Digitising Minute Books
| | Duncan Lord

Digitising Minute Books: Preserving the Past and Saving Historical Records

Meeting minute books are a fundamental part of any organisation’s history. They often serve as the only formal records that narrate the story of decisions, actions, and discussions spanning years, emphasizing the importance of digitising minute books.

They are crucial for maintaining transparency, accountability, and historical continuity. Without proper preservation, these collections risk being lost forever.

However, as we look at minute books from the early 1900s to the late 1990s, we encounter a unique set of challenges in preserving them. Traditional handwritten notes in large ledger-like books, known as “minute books,” present a daunting task when it comes to storage, accessibility, and preservation, particularly in Australia’s harsh climate conditions.

In this article, we explore the journey of a local Queensland council that decided to take a bold step in preserving these vital documents through digitisation.

 

The motivation for digitising

The council understood that the need to preserve these valuable meeting minute books for future generations was paramount. The council’s journey into digitising minute books was driven by several factors, but one series of unfortunate events was really the catalyst that drove the council to look for a digitising solution.

In the late 2000s, a number of councils across Queensland were amalgamated. During this time, three particular councils in the South East of Queensland were brought together to form one council.

As a result, the minute books from these three councils needed to be collected and all stored in one facility together. They found an entirely new location that was large enough to accommodate the plethora of minute books that were now sitting under one council’s ownership.

To ensure the longevity of the meeting minutes, the council had a specialist come in and assess the space, ensuring that humidity was within the 45% to 55% range, and it was adequately ventilated. For many years, these minute books were kept in pristine condition.

However, due to an equipment failure that was irreparable, another new location needed to be sought out for storage. Once again, a suitable venue was found, shelving was installed and the minute books were transferred to the new facility. Disaster struck yet again, after a few years, when the air conditioning unit failed, resulting in a huge mold outbreak in the facility.

In an effort to recover the precious minute books, the council sought professional services to decontaminate the records, page by page, which was an arduous and costly process.

The council experienced first hand the potential for environmental damage during the mold outbreak, and the final decision for digitising minute books came from the acknowledgment that physical minute books were at risk. This underscored the importance of transitioning to a digital preservation strategy, in order to protect against future disasters.

 

Why scanning was the preferred preservation method

Among various preservation methods, scanning emerged as the most suitable choice for the team. Scanning offered a practical solution to the challenges posed by this media type. It allowed for the transformation of physical meeting minutes into digital, searchable PDF files, making them easily accessible now and into the future.

Another significant motivator for digitisation was the council’s interaction with Queensland State Archives (QSA). QSA not only plays a pivotal role in determining which records need to be classified as “protected records”, but their archival intakes of Council Minute books for permanent storage are only periodical.

QSA follows a structured process where Minute books are accepted during specific intake periods. However, for agencies, getting their collections accepted during these intake periods can be a complex task. This is because Government agencies across Queensland vie for the opportunity for QSA to preserve their historical documents.

The council’s preservation strategy involved a gradual transfer of minute books. When one series of minute books had been digitised, they would immediately begin the process of aligning with QSA’s intake periods. This approach elongated the engagement timeframe and allowed them to be well-prepared and organised for the transfer.  This meant the Council was ready when the short window of opportunity presented itself.

 

The importance of digitising

Digitising minute books offered flexibility and budget-friendly solutions that aligned with the council’s needs and resources, removing the anxiety associated with an already busy workforce with a large scale project all up front. The digitising process was planned out in a structured way, ensuring a smooth transition from physical to digital across the entire collection.

Through scanning to PDF files in a QSA compliant way, the historical collection was able to be ingested into QSA’s electronic storage facility. QSA actively promotes digitisation and provides agencies with guidelines to make this process efficient. By digitising minute books, the council transformed the way these records are accessed and utilised. Here are some of the key advantages they realised through scanning:

Accessibility

Digitising minute books enable them to be easily accessible through the QSA’s online portal. This means that, council members, staff, and the public can access the minutes from anywhere, at any time. This improves transparency and allows for more informed decision-making.

Searchability

Digitised minute books are published as searchable PDFs, making it easier to find specific information within minutes. This saves time and effort compared to manually searching through physical books.

Preservation

Scanning ensures the long-term preservation of council meeting minute books. Digital copies can be stored securely and backed up to prevent loss or damage. This guarantees that the collections will be available for future reference.

Efficiency

Digitised minute books eliminate the need for physical handling and manual transcription. This saves time and resources, allowing council members and staff to focus on more important tasks.

Collaboration

Digital copies of council meeting minutes can be easily shared and used collaboratively, by authorised parties. This promotes efficient communication and collaboration among council members and staff.

 

The council’s decision in digitising minute books demonstrates their commitment to preserving their history and ensuring the accessibility of important records. The Council leaned upon Avantix expertise in digitisation technology to provide guidance to scan bound books on a large scale and create high quality, compliant searchable PDF files.

Digitising minute books not only safeguards against potential disasters, but also makes historical information readily available to those who seek it. As councils continue to grapple with the challenges of preserving their history, digitisation remains a practical and essential solution for safeguarding vital records.