Public Access 2007-2016" ( (viewed 20 February 2014). 
Smithsonian Institution, "Creating a Digital Smithsonian: Digitization Strategic Plan" ( (viewed 20 February 2014). 
University of Manchester Library, "Digitisation Strategy" ( (viewed 20 February 2014). 

About the Author

Jennifer Edmond

Jennifer Edmond is Director of Strategic Projects in the Faculty of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. Her current research primarily addresses the conditions of possibility for the development and delivery of research across and between the disciplines. She is Coordinator of the €6.5 M EU-funded project CENDARI (Collaborative EuropeaN Digital/Archival Research Infrastructure) and convenes the Working Group in the impact of digital methods on scholarly publication in the ESF-funded network NeDiMAH (Network for Digital Methods in the Arts and Humanities). She has published most recently on cyberinfrastructure for humanities research (International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing, Vol 7.1-2 2013) and open learning in the 'cosmopolitan' internet (European Journal of Research and Training, Vol 10.3 2012).

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