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Posts Tagged ‘digitisation’

Digital Connections: new methodologies for British history, 1500-1900

I spent an enjoyable afternoon yesterday (a distinct contrast, I might add, to the rest of my day, but that is another story) at the Digital Connections workshop at the Institute of Historical Research in London, which introduced two new resources for historical research: the federated search facility, Connected Histories, and the Mapping Crime project to link crime-related documents in the John Johnson collection of ephemera at the Bodleian Library in Oxford to related external resources.

After a welcome from Jane Winters, Tim Hitchcock kicked off proceedings with an enthusiastic endorsement of Connected Histories and generally of all things digital and history-related in Towards a history lab for the digital past. I guess I fundamentally disagree with the suggestion that concepts of intellectual property might survive unchallenged in some quarters (in fact I think the idea is contradicted by Tim’s comments on the Enlightenment inheritance and the ‘authorship’ silo). But then again, we won’t challenge the paywall by shunning it altogether, and in that sense, Connected Histories’ ‘bridges’ to the commercial digitisation providers are an important step forward.  It will be interesting to see how business models evolve in response – there were indications yesterday that some providers may be considering moves towards offering short-term access passes, like the British Newspapers 1800-1900 at the British Library, where you can purchase a 24 hour or 7 day pass if you do not have an institutional affiliation.  Given the number of north American accents in evidence yesterday afternoon, too, there will be some pressure on online publishers to open up access to their resources to overseas users and beyond UK Higher Education institutions.

For me, the most exciting parts of the talk, and ensuing demonstration-workshop led by Bob Shoemaker, related to the Connected Histories API (which seems to be a little bit of a work-in-progress), which led to an interesting discussion about the technical skills required for contemporary historical research; and the eponymous ‘Connections‘, a facility for saving, annotating and (if desired) publicly sharing Connected Histories search results. The reception in the room was overwhelmingly positive – I’ll be fascinated to see if Connected Histories can succeed where other tools have failed to get academic historians to become more sociable about their research and expertise.  Connected Histories is not, in fact, truly a federated search platform, in that indexes for each participating resource have been re-created by the Connected Histories team, which then link back to the original source.  With the API, this will really open up access to many resources which were designed for human interrogation only, and I am particularly pleased that several commercial providers have been persuaded to sign up to this model.  It does, though, seem to add to the complexity of keeping Connected Histories itself up-to-date: there are plans to crawl contributing websites every 6 months to detect changes required.  This seems to me quite labour intensive, and I wonder how sustainable it will prove to be, particularly as the project team plan to add yet more resources to the site in the coming months and welcome enquiries from potential content providers (with an interesting charging model to cover the costs of including new material).  This September’s updates are planned to include DocumentsOnline from The National Archives, and there were calls from the audience yesterday to include catalogue data from local archives and museums.

Without wishing to come over as dismissive as this possibly sounds, David Tomkins’ talk about the Mapping Crime project was a pretty good illustration of what can be done when you have a generous JISC grant and a very small collection.  Coming from (well, my working background at least) a world of extremely large, poorly documented collections, where no JISC-equivalent funder is available, I was more interested in the generic tools provided for users in the John Johnson collection: permanent URIs for each item, citation download facilities, a personal, hosted user space within the resource, and even a scalable measuring tool for digitised documents.  I wonder why it is taking archival management software developers so long to get round to providing these kinds of tools for users of online archive catalogues? There was also a fascinating expose of broadsheet plagiarism revealed by the digitisation and linking of two sensationalist crime reports which were identical in all details – apart from the dates of publication and the names of those involved.  A wonderful case study in archival authenticity.

David Thomas’ keynote address was an entertaining journey through 13 years of online digitisation effort, via the rather more serious issues of sustainability and democratization of our digital heritage.  His conclusions, that the future of history is about machine-to-machine communication, GIS and spatial data especially, might have come as a surprise to the customary occupants of the IHR’s Common Room, but did come with a warning of the problems attached to the digital revolution from the point of view of ordinary citizens and users: the ‘google issue’ of search results presented out of context; the maze of often complex and difficult-to-interpret online resources; and the question of whether researchers have the technical skills to fully exploit this data in new ways.

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Under the avuncular eye of fellow Pembrokian William Pitt the Younger, I was presented with my Churchill Fellowship Medallion by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall at the City of London Guildhall on Friday 21st May.  Unfortunately, I can’t blog the picture of me receiving my medallion; partly because its locked down by some horrible DRM system, partly because it looks as if my head has been stuck on at the wrong angle.  I also couldn’t find a decent picture of Mr Pitt’s Guildhall monument (slightly naff, it has to be said – with Britannia riding a sea-horse – apparently the design was chosen for its cheapness rather than its artistic merit).  So here instead is a picture of the much nicer Pitt statue at Pembroke, although I have often worried that a toga is really not the best costume for sitting outside on a cold Cambridge day.  No wonder his toes are blue:

;

Pitt the Younger, Pembroke College, Cambridge. Photo by James UK on flickr

I was amused by the text of the inscription¹ at the Guildhall:

HE REPAIRED THE EXHAUSTED REVENUES, HE REVIVED AND INVIGORATED
THE COMMERCE AND PROSPERITY OF THE COUNTRY;
AND HE HAD RE-ESTABLISHED THE PUBLICK CREDIT ON DEEP AND SURE FOUNDATIONS;

Sounds like he’d be a handy chap to have as Prime Minister right now really, although I’m less sure about this part (just about pulls it back in the last line):

HIS INDUSTRY WAS NOT RELAXED BY CONFIDENCE IN HIS GREAT ABILITIES;
HIS INDULGENCE TO OTHERS WAS NOT ABATED BY THE CONSCIOUSNESS 
OF HIS OWN SUPERIORITY;
HIS AMBITION WAS PURE FROM ALL SELFISH MOTIVES;

Joking aside, it was a suitably grand occasion to celebrate the incredible variety of all the recent Churchill Fellowships.  After the award ceremony, 2009 Fellow Michael Kernan sought me out.  Michael is the Honorary Historian and Archivist at the Fire Service College in Gloucestershire, and wanted advice on digital preservation with regard to the Fire Service College’s collection – both for digitised archive documents and born-digital oral histories of firemen’s exeriences of the Blitz.  So further proof, if proof were needed, of the ongoing relevance of the central tenet of my Fellowship – that we need to develop digital preservation solutions which scale down to the local level, as well as scale up to the (inter-)national.

I was able to point Michael towards the work in both digitisation and digital preservation taking place locally to him at Gloucestershire Archives.  This would not have been possible when I first put my Churchill Fellowship application together back in 2007.  Last week I also heard from a colleague at Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archives, where similarly they are now taking some real, practical steps towards addressing digital preservation at a local level.  I would like to think that my Churchill Fellowship has played a small part in encouraging local archivist colleagues in the UK and giving them the confidence to take up the digital archives challenge.

Coincidentally, as I was picking up my Churchill medallion at the Guildhall, Viv Cothey, the developer at Gloucestershire Archives, was speaking at the seminar, ‘Practical Approaches to Electronic Records: the Academy and Beyond‘, organised by Chris Prom and held at the University of Dundee.  I was very sorry indeed to have to miss this event, but fortunately it has been covered in the blogosphere by Sue Donnelly of the LSE Archives and Simon Wilson from the University of Hull, representing another new digital preservation project, AIMS – Born Digital Collections: An Inter-Institutional Model for Stewardship.  Chris Prom will shortly be returning to Illinois at the end of his Fulbright scholarship.  I am sure that the following sentiments were expressed copiously on the day at Dundee, but I would also like to add my own personal vote of thanks to Chris for the huge contribution his project has made over the last year in discovering, developing and disseminating practical digital preservation methods and tools for ‘real’ archivists.  Safe journey home!

Edit: to add a link to Peter Cliff’s presentation from the Dundee seminar on Developing and Implementing Tools to Manage Hybrid Archives (slideshare).

¹ Copyright, apparently, George Canning – why do these people follow me about?

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In my previous post, I’ve recommended working with depositors to explain the issues of digital preservation and to suggest simple steps for creating and curating digital records with a view to their long-term preservability.

I guess it would be correct to say though that many local archives staff do not feel confident in giving such advice. Although many UK local archives have been involved in digitisation programmes, much of this work has been outsourced and the funding has rarely extended to longer-term preservation of the digital assets created. In all likelihood, the most pressing digital preservation issue facing most UK local archive services is in fact an ever-growing output of CDs and DVDs from their own digitisation initiatives.

The NLA’s Digitisation of Heritage Materials training course is designed to help organisations with very limited resources design and run an in-house digitisation programme, using free or inexpensive software and hardware. It will be of interest to many UK local authority archive services for just these reasons. However, because it also covers sustainability issues – image file formats suitable for long-term preservation, data storage and backup, legal issues etc. – the course might equally well serve as an introduction to the digital preservation of images. It even includes some free software.

Well worth a look.

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