National Historical Publications & Records Commission

Digitizing Historical Records Projects FAQs

Digitizing Historical Records Projects

Frequently Asked Questions

How can we demonstrate that the project materials are nationally significant?

You will need to convince reviewers with varying degrees of knowledge about American history that the project materials are nationally significant. Do not assume that because an event or debate is familiar to you that it will be familiar to others. Three approaches that you might want to consider are:

  1. Demonstrate that the materials or equivalent ones have reached a national audience. Try to provide specific citations to books, articles, web sites, or other publications. Use those citations to identify the fields of study where the records will be useful.
  2. Demonstrate the connections between the materials and significant fields of study in American history. Be as specific as possible about how the materials document important events, trends, and fields. Indicate how they will be useful in ongoing debates or research.
  3. Demonstrate the uniqueness of the items in documenting aspects of American history that need more source materials to allow the public, including scholars, to understand the past. Explain why there are few other similar sources available.

Where can I find best practices for the digitizing of historical materials?

Some suggested resources are listed below. Your own institution may have already developed standards, or you may consult with a vendor to develop your specifications.

In your proposal, it is important to explain why you picked particular standards and your experience with them. In addition, reviewers will want you to specify how you will apply these standards to the specific types of materials you have. Explain, for example, how you will handle photographs, oversized materials, nitrate negatives, fragile materials or whatever kinds of documents apply to your project. Remember that if your project focuses on reformatting for preservation or has complex copyright issues, you may want to apply for funding in NHPRC's Documenting Democracy: Access to Historical Records program since those projects allow reformatting for preservation rather than access purposes.

Guidelines for Digitizing Manuscripts and Photos

Guidelines for Digitizing Audio Materials

Guidelines for Preserving and Digitizing Film

Guidelines for Preserving and Digitizing Videos

Does the Commission have a preference for outsourced digitizing, as compared to digitizing in-house?

No. However, your proposal should explain your rationale in making this decision. Considerations may include total costs, schedule, logistics, and your institution's existing capacity to do the work in-house.

Do you have examples of the results of previously-funded projects?

Since 2006, ten Digitizing Historical Records projects funded by NHPRC have closed.

We wish to digitize collections processed under a previous NHPRC-funded grant project. Is this collection eligible for a new grant?

Yes. Such collections are eligible to apply and compete for a new NHPRC grant.

We have number of great collections, but they are all relatively small. Can we propose digitizing more than one collection?

Yes. The collections should be related, however, so that outreach plans can target similar audiences. You must ensure that you have enough materials to reach a cost-effective solution, and that the collections are nationally significant. If you think the cost of the entire project will be less than $40,000 (i.e. a grant request of $20,000), you should probably consider a different source of funding.

We have a great collection, but we do not think every series needs to be digitized. Can we select the most used or most important?

Yes. Explain why you are selecting the records and justify your selection with reference to usage records, fields of studies, or practical concerns (such as copyright issues or the cost of digitizing certain formats). However, within a series, all materials should be digitized. In addition, the materials that you will digitize must already have sufficient descriptive information at the series, folder or item level to be useful to researchers. Remember, you cannot use grant funds to create descriptive information as part of these projects.

Does every item need to be digitized. Can we exclude certain items that we do not think are interesting or valuable?

In general, no. The NHPRC is interested in supporting projects that provide researchers on the internet with access to the same materials that researchers at your facility would use. Excluding items requires you to edit the existing metadata and suggests that the collection requires further appraisal. Both issues are likely to raise serious concerns for reviewers and the Commission.

We have already digitized a few items from the collection for exhibits or other purposes. Can we apply to digitize the entire collection now?

Yes, especially if the number of digitized items is small in comparison to the size of the whole collection. Most likely, it will be more cost-efficient to simply re-scan the materials in their original order as part of the project rather than try to incorporate the earlier scans into the workflow.

The announcement requires that a funded project maintain a public web site describing the process of digitizing the materials as well as an access point for the digitized materials. Are there any further requirements about these sites, such as they must be built with open-source tools or be located on the same web site as the digitized records?

No. The NHPRC expects applicants to explain what software and hardware they will use for these web sites and to justify those choices, but there are no preconceived notions of what is the best method.

We plan to work with another repository or vendor that has more expertise in digitizing or digital presentations. Is this permissible?

Absolutely. Partnerships are often an essential part of these projects. Provide sufficient information about the process of selecting the partner and their expertise so that reviewers and the Commission can understand the choice. Selection of vendors should be based on your institution's normal practices and involve comparative bids when possible.

Has the Commission funded projects that involve work at several institutions?

Yes. Proposals may present a consortium approach. There should be demonstrated institutional support at each organization. In addition, the project should not involve so much training and development of effective processes that it would take away from the goal of cost-effective digitization. For the purposes of the SF-424 application form and ongoing administration, only one institution may serve as the formal applicant and project coordinator.

May we submit letters of support in our application package? If so, how many may we provide? Who should write these letters?

Letters of support are not required; however, many successful applications include up to four. In general, letters of support from your institution should demonstrate an on-going commitment for your program once the grant period ends, while letters from researchers should attest to the usefulness, value, and national significance of the records described in the application. If you are planning a consortium project, letters of support from each of the participating institutions will be necessary to demonstrate the strength of the consortium.

The descriptive information for our materials is not in an EAD finding aid. Can we apply?

Yes, but you will have to include reformatting of the finding aid into EAD in your project costs. The reformatting process should be routine and not result in rewriting of the descriptive material. If possible, you may want to do the reformatting before the start of the proposed grant period.

You may also make the case that an EAD finding aid is not an effective access tool for your materials. However, in order to link the digitized images with the existing descriptive information, you will need to have it in a structured format, such as a database.

NHPRC does not prescribe a specific approach. However, if you are deviating from established practice, you will need to explain why in your application.

The finding aid for our collection does not include enough descriptive information. Can we update it as part of this project?

No. You will have to find other resources for such a project.

Many of the materials in our collection are typewritten. Can we use optical character recognition (OCR) software to create rough transcripts of these materials?

Yes, but there should be little effort involved in the creation of these rough versions. The use of the software and the attaching of the rough versions to your scans of the original should be a simple step in your workflow. The OCR results should not be proofread or compared to the original. Remember, in general, the Commission does not fund the creation of transcripts of archival materials.

Our collection is largely unprocessed. Can we receive funds to digitize this material as part of a larger project to arrange and describe it?

No. Institutions must have basic intellectual control over the collections they wish to digitize prior to applying for this grant. Applicants in this situation may wish to consider the Documenting Democracy: Access to Historical Records category.

We have a collection of published materials that is rare and that we know researchers would like to access on the web. Can we apply?

The NHPRC does not support projects that "catalog, acquire, or preserve books, periodicals, or other library materials." We do not award grants for collections of published materials, so you may wish to seek funding through the National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Services, or other funding sources, depending upon the nature of your collection.

How do we demonstrate in our application that we "have the permission of all relevant copyright holders, where possible?"

Explain the dates and possible copyright issues relating to the materials. If the materials are likely to be covered by copyright, explain your contact with the copyright holders and why that gives you confidence that the materials can be posted online for public use. If there are agreements that specify the arrangements, include them in the supplemental materials.

If you cannot identify copyright holder, or if the copyright status is unknown, explain how you will address these issues if they come up after you have provided online access to the records. If it is a small percentage of the collection, you may want to consider scanning the copyrighted material, but not make it available on the public side of the website and instead note that it is under copyright in the descriptive metadata. We encourage institutions to make decisions that are in line with their policies.

The announcement emphasizes the need for cost-effective approaches. How will the Commission evaluate this standard?

The Commission is aware that costs for digitizing will vary depending on the collection and its condition. In the application, provide enough details, including an estimate of the number of scans that will be available at the end of the project, so that reviewers and the Commission can evaluate the per-item cost for the project. For audio and video, please include the total run time of the recordings. Remember the work plan needs to present the costs for each stage of the project.

While these considerations differ from collection to collection, a total cost of $1 - $3 per scan is reasonable for homogeneous textual collections in good condition. Recent grants projects found that microfilm uses less staff time for quality control than paper, and can be digitized for less than $1 per scan. For heterogeneous collections, large-format items, or photographs, per-item costs may be higher, but the focus should be on access rather the preservation or reproduction-quality reformatting.

The Commission has not yet funded a digitization project that involves audiovisual records. In the six years since this program began, we have found that these projects tend not to be competitive because the digitization process for audio and video is expensive and these collections often lack sufficient descriptive metadata. You may wish to consider a Documenting Democracy project if you want to digitize for preservation or if you decide that there is not enough descriptive metadata.

What should applicants consider when creating outreach plans?

Our emphasis is on cost-effectiveness, so the outreach plan is going to be a smaller component of the overall budget. Outreach should be cost-effective and appropriate to the scale of the project. A curriculum guide may be a good choice, for example. Be sure your outreach component makes the most interested audiences aware of your project and collection. You may also wish to consider more general publicity for your project; we have provided some ideas on publicity for consideration.

Can you provide us with a sample proposal?

Yes. There is a sample proposal available from the announcement page. If you still have questions, please e-mail Nancy Melley, Director for Technology Initiatives, at with a few details about the project you are considering; we may have other sample proposals that you would find more helpful.

We wish to submit a draft for review by NHPRC program staff. How should we do this?

Please submit drafts by the draft deadline listed in the grant announcement to Nancy Melley, Director for Technology Initiatives, at Do not use to submit the draft. At a minimum, the draft should include a project narrative and a budget. The narrative should be in .pdf or .doc format. The budget should be completed on the federal budget form found at

When will I receive feedback about my draft?

Drafts are read in the order in which they are received. Depending on the number of drafts received, prospective applicants should receive feedback within three weeks of submission.

My state does not have an active State Historical Records Advisory Board (SHRAB). Can my institution apply for this grant?

Yes. If your institution is part of the state government, however, NHPRC cannot award funds to your institution until your SHRAB is reinstated.

Should I contact my State Historical Records Advisory Board (SHRAB)?

Yes. You should communicate as early as possible with the SHRAB coordinator for your state about your intention to apply. For contact information please visit

How does the review process work?

Applications are reviewed by the applicant's respective SHRAB, a selection of four to six professional peers, and the NHPRC staff. Applicants will receive an opportunity to respond to the reviews. Based on this information, the Commission makes its final award recommendations to the Archivist of the United States at its late spring meeting.

May we contribute existing staff and paid intern time as cost share for the project?

Yes. Make sure that your application justifies the use of existing personnel resources as cost share. Since permanent, full-time staff have other day-to-day responsibilities, successful proposals rarely assume that existing staff will work more than 50% time on a grant-funded project.

May we contribute volunteer time as cost share for the project?

A reasonable charge for volunteers, including advisory boards, may be included as cost share. For volunteers who are working in the equivalent of hourly positions, their wages should be set according to the norms for people in similar paid positions. For consultants who are volunteering their time, the same reasonable principle applies. In all cases, just as with existing paid staff, volunteer contributions must be fully documented and justified during the course of a project.

May we request grant funds for indirect costs?

The NHPRC prefers that its limited funds be used for direct project costs and that applicants include indirect costs as a part of their cost share to the project [Please see 36 CFR 1206.50 (b) (3)].