If you assign projects that require primary-source research — or, if you have conducted much of this research for your own projects — you know that it can prove challenging to locate and access appropriate and relevant documents. Oftentimes, specific documents aren’t cataloged in the archives’ container lists, making the identification of relevant materials tricky. If you can locate a desired piece of documentation, it may be housed in a library thousands of miles away. Even if the collection resides in a nearby archives, you may find that the archives’ hours of operation conflict with your own schedule. To compound matters, access to certain items is often highly restricted due to their fragility, rarity, and value.

However, the digital age has created rich opportunities for more individuals to view and use these rich resources online, thus opening the doors of access to an audience far outside the institution’s walls. Today, one can view a sixteenth-century legal document, a nineteenth-century broadside, or a World War II-era propaganda poster on one’s own time and from one’s own office, home, or local library. The possibilities for richer, deeper research are thus expanded to many people who may never have had the chance to see these pieces of history in the “analog” era.

But what does the process of digitization entail? Obviously, it requires much more than simply clicking “scan” and uploading the image of the document (often called a “surrogate”) to a website or database. In fact, prior to digitizing these pieces, conservationists and preservationists must usually take several steps to restore them before they even hit the scanner.

In this video, representatives from Britain’s National Archives at Kew describe how they partnered with Gale to preserve and digitize thousands of documents in their collection, thereby ensuring that these rare and fragile pieces of our past remain accessible not only to patrons of the National Archives, but to a global audience. By watching this clip, you can gain a clearer understanding of, and perhaps a greater appreciation for, the work that goes into keeping documents available for you and for the generations of researchers that follow.

How do you use primary-source materials in your course? Share your ideas below.