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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

A Wartime Paper Journey

Throughout the Second World War, rationing became an integral part of British society. Unknown to most, paper rationing had a significant impact on the manufacturing of the WVS Narrative Reports. As I hope to illustrate this week the differences, in the layout and quality of the paper they were written on between 1939 and 1941, are particularly stark.

Above is one of the WVS's earliest reports from Middlesbrough written in November 1938. Interestingly, the original orientation of a WVS Narrative Report was landscape unlike the familiar portrait reports of later years. Under  imperial paper sizes, an original report was classified as foolscap as it measured 13 x 8 inches. The weight and quality of this pre-war paper is also particularly noteworthy as it retains an almost card-like feel compared to later reports.

Looking at this 1939 report above, it is clearly apparent that the layout and quality of the Narrative Report has changed. After its inception in May 1938, the WVS became increasingly prominent in society. The design of the Narrative Reports’ reflect this change as they start to look more official from this year onwards. Due to the outbreak of war, the paper quality of the diaries also begins to decline from around September. As a result, the majority of reports from 1939 have significant differences in paper quality.

1940 brought the introduction of the portrait report. It is clear to see that the WVS has established itself as a formidable organisation, as the top of the report  contained a list of set criteria to help the Centre Organiser write her account. As the WVS were the masters of make do and mend, the new portrait reports returned to the high quality paper of 1938. Whilst we are unsure exactly why this is, it is suspected that the WVS started producing the reports themselves as opposed to outsourcing the printing. With Lady Reading at the helm, it is almost unsurprising that they returned to paper of substantial quality.

1941 marks the most important transition for the design and feel of an original WVS Narrative Report. The organisation continues with the foolscap portrait design until September of that year. After this, the WVS moved to a smaller quarto sized document (10 x 8 inches) that was produced out of thin, poorer quality repulped wartime paper. Naturally, the main reason behind this decision was to ensure that more paper could be produced nationally by trading off the quality of the material. Somewhat ironically, these later reports are substantially more fragile than their earlier counterparts.

Despite this, their stories are of equal significance. To make sure of this, a lot of WVS Centre Organisers were much more inclined to write on the back of the document to ensure everything had been recorded.

After 1941, the quality of the paper remained unchanged until the end of the war. Occasionally however, you do see an original design pop up in later years. The ideas of salvage and recycling were of course still at the back of members minds. I hope you have enjoyed this short Journey through wartime paper and for more stories from the Narrative Reports you can visit and search Archive Online.

Posted by Jacob Bullus, Archives Assistant (Digitisation) at 09:00 Monday, 28 August 2017.

Labels: WVS, Narrative Report, World War II, Paper

Navigating through the Narrative Reports

As already discussed in a previous blog, Updating the online catalogue, we have just released the digitised copies of the diaries (1938-1942) from the Hidden Histories of a Million Wartime Women project collectively known as the Narrative Reports. To ensure that everybody has the opportunity to read them, this trusty guide should hopefully help you navigate your way through the thousands of diaries that are available to read online. Before discovering this endless historical source, I advise topping up the midnight oil!

The first stage is to go to the Archive Online page. I would then suggest clicking on Advanced Search as this will help you find your area of interest a lot easier. Due to the geographical nature of the collection, the easiest way to find a diary that will interest you is to search for a town, city or county. Enter your chosen area into the keyword(s) section, (Bath, for example) and then select Narrative Report from the drop down menu in the category section. After clicking search at the bottom of the page your choice of centre should hopefully appear.



If your centre of choice does appear in the search result, it will be listed chronologically. It is important to remember that not all centres were established in 1938, so some places may not have records from the earliest years. Nevertheless, click on your chosen year of preference (I am sure you will end up reading every year anyway) and scroll down to the section named Media Download.

This is where you will find the wonderful stories of the WVS. Simply click on the PDF link and a document containing all the reports for that year will be available to read as many times as you like. Each report has been individually photographed and cropped using our editing software to ensure that you get the best reading experience. I hope that this guide will help you navigate through the abundant memories of the WVS. If you are experiencing any problems or you are have difficulty accessing the Narrative Reports, please contact our enquiry service. We are only too happy to help you read though this unique collection of stories and volunteer experiences.

To help encourage you to start perusing the wealth of the Narrative Reports, here is an interesting little snippet describing the instructions for air raid precautions from a local Housewives’ Section meeting that took place in the city of Bath on 13th July 1942.



Posted by Jacob Bullus. Archives Assistant at 09:00 Monday, 31 July 2017.

Labels: Narrative Report, Bath, WVS, Archive Online

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

The WVS of Wimbledon are we – Part I

Two years ago I wrote a blog (WVS/WRVS Serves at Wimbledon) looking at our association with the Wimbledon Tennis Championship and the eventful two weeks between 1947 and 2004 when a number of volunteers ran information desks. So the other day I was wondering what were the WVS doing in Wimbledon before they got involved in Tennis.

We actually know very little about the WVS in Wimbledon during the War, unfortunately none of their Narrative Reports survived from 1938-1947 but there are two articles written in the Bulletin Magazine in 1942 and 1942. One of them tells us that on 11th October 1942 there was an invasion defence exercise involving the Housewives Service, the Centre Organiser and WVS post leaders who controlled the Street Leaders. The exercise assumed that the South East of England had been invaded and the WVS were involved in caring for the wounded and evacuating people from their homes. You can read the full article here.

Another source of information is the statistic books for 1943-1945 they tell us the services WVS were involved in in those years Wimbledon ran the following services: ·        

  • Under 5’s Nurseries        
  • Clothing
  • Housewives         
  • Civil Defence Canteens         
  • Work for HM Forces         
  • Hospital Services        
  • Work Parties         
  • Transport     
  • Salvage
  • National Savings 

Back to the Bulletin, which reported that in February 1945 Wimbledon was adopted by Leicestershire as part of the Re-homing Gift Scheme. Donated items collected by volunteers in Leicestershire were sent to Wimbledon, where they were distributed by WVS to those setting up new homes after they had been bombed out in flying bomb attacks. In June 1945 the WVS of Leicester County Borough sent Wimbledon 16 1/2 tons of household goods including over 60 chairs which had been re-seated by the Institute for the Blind.

Next week we look at what the volunteers of Wimbledon did after the War

Posted by Jennifer Hunt, Deputy Archivist at 09:00 Monday, 27 June 2016.

Labels: WVS, Wimbledon, HouseWives, Re-homing gift scheme, Bulletin, Narrative Report