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It’s another of those
famous lines from a Sherlock Holmes story “Data! data! data!" he cried
impatiently. "I can't make bricks without clay.” (The Adventure of the
Copper Beeches) but it can be applied to many areas including archival practice
particularly digitisation. Archives @PAMA recently covered the topic of digitisation
in their blog Why Don’t Archivists Digitise Everything? Part of their argument covered Meta Data and how
important it was to give archives context before digitisation. This has
inspired us, in this week’s blog I would like to look more at the importance of
cataloguing records before digitising them in relation to the Royal Voluntary
Service Archive and Heritage Collection.
What is cataloguing?
Cataloguing is the
process of creating a formal description of records held within an archival
collection. This is based on a hierarchical structure showing where Items,
files and series best fit within a collection and describes details such as the
content, context, admin and custodial history, date and access details.
Cataloguing records can help to make collections more accessible with details
and keywords which help researchers find what they are looking for and link
different records together on the same topics. If you would like to know more
about Archival description why not read Organising Archive material HeritageBulletin Volume 6.
Why is it important for digitisation?
important to digitisation because it turns a single item on its own which may
not tell us much about the activities of an organisation into a record which
has context, a history of its own and links it to the rest of the collection.
For example when cataloguing photographs, publications or posters if there are similar
items or a series relating to each other we record their references in the
Related Material Field. This helps lead researchers in looking at all the
material available on a chosen topic. Recording this data before digitising
records also gives the archivists the opportunity to assess the preservation needs
of the material and repackage it into archival standard folders, boxes, papers
etc.. It also allows of consultation on the need to digitise material and if digitised
material could be published online depending on condition, content and
copyright. This work can be very important in terms of preservation and access.
Our Collections and how cataloguing has helped make them more
parts of the Archive & Heritage Collection has allowed us to publish the catalogue records online for people to search for themselves. This work has
given the team a greater knowledge of what materials are held in the collection
and led in some case to digitisation.
Photographs and Posters
The Archive has been
focusing on cataloguing and digitising records since 2010 and started with a
collection of publicity photographs. Creating detailed descriptions of
photographs allows researchers to find photographs easily and quickly by
searching key words. Cataloguing also allows the Charity to record useful data
about copyright holders and to distinguish which images can be used in
promoting its rich history and heritage in many of the services it provides
today. The Poster collection was catalogued and digitised in 2012 which has
provided the same advantages as the photographs.
WVS/WRVS Bulletin/Magazine and WRVSAssociation
Over the years Royal
Voluntary Service has produced a number of publications including magazines
containing news stories and information about its activities and that of the
Association (1971-2013). Using the description field on our catalogue to its
advantage and OCR software we were able to record all the information in each WVS/WRVS
Bulletin/Magazine and WRVS Association Newsletters and make it searchable. Being
able to do such a specific search can save time in trying to find articles
covering particular services or activities. Recording months and dates also allows
us to pin point key dates such as the first Trolley shop or mobile canteen.
Between March 2012
and March 2014 we catalogued all the Narrative Reports held in the collection
which were written between 1938 and 1965. The information recorded included the
areas the reports were from and this work enabled the archive to develop the
Kickstarter Project Hidden histories of a million wartime women. The £27,724
raised via the crowdfunding site meant we could digitise all the reports
written between 1938 and 1945 and publish them online. This allows more people
access to these hugely important documents and it all started with a
The items mentioned
above are also very fragile and cataloguing means we can pinpoint the exact
records we are looking for without rifling through a number of documents before
finding the correct information. Digitisation which leads on from this helps us further in preserving fragile items
as digital images are used as preservation copies for research meaning we
reduce handling the original. Cataloguing also assist with the creation of
finding aids such as the Guide to Archive Online; using data and description
fields from the catalogue means we can assist researchers in their search for
more knowledge about WVS/WRVS.
I have not included
Voice of Volunteering Oral Histories in this week’s Blog as they are born
digital records and in a future blog we’ll look at the difference between
digitisation and born digital.
Cataloguing is the
process of creating a formal description of records held within an archival
collection. It is important to create these records before digitising to
provide context and allow archivists to assess the need for the material to be
digitised. Working on a project to both catalogue and digitise material can
also help with preservation and digitisation which are very important activities
in archives. Since 2010 Royal Voluntary Service has been working to catalogue
its collection which as a result has led to some interesting digitisation
projects including photographs, Narrative Reports and publications. However
without the first stage of creating information about the these records this
work could not have been carried out.
Or even the fifteenth
century if you count the commonplace book which emerged as a way to compile
information such as sketches, poems, documents, recipes, etc. sound familiar?
Pinterest is a web and mobile app, founded in 2009, to
enable people to find and collect ideas on various topics. Royal Voluntary
Service has its own boards including preserve and bread making and you can find
and pin many posts about WVS or WRVS on the site. However this blog isn’t about
our history or records on Pinterest; it’s once again time to think what did we
do before the internet. How did we collect memories, images and news stories to
inspire others and create a record of our own interests? We created scrapbooks
is a method for preserving, presenting and arranging personal and family
history in the form of a book. Typical memorabilia includes photographs,
printed media, and artwork. In the twentieth century WVS/WRVS centres and
services made scrapbooks to record their work in a more personal and less
official way than the Narrative Report they produced monthly. Of course some of
these have made their way to the Archive shelves included in local office
collections or as personal donations to the collection. Like any other
traditional archive item they need to be preserved but also made accessible
here are some of the issues faced by archivists when caring for scrapbooks.
One of the major issues we face is how to preserve scrapbooks
which have usually been created using the enemies of the archivists; glue,
sellotape and paper full of acid I could go on but there isn’t enough
time. The major issue when preserving a
scrapbook is its condition. When it has just arrived in your collection you
look inside and some things have come loose. You have to think about how you
put it back/mark where it originally belonged; perhaps some corn starch glue of
a paper clip but it must be reversible. The book itself may also be fragile and
you should handle it carefully proper storage can help with this acid free
paper, folders and boxes can be a good start. The condition of scrapbooks may
also deteriorate where it contains materials which can cause damage in the
future, there are conservation treatments available however in terms of
preservation we must constantly monitor the condition of our archives. We do a
very good job here at Royal Voluntary Service the memories of service users and
volunteers carefully preserved. Today being an archivist appears to be like standing
in the middle of a seesaw and trying to balance it perfectly on one side sits preservation,
on the other access.
Scrapbooks are a unique way for showing current and future
generations the ideas and activities of people in the past while Pinterest
boards and digital scrapbooks are easily accessible (for the moment) archived physical
scrapbooks often sit on shelves and access means visiting the archive. You may
ask why don’t we just catalogue and digitise these collections however there is
a major issue here, copyright.
Scrapbooks are often compiled using many different sources
of course the creator but then they may have used newspaper articles,
publications and other documents whose copyright belongs to someone else so
before they can be made publically accessible in a digital format we’d need to
gain permission from several different people. Here many of our scrapbooks
contents will still be in copyright because are collection is a very modern one
(in terms of history). This isn’t the only barrier there is also the question
of how this would be hosted and maintained as some digital formats become
obsolete but of course were archivists I’m sure we could find a solution.
Perhaps a national project called save our scrapbooks (inspired by save our
sounds of course) a campaign to preserve these unique insights into history and
make them more accessible.
Obviously all traditional archives have similar issues which
we have to apply expertise to. As archivists we preserve scrapbooks in our
collection and find ways to allow the public access to them. However In the
twenty-first century we must also ask how we do this and do we need to start
focusing digital equivalents such as Pinterest or even people’s own artwork on
their home computers? But this is a blog for another day.
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.
There appears to be a growing trend of debate on twitter; It’s
usually an hour during the day where like minded people discuss a topic using
#somethinghour. Now Archives appear to have jumped on the bandwagon with
#archivehour (not that jumping on the bandwagon is a bad thing). Unfortunately I
was unable to take part in the first #archivehour on 26th October as
I was in Russia. However the intriguing topic hosted by @ARAScotland was
digital preservation. One question posed was:
I would now like to answer this question from the perspective
of Royal Voluntary Service Archive and Heritage Collection’s digitisation
Over the years we have had a few digitisation projects including
the Bulletins, Narrative Reports, photographs, posters and now the publications
(more on that in a later blog). One reason for these projects was to provide
online access to our records as we cannot currently provide physical access to
the collection. Another reason was the general preservation of the physical
document, not the digital reproduction. Digitising means less handling of
fragile items and keeps them in the ideal environment rather than constant temperature
changes as they move from store to search room. This is digitisation providing access
to analogue/traditional archives to help preserve the originals. Therefore
digitisation is not digital preservation but preservation in its wider sense,
for Royal Voluntary Service digital preservation applies to its born digital
Interestingly we have very few born digital archives, a lot
of our records are still produced in a physical format. However we do have a
set of born digital records which have been mentioned several times; the Voicesof Volunteering Oral Histories and their transcript/summary sheets. The oral
histories were recorded as WAV the transcripts and summary sheets were typed as word
documents. Over time we will need to monitor how these records are kept the
word documents have already been converted to pdfs. An open source document
which follows archive standards of digital preservation and allows easy access,
they have at least three backups each. The WAV files are already at an archival
standard for audio records however the file format makes them two large for
access purposes we have created MP3 versions for Archive Online. Over time we
will need to make sure these files don’t become obsolete, corrupt or suffer
from bitrot as well as making sure they are not accidently deleted. This is
digital preservation protecting born digital documents from many dangers and
keeping them accessible for future generations.
In conclusion digitisation programmes are not digital
preservation because they are about access to original documents and digital preservation
is about protecting born digital records from destruction once they have made
their way to the archive. I am sure at some point someone will raise the
question is a digitised copy of a traditional archive a born digital record
i.e. an archive/document in its own right and therefore keeping it a case for
digital preservation. However I don’t have enough words in the blog to look at
this now it is a discussion for another day.
(or an archivist by any other name would still be an
Very recently there has been a lot of discussion about what
an archivist is and how they identify themselves within the world of heritage
and history. The most recent term to be used is the Hybrid Archivist. They are defined as an archivist who manages
hybrid collections (mix of analogue and digital) but also bring traditional and
new skills together, but isn’t this what every archivist has been doing, even
since Jenkinson and Schellenberg’s time?
The rapid changes in technology, culture and society through
the twentieth and twenty-first Centuries have meant archivists have had to
adapt new ways to conserve archives such as film, cassette tapes, CDs and
photographs. Looking after a collection does not just mean preserving it archivists
should have IT, communication, volunteer management and social media experience
to name a few examples. Thus again I will point out that archivists should be
whatever their collections need them to be to balance preservation and access. They
should not be trying to identify themselves to fit with new terms or
Here at the Royal Voluntary Service we use a range of skills
every day for example this was all the different tasks we completed last Monday.
08:00 – arrived at the archive on foot, I could not be
bothered to get the bicycle out of the shed. Checked emails for enquiries had
none and proceed to start my “favourite” job labelling. Our Archives Assistant
also arrives and sets up the digitisation equipment to begin photographing more
Narrative Reports written between 1943 and 1945.
09:00 – first volunteers arrive one is working on sorting a
photograph collection, the other is writing a blog we have a quick discussion
about this and other jobs which can be done today.
10:30 – the blog is finished and ready to be posted, my
labelling is abandoned for a while I lay this up, post it online, send out
update to mailing lists and prepare social media posts. In this time two more
volunteers have arrived they are repackaging and have a question about the
reference for Radnorshire it is RAD.
11:00 – discussion with volunteer who is working on a local
office collection about how to create labels for the boxes. Also talk about Continue
with my own labelling. Man arrives to check the fire alarms.
12:00 - an enquiry has arrived as I have chosen to answer
any enquiries today I work on this. The enquirer wants to know if we have any
images for Carshalton WVS making Chess Pieces out of Cotton reels in World War
II we do, which is a nice surprise and I ask them to fill in a copyright form.
Also help volunteer who is working on the photograph collection to identify
what is happening in each image and where they belong in the collection.
1:00 – Lunch time conversation turns to The Silk Worm and
Strictly Come Dancing
2:00 – back to work on the labelling for the afternoon as well as the odd administrative task.
"The archivist is dead long live the archivist"
Last week I attended my first
Archives and Records Association (ARA) Conference in Manchester, where the main
theme appeared to be how we identify ourselves as Archivists and how the heritage
sector is changing. Ideas ranged from the definition of appraisal, search room experience,
community engagement and skills. However the main topic of discussion was the
role of the Archivist.
There appeared to be a move away
from the traditional archivist protector of records and preserver of history
with a set of core skills which stood them apart from the museum curator. In their
place stands the postmodern archivist who is all things to all men, a heritage professional,
throwing open the doors of the archive, engaging with the community and letting
go of their control. By this they mean allowing others use the archive how they
want and not be told how it should be used or how they can access it.
Looking into the theory is all
well and good but what about the practicalities of being an archivist, how are
these ideas applied.
Let’s put this into the context
of the Royal Voluntary Service Archive & Heritage Collection and a more practical
definition of an archivist. In my career I have worn a few different guises as
a cataloguing coordinator, project archivist and deputy archivist and have
moved from traditional to sort of post-modern to somewhere in-between. Most of
what was said at conference applied to local record offices who are becoming
destinations for tourists like museums and facing different situations to a
Here the role of an archivist is
to preserve the history of the WVS, WRVS and Royal Voluntary Service and to
make sure it is accessible now and in the future through cataloguing,
digitisation, and a remote enquiry service and through working with colleagues
managing our services. The Archivists are also there to support the work of the
charity. It is not yet time for us to let go but we can still be innovative e.g.
Voices of Volunteering and Hidden history of a million wartime women. These
were projects which came from and where directed by the archives but upheld the
values of the postmodern archivist and did them well; including community
engagement (local, national, global) and providing access to records and
information about the charity. We also hold what might be deemed a museum
collection of objects and uniform but we care for them as archivists. We don’t
yet have exhibition space to display these items but make them accessible
through remote outreach such as our timeline. In this archive we are a mix of
the two perhaps we should be called revisionist archivists not quite in the
time of Jenkinson but pragmatic enough to change and develop when necessary. Essentially
we don’t prioritise preservation or access but try to balance them out.
As with many things there is no definite
definition of an archivist because it depends on many factors including where you
work and the collections you work with. The Archivist is whoever we or our
collections need us to be.