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A Year in Archives: my experience of the pros and cons of digitisation

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.

Posted by Jacob Bullus Archives Assistant (Digitisation) at 09:00 Monday, 08 January 2018.

Labels: Digitisation, preservation, access, Kickstarter, WVS, Narrative Report

Digitising: it is not simply pushing a button on a scanner or camera

Today is VE day, it was the day marked to celebrate the end of war in Europe in 1945. It is also a year since we launched our Kickstarter project Hidden histories of a million women wartime women; women who contributed to victory. After 30 days of continuous campaigning we successful funded the project and then the hard work began to digitise 30,000 precious pieces of paper. In this week’s blog we are going to look at how the Narrative Reports which tell the WVS’s story are being digitised, preserved and made ready for online access later this summer.

Firstly we had to choose how we were going to digitise as the decision was to do this in-house it was between a flatbed scanner or a digital camera. We decided on the Cannon EOS 700D with lights to help balance the colour and image quality. A camera stand was then mounted to the wall so the camera could be level and take an aerial view image of each document. The camera settings were decided on to create the best quality images and are as follows:

a. ISO to 200

b. F Stop to F.8

c. Shutter Speed to 1/80

The camera is connected to the PC and the images once captured (yes ok this bit involves pressing a button) sent to Lightroom where they can be edited, usually rotation and cropping. This is stage one of the digitisation process and once a Region has been completed, you can find out more about the admin history on our fact sheets page, they are transferred for storage to our server. As you may or may not know Tiff is the archival standard for images but it does take up an awful lot of space and several separate images, 112 in one case for one centre! Thus we have to consider what would be the most space saving, safe and easily accessible format to upload the Narrative Reports online. In this case we have used pdf; this format is open source, saves space, easily manageable as a preservation copy (for now) and archival standard.

When creating the pdf the images are first water marked like our Heritage Bulletin pages as you can see in the image on the left. They are also resized based on one side to exactly 2500 pixels. Once this stage is completed the reports for each centre for a particular year are converted into PDF documents which are 150dpi and Greyscale but perfectly readable and easier to open than a 200 MB document. They will be added to a multimedia field in CALM and then uploaded to the online catalogue, a red pdf icon will denote if a document is available for download.

The Narrative Reports digitised as part of the project will be uploaded and made available online in the near future. Keep up to date by watching this space, visiting our Kickstarter page, liking us on Facebook and/or following us on Twitter.

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 08 May 2017.

Labels: Kickstarter, Digitisation, VE Day, WVS, Narrative Report, Camera

Use your imagination and your vision


We fast approach the end of another year, a year which has been one of success for the Archive. As many of our readers would have witnessed we heavily promoted our Kickstarter Campaign Hidden histories of a million wartime women in May. With the help of 705 backers £27,724 was raised to digitise the many stories written by volunteers over 70 years ago in the form of Narrative Reports. The process has now begun to bring these stories to you and you can keep up to date with the project by following our Facebook and Twitter pages, joining our heritage bulletin mailing list or regularly visiting our Kickstarter page for the Friday update.
 
Our final blog for the year comes from part of Lady Reading’s Christmas Message written in 1955; I believe it highlights how important it is for us not to forget the past, how we need to be practical in going forward and relates to sharing hidden histories. I hope you enjoy.

Lady Reading's Christmas Message to WVS 1955

“As one Christmas follows another, it is ever more difficult to find the right present to send to you, and so, I send this year, the means, hidden and unsuspected, of gauging, watching and guarding the precious thing which is in your keeping.

I believe that we, workers in Voluntary Service, are today enjoying the endowment bestowed on us by the previous generations, enriched by their outlook and strengthened by their experience. And I want to ask you whether you will, this Christmastide, pause and examine this thing we call Voluntary Service, for it is ours to enhance during the time it is in our keeping, and it is for us to hand on in perfect and ever better shape.

We live in an age where allegory and parable appear to be out of date, but, to my mind, they are not only the best way of teaching but, for oneself, they offer an infinite joy in the companionship of one's own mind. And so I hand into your possession the power with which to examine this thing that is in your trust, charging you to use your imagination and your vision to appraise it, to weigh it, and, above all, to treasure it.”

It’s the Job that Counts Vol II

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 26 December 2016.

Labels: Lady Reading, WRVS, Imagination, Kickstarter, Hidden History, Million Women

The Faithfulness of the Many

Our founder Lady Reading was, to be blunt, a force of nature, who could be both the kindest and the fiercest person one could know. To her friends she was charming, delightful and funny, to her enemies she was to be feared. She was always insightful and rarely tolerant of fools and bureaucracy. Our collection has thousands of her letters and writings all preserved for posterity, mostly as copy letters, which simply bear her squiggle of approval in blue fountain pen.

One of the volunteers came across one such letter of frustration this morning from 1967 and I thought I would share it with you (suitably anonymised).

“I am full of righteous indignation and do feel that it is maddening in the way everything is always stymied by someone inventing some reason why it can’t be done, except their own way. I can’t tell you how many letters I have written, … but each one passes the buck to the next one in such a sanctimonious way that I could shake them all.”

When Lady Reading became the first women to take her seat in the House of Lords as Baroness Swanborough her coat of arms bore the motto

“Not why we can’t but how we can”

She was also extremely modest about her contribution, saying that it was the million women members, and not her that did all the work. Without her leadership and stubborn determination the WVS would certainly not have existed or prospered for so long; but she was right, that the heart and strength of WVS was not individuals or personalities, but the collective often anonymous work of ordinary women.

“WVS was made, not by the genius of the one, but by the faithfulness of the many.”

There are only 24 hours until our Kickstarter project finishes, and through the faithfulness of almost 700 people and a 'how we can' attitude we have reached and surpassed our target of £25,000. We are going to be able to bring into the light the first three years of the WVS’s hidden history from 1938-1941 and with an extra push we can make even more available.

If you haven’t pledged already please join in, for every pound we raise we can bring another page to light.

Posted by Matthew McMurray - Royal Voluntary Service Archivist at 00:00 Monday, 06 June 2016.

Labels: faithfulness, Kickstarter, personalities, individuals, WVS, Lady Reading