What the FADGI %*#&!? Part Two: Is FADGI for Everyone?
Lesson from my parents: Just because it’s cool doesn’t make it right.
As a teen, this advice was definitely not well-received. A few decades removed, I can more appreciate the sentiment (and also the fact that it was more likely budget-driven than about taking the moral high road). It might be a bit of a stretch, but FADGI is cool…and it also isn’t (yet) for everyone.
Recap: What is FADGI?
In Part One of this series, we identified FADGI as a common set of digitization parameters set by federal agencies for digitized and born digital historical, archival and cultural content. Based on comprehensive numerical analysis of the accuracy and quality of digitized output for specific media, FADGI compliance is rated by stars, with one star the lowest and four stars ranking the highest.
One can find the most recent set of FADGI parameters (2016) in the published technical guidelines for the digitization of cultural heritage materials. Standards are set for the following materials:
- Bound Volumes: Rare and Special Materials
- Bound Volumes: General Collections
- Documents (unbound): Manuscripts and other Rare and Special Materials
- Documents (unbound): General Collections
- Oversize Items: Maps, Posters and Other Materials
- Prints and Photographs
- Photographic Transparencies: 35mm to 4” x 5”
- Photographic Transparencies larger than 4” x 5”
- Photographic Negatives: 35mm to 4” x 5”
- Photographic Negatives larger than 4” x 5”
- Paintings and other two-dimensional Art (other than Prints)
- X-Ray Film (Radiographs)
- Printed Matter, Manuscripts and other Documents on Microfilm
Since the inception of the agency collaboration in 2007, the concept of FADGI-compliance has extended beyond the federal government and can now be found in bid specs for digitization projects from any number of educational institutions, cultural heritage organizations and corporations.
Is FADGI the next best thing?
It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and make the assumption that because FADGI is a valid standardization program recognized by the government, it’s something that every archivist, digital curator and research librarian should request. After hosting a conversation with several Crowley Imaging specialists, I have a much better understanding of why FADGI-compliance is relevant for some but not for others. I hope you will as well. The FADGI-knowledgeable workmates I spoke with included:
Meghan O’Brien. An English major turned digitization specialist, Meghan has spent the last decade helping organizations and individuals with still media collections of all sizes and forms ease the process of digitizing and electronically preserving their collections. Whether the project is for the scanning of ten million still photos or hundreds of reels of microfilmed newspapers or simply a handwritten diary of love letters, Meghan works with each client to ensure that the end goal for the images is matched with the proper process and quality requirements that suit both the final use and the budget.
Corin van de Griek. Corin is a longtime Crowley Company technician who specializes in the installation, calibration and “tweak-engineering” of high-end image capture equipment such as the Zeutschel OS 14000, one of the few existing book and document scanners capable of delivering up to FADGI three stars in an oversize format, and Crowley’s MACHCAM 71, a 71 megapixel camera used for cultural heritage digitization as either a stand-alone camera or a camera built into a scanner. He is our technical lead in the field of color science and has worked closely with archivists in several government agencies to fully understand the FADGI standards as they currently exist.
Dave Westcott. Dave Westcott is a senior imaging specialist at The Crowley Company, specializing in government and high-volume digitization proposals and contracts. He has had a storied career in records management and digital imaging and is also a published technology writer, occasional guest newspaper columnist and novelist.
Brady Wilks. Before joining The Crowley Company as Crowley Imaging’s director of photographic imaging, Brady was an educator on darkroom, digital photography and alternative processes. He holds an MFA in Photography and is a professional photographer, a guest lecturer and author of the book “Alternative Photographic Processes: Crafting Handmade Images.”
Questions & Answers
Q: Talk to me about imaging guidelines in general
Dave: That’s a topic that’s as long as it is tall. There are many guidelines – ISO, AIIM, ANSI, FADGI, and metamorfoze to name a few. It often takes years to agree on a standard because of the fast-paced evolution of imaging technology. When you add in the differing requirements of each end-user, it becomes apparent that the best practice for one group may not be the best practice for another. For instance, what is the best practice for cropping? For legal and preservation uses, you crop beyond the edge to make sure that all elements have been captured. For less formal uses, one might crop at the document edge, saving storage space. Threshold and contrast are treated similarly. Clients with large-volume collections of photographs and negatives to post online might just want good viewing contrast. Another client may want a wider range (flatter contrast) with maximum levels of black and white to ensure that nothing is lost in the background. A raw scan for archival purposes might look flat and washed out to the average viewer, but meets the guidelines of an archival image.
It’s not this simple, but the criteria for which guidelines to follow almost always comes down to “How are you going to use the images?”
If the images are going to be digitized for web display only, your guidelines are going to be much less strict than if you were scanning one-of-a-kind materials that may decay over time due to wear and tear, fading emulsion and other environmental and chemical factors. A web image might be scanned at 300 dpi, an archival image at 5600 dpi and a standard document that just has to be read might be digitized at 200 dpi. And dpi is just one requirement example of many of many others.
Over the years I’ve found that business users lean towards readability and cost while archivists are charged with creating images that are as much a representation of the original as technically possible. This explains the variety of standards up to this point. Specific to FADGI, it’s important to know that it’s possible to meet some of the standards and not others to still be in compliance.
Q: Makes sense so far. Take me farther down the FADGI path.
Brady: Quality metrics are always important but “quality” is a relative term. As Dave mentioned, what it means in one context is not the same in another. When clients present us with a collection for digitization, particularly of older materials, one of the most frequent questions asked is, “Can you make it look better?” We can, but we first have to answer with our own question: “Do you want it to be an accurate representation of the original or do you want it to be aesthetically pleasing?”
If the answer is aesthetically pleasing (good-looking), then the process of adjustments to color, contrast and other factors is one that is highly subjective and best-defined by the owner of the collection. A typical project would have us digitize a collection in a way that captures the object as it exists with a neutral approach to color, contrast, etc. while meeting general industry standards.
When it comes to FADGI compliance, it can be challenging to understand what the numbers mean in the detailed standards set forth in the 100-page guideline. While it may sound like a good idea to request the absolute best in resolution and color accuracy on your digitization project, doing so requires an understanding that “the best” right now is defined by FADGI guidelines. Reaching the highest FADGI standard not only requires superior equipment, it can be labor intensive. Not all scanners and cameras are able to meet the requirements; those that can are typically very expensive, need constant calibration to ensure consistency and are usually very specialized to specific media. A collection with multiple media types – bound books, photographs and negatives – may need more than one type of scanner or camera. Today there are still only a limited number of scanners and cameras available to the market that can reach the highest ratings and not all service bureaus are equipped to be FADGI-compliant.
It might take a few discussions with a client to determine actual need, but “the best” is often determined to be overkill for specific applications or platforms. An initial request for four star scanning might be just as easily met with a two or three star rating.
One example of reassessing the need is a public utility with which we recently worked. The original request was for drawings and records to be digitized at 3000 dpi – but the project had a tight turnaround time. When it was determined that a much lower dpi could still provide the information needed from the images and that the records had no need to become part of a federal repository, we were able to turn the project around quickly while still providing the client with quality images for their specific need.
This is very high-level and general, but it points to the fact that unless you plan to submit the collection for consideration to the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) or another federal archive repository, compliance to the earlier-mentioned standards may be more than acceptable. This could potentially save costs, resources for acceptance and files size for data management.
Q: How does FADGI compliance affect today’s service offerings?
Meghan: I think it’s important to note that although FADGI compliance has become a larger part of the industry conversation, it still only appears in a small percentage of proposal requests and most of those are still federal.
Now is a great time to become fully aware of the requirements so that collection holders can make their own educated assessments on the type of guidelines that are right for specific media and use. It’s a constant learning process for us at Crowley; our clients expect us to understand when they do and don’t need to meet certain requirements to aid them in the digitization process, but a solid base of knowledge on both sides makes for quicker, more informed decisions. From my perspective over the past decade, I would say that FADGI compliance is most often required in corporate and museum archives, Library of Congress collections, fine arts, rare manuscripts [incunabula] and cultural heritage artifacts that demand little or no handling or which have specific environmental constraints.
It’s typically not necessary for publishers (depending on end-use), financial, health, insurance or other high-volume records, non-federal architectural and engineering drawings and general corporate records (although we are seeing a trend toward potential litigation documents to meet FADGI standards).
In terms of digitization offerings, FADGI compliance hasn’t changed the Crowley Imaging core services, but it has led to further education and training for our team of imaging specialists and a continued investment in high-end capture equipment. Because we are located so near to Washington, DC and have on-site capabilities as well as an in-house service bureau, I think we probably see a higher percentage of FADGI-compliant projects come across the floor. This puts us in a strong position to move forward as the need for FADGI compliance increases.
Q: To recap, FADGI-compliance is really just starting to gain ground beyond the federal government and may or may not be right for a collection. So for right now, FADGI is not for everyone. Does that sound correct?
Corin: Absolutely. I’ve spent a lot of time speaking with and working with many of those who are creating and modifying these standards. It’s a slow and steady process. FADGI evolved out of the 2004 NARA guidelines and was then combined with ISO updates to provide a common language and grading scale that is becoming more widely practiced. As newly engineered scanners and cameras come onto the market that more consistently meet FADGI standards, I believe we will see the adoption rate increase.
In Part Three of the “What the FADGI” series, Corin will help us take a closer look at the hardware requirements needed to create images that can meet FADGI requirements.
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Cheri Baker, Crowley’s Director of Communications, has a career that spans newspaper, agency and corporate communications. A self-described “generalist specialist,” she believes common sense, good grammar, nice manners and a dash of fun go a long way toward successful public relations. Find Cheri Baker on LinkedIn+