The One-Hour Digitization Challenge

(Updated Below)

I recently received a package containing my very first Kickstarter purchase, the ScanBox Plus. The Scanbox is basically a small box with a hole in the top (the “Plus” adds a set of lights powered by a 9-volt battery), designed to be used with a smartphone camera as a portable scanning station. The whole apparatus folds flat and fits inside a paper envelope.

The Scanbox seemed like the perfect tool for some guerrilla digitization, so I set myself the following challenge: Digitize a complete (if small) manuscript collection in an hour. That’s everything from soup to nuts, including installation of software and uploading the images. I decided to use a small collection of manuscripts (34 folders), the correspondence of Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell. The collection itself was recently removed from less-than-archival housing

binder and plastic sheetsand processed by a volunteer (finding aid). Here’s the newly-rehoused Pennell Collection next to the Scanbox:

scanbox and manuscript box

I put an hour on the timer and got to work:

Step One: “Scanning”. Time: 18:54 (Time remaining: 41:06)

Each page with writing was scanned (blank versos were skipped), including envelopes. Items were moved in and out of the box quickly but carefully. The total number of resulting images was 76, which means it took about 15 seconds per image. The scanning process involved nothing more than sliding each item in and tapping the photo button.

Step Two: Setting Up the Online Gallery. Time: 13:14 (Time remaining: 27:52)

While the photos uploaded from the phone to the computer via Dropbox, I downloaded and set up the software I’d be using for the digital collection. I decided on Gallery because it’s the quickest and easiest option I know of. Given the time to add image metadata or create a nicer interface, I might have chosen something else. The quick installation was also a plus: I set up a MySQL database on the server, uploaded the Gallery folder, visited it in a web browser, and that was about it.

Step Three: Image Rotation. Time: 4:14 (Time remaining: 23:38)

No time for cropping or any other image editing, just time to make sure everything pointed in the right direction.

Step Four: Re-Scanning. Time: 7:44 (Time remaining: 15:54)

While going quickly through the images I noticed a few that were just too bad to use. Back to the Scanbox.

Step Five: Uploading. Time: 12:30 (Time remaining: 3:20)

Most of this time was wasted trying to figure out a plugin I didn’t even need to use.

Step Six: Cleanup. Time: 3:20

With all the images online, I still had a few minutes to tweak things a bit. I clicked “Save” on the last edits as the stopwatch reached an hour.

The Results:

The collection is available online at for the moment. (In the future I might tweak things a bit more. Update: Tweaking began almost immediately. I soon realized I had somehow uploaded two copies of each image, so I deleted everything and re-uploaded the images.)


Image quality isn’t very good: Smartphone cameras are handy, but they don’t currently match the resolution of scanners. And the Scanbox lights were underwhelming. In most cases one side of a letter is illuminated more than the other.

Absent metadata: A great deal of the work that goes into good digital projects takes place in the metadata and the rest of the apparatus supporting the images themselves. This collection is just a pile of images (it’s not necessarily even clear what images represent different sides of the same item).

Limited longevity: Don’t expect any of these images (or the collection as a whole) to be around in 100 years. Or 50. Maybe 10 if we’re lucky. Keeping digital reproductions alive takes a lot of effort.


A number of letters by two interesting people that weren’t available an hour ago suddenly are now.


2 thoughts on “The One-Hour Digitization Challenge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.