Working with non-digital data

Not all research data are digital. Many researchers keep hand-written laboratory notebooks, conduct surveys with paper forms, or collect participant-produced documents. Such data are not kept on a computer at all, and thus present a different set of challenges: as unique objects they are vulnerable to loss, but present fewer concerns about remaining readable.

Storing non-digital data

You should take common sense precautions when storing non-digital data. For example, do not store paper where it may get damp or fade; do not store magnetic tape near a strong magnetic field. Ensure the data are filed according to an agreed system so they may be retrieved easily. If the data are sensitive, ensure they are kept locked in a filing cabinet or safe; at least two people, but only those with rights to read the data, should have the key or combination.

An additional way to protect against loss is to make copies and store them separately. It is usually most efficient to take a digital copy and store it alongside your digital data; see below for guidance on digitisation.

Digitising non-digital data

Anything stored on paper can be scanned fairly easily: for more information, see the Library's guide to scanning with the managed print service. If the data are sensitive, we recommend scanning to USB rather than to your network drive, as this prevents additional copies being made on intermediate systems. You should, however, transfer the data from the USB drive to secure networked storage as soon as possible; then store the USB drive securely until you are ready to ask your IT supporter to perform secure data deletion.

If scanning is impractical, you may be able to take a high quality digital photograph instead. Do ensure that the photo has sufficient contrast and that the details are not obscured by compression artefacts.

Video or audio recordings can easily be turned into digital files, if the full content is important. If only the words are needed, they can be transcribed. Transcription can also make analysis easier and help with anonymisation. You can perform this transcription yourself: the Audio Visual Unit lends out a foot pedal that allows you to navigate easily through an audio file by means of special software, also supplied. Alternatively, you could employ a professional transcription service if you have a lot of recordings to digitise; the Library Research Data Service can provide you with some recommendations.

If you plan to replace your non-digital originals with the digitised versions, you must follow some additional steps. Before you begin, write a procedure that explains both how you will digitise the materials and how you will check the quality of the digital copies. When you perform the digitisation, keep a log of which materials were digitised when, and by whom; similarly, keep a log of which digital copies were checked for quality when, and by whom. This provides an audit trail that can be used to demonstrate the integrity of the digitisation process. This should also give you reassurance that no data will be lost unintentionally when you dispose of the originals.

Finishing with non-digital data

At the end of your project, or after digitising data, you will have to decide whether to dispose of the non-digital originals or archive them. For information on this, see our guide to archiving or disposing of non-digital data.

Further guidance on working with non-digital data

You may find the following guidance useful.