I have now spent just over 14 months digitising the Hidden histories of a million war time women contained in the WVS Narrative Reports written between 1938 and 1944 (currently more than half way through 1945). It has been a really enjoyable experience and has helped to preserve these invaluable records while making them more accessible. In this week’s blog I would like to reflect on the pros and cons of carrying out a digitisation project in relation to my work here as Archives Assistant.
Digitisation can theoretically improve the life span of a document due to the reduction of manual handling. By making a document of certain significance to be viewed through an online catalogue, the physical copy can return to being untouched and potentially spoilt. However, it is actually the digitised copy that is the most fragile of all. It is far easier to place a piece of paper in a suitable box for three hundred years than to deal with a long-term solution for digital storage. For example, data is kept on mechanical drives that live on servers. After an extended period of time, those drives will fail. This means that for long-term digital storage to be continuously available for everyone, data constantly needs to be backed up. Similarly, the data also needs to have duplicate copies and ideally have a safe home off-site in case of a crash or fire. It is widely known that for something to exist digitally, it must be backed up at least three time. We have used archival standard formats such as TIFF and PDF to ensure that the digitised reports are preserved for as long as possible. As well as helping to preserve the original documents with digital copies I have also assisted with improving online access to the collection.
Digitisation is also an excellent method of showcasing the prestigious wealth of material that exists within many boxes on the shelves of an archive’s storeroom. This is largely beneficial for everybody involved as it can make the archive much more accessible. The Narrative Reports have been hidden away from view for a long period of time and everybody can now enjoy looking at them for free online. Digitisation may be viewed as a short-term solution to engage the wider populace with the material, but it is actually as long-term as the box at the back of the storeroom. It is essential however, that the importance of the physical collection is never undermined by its digital counterpart. For example, the same piece of paper can be digitised three times in one hundred years, but it can never be photographed again if the original is lost forever. Although it is brilliant that we have improved preservation and access to the collection we have had to think about other aspects of digitisation including cost.
As with any digitisation project time and money has had to be spent on the Hidden histories of a million war time women. It can be quite financially challenging to implement into the day to day running of an archive, but digitisation grants are becoming increasingly available. However crowdfunding such as Kickstarter can provide archives with the financial support they need to purchase equipment and employ additional staff. I have been employed as a full time member of staff that focuses primarily on photographing and editing the Narrative Reports. There are also a number of companies which can take on digitisation work for archives. However the project has involved preparation work and a number a checks to the catalogue records when attaching documents to CALM which would have still been done in house.
While carrying out the project as well as making it easier for the Archivist and Deputy Archivist to answer enquires, since July 2017 they have not had to move from their desks when looking for local information from the period 1938-1943, I have also been able to help them in ways they did not foresee. Digitising the reports has enabled me to spend time amending any mistakes to the packaging of our original copies due to the digitisation process. This may include finding a report with the incorrect year or location. After these mistakes were corrected, it has actually improved the overall accuracy of the collection, which can only be a good thing.
Overall there are three main aspects to consider the pros and cons of when digitising archival material; these are preservation, access and cost. You may also as I did come across some added bonuses like improving the overall accuracy of your collection. In this week’s blog I have provided a balanced view but I would argue that digitisation is a wonderful method of opening up a particular part of an archival collection. Obtaining access to all things via the internet has become a progressively important part of society and if financially viable, archival digitisation has become an efficient method of improving accessibility.