Where to start?

Retro-digitisation of Danish cultural heritage

The Royal Library is Denmark’s national library and university library for the University of Copenhagen and its task is to work for education, research and enlightenment now and in the future.

As a national library, The Royal Library handles national cultural heritage of both Danish and foreign origin in the form of published works (books, journals, newspapers, booklets), manuscripts, archives, maps, pictures, photos and music in analogue or digital form. The institution is to provide the best possible access to the collections on modern terms, while at the same time ensuring that the collections are preserved, secured and handed down for posterity.

As a museum and cultural institution, the national library communicates knowledge and experiences based on its tasks and collections, and it contributes to retro-digitisation of cultural heritage. Premises about preservation, access and communication on modern terms set out the framework for the library’s strategies for retro-digitisation.

Availlable collections

The national library has physical materials that need to be substitution digitised so that the physical materials can be preserved and protected in the best possible way, ensuring that they will continue to exist in the future, if not in any other way, then at least digitally.

The library has old materials, the use of which is only permitted in monitored reading rooms due to their age and/or value, to which we would like to offer easy access. There are subjects and periods of historical or topical interest to the public to which the library would like to provide easy, i.e. digital access.

For a national library, digitisation makes it possible to make cultural heritage and knowledge available to the entire society, and not primarily to researchers or users who visit the library physically. Through retro-digitisation, the Royal Library can realise in earnest the objective about being a library for all citizens.


Strategically, the library works with retrodigitisation based on a desire to digitise a large volume of materials in the form of mass digitisation, user-controlled digitisation and subject digitisation. In relation to mass digitisation, the current focus is on retro-digitisation of journals that are to form part of a national, digital journal portal.

Another method is the project Danske bøger on Demand (DOD – Danish Books on Demand), where users can order a digital copy of a given work from the period 1700-1901 instead of having to order the material for reading in the library’s reading room. The digital copy is delivered within 3-5 weekdays.

The project has proved a great success, growing increasingly since its launch in 2012, and it is expected that 5,000 titles will be digitised in 2014. At the same time, it is clearly a trend that the easy access to the materials causes greater usage and demand. The DOD project has given important experience in the development of stable and fast workflows and a continual development of scanning capacity and software.

It is also an interesting method, as user requirements control part of the retrodigitisation. Concurrently, the library is working on subject and thematic digitisation, focusing on a particular period or subject in close connection with the library’s research and communication.

One example of subject digitisation is the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of World War I, in which the Royal Library as a participant in the Europeana Collections 1914-1918 has digitised the books that were published about the war at the time, and which were gathered at the library during that period, a total of 142,000 pages.

In addition to this, 7,000 photos and maps have been digitised. Naturally, these materials are accessible digitally, but they are also communicated in connection with talks and seminars that take their starting point in the materials, and in connection with concerts that are based on the subjects of war and peace. This means that the materials are communicated in different contexts and from different angles.

Outcome in relation to impact

There is no doubt that it is essential for the Royal Library to make clear strategic choices in relation to retro-digitisation and the balance between digitising large collections and thematised digitisation. Apart from the actual cost of the concrete digitisation process, there are financial and strategic choices to be made in relation to communication and relevance for the end users.

The financial considerations include the actual digitisation cost, digital conservation and property right fees. However, in a financial context, it is also important to discuss the relation between outcome, i.e. volume, in relation to impact, i.e. the effect for the end users. In a reality where there are millions of titles and pages, what is of greatest value to society, and where should we start?

Deputy Director General at The Royal Library, Denmark