A report from archivist Alison Harvey, who attended Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities (#DCDC19), a collaborative conference series hosted by The National Archives, Research Libraries UK, and Jisc, 12-14 November at Birmingham Conference and Events Centre.
Introducing the Library of Birmingham
This year’s DCDC19 featured the option to attend one of three pre-conference workshops based at different cultural institutions around the city. I have to admit to selecting the one hosted in the Library of Birmingham, based solely on wanting time to explore this impressive building during my stay. It was under construction the last time I’d been in the city, and while I’d seen photos of its modern and stylish design, nothing prepared me for the sheer scale. Inside, the ground floor was vast, bright and airy, stretching away in every direction.
I looked up as I ascended the escalator, eager to see what was coming next, and had a sudden sense of vertigo as I caught a glimpse of the ceiling – nine floors and 200 feet above. I passed through floors dedicated to language learning, small business start ups, and quiet study. Each floor was shielded from the escalators by an inner wall lined with dimly-lit runs of old journals on black bookshelves, decked with twinkling fairy lights.
The higher I climbed, the feel of the space shifted, from airy and modern, to more intimate, magical, and full of possibility. I recognised the same sense of excitement that I’d felt about libraries as a child – a place where I would be left unaccompanied for hours, with the freedom to pick any book I wanted, and travel to imaginary worlds. The final escalator dropped me at the entrance to the archives department. I hesitated, but to my surprise, nobody stopped me for ID or asked me to deposit my bag. The front area is full of general reference works, catalogues, maps, and microfilm, which anyone can use without security checks or restrictions about food and drink, and this phased approach to access made the whole department feel more welcoming.
From here, I took a lift even higher to reach a roof garden that wraps around the building, and offers views of the city stretching for miles. Another trip in the lift took me all the way to the top floor, and the Shakespeare Memorial Library.
This had been carefully dismantled from its former home, and lovingly restored by architects in a specially-designed gold rotunda, topping the library building. The collection itself has outgrown its former accommodation, and the books now held in the oak cabinets are there mainly for decorative purposes alongside interpretation panels. The bulk of the collection is held in environmentally controlled storage back on the archives floor. Nevertheless, the room was busy with international tourists, even on a wet Tuesday morning in November. The Library hosts wine receptions and even has a licence for weddings. By now I was definitely ready to find out more – fortunately it was the subject of that afternoon’s workshop.
Workshop: Speaking of Shakespeare – and the Modern City, Tom Epps, Cultural Partnerships Manager, Library of Birmingham and Ewan Fernie, Director of the ‘Everything to Everybody’ Project, University of Birmingham
The University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council are using a £32,700 Heritage Lottery Fund development grant to prepare a £1 million bid to revive the city’s Shakespeare Memorial Library over the next four years. The oldest and largest Shakespeare collection in any public library, it holds content in 93 different languages: 40,000 volumes, plus production photographs, music scores, production posters, performance programmes and playbills. It holds the only First Folio in the world to be purchased by a public library to support working class education. I found all this astonishing, as I’d never heard of the collection. I soon found out why.
The Library was internationally recognised as the definitive resource for Shakespeare studies until the 1960s, but collection use declined through the 1970s and 80s as council funding shifted to activities considered less ‘elitist’. By 2015, the library had no remaining special collections staff, and only 7 collection items were used all year. All this had remarkable parallels with the fate of the rare book collection formerly held by Cardiff Public Library – very nearly dispersed at auction after decades of neglect, until it was saved for the city by Cardiff University and Welsh Government in 2010. Tom and Ewan explained that the extremely valuable collection was only protected from sale during its decline due to its designated status – an Arts Council scheme which does not extend beyond England.
A lack of staff in recent decades meant that the catalogue, part-typed and part-handwritten, has never made it online. Visitors have to make an appointment to see the catalogue volumes, then another appointment to see collection items. The project team mentioned their concern that the highly specialist bibliographic jargon used in the catalogues is impenetrable to all but academics, and are looking at ways of improving the accessibility of this information.
The ‘Everything to Everybody’ Project seeks to revive awareness of this cultural resource, and ensure its accessibility and relevance to everyone in 21st century Birmingham and beyond. The workshop discussed the opportunities and challenges of bringing community voices to online catalogues and other digital documents, and all participants were invited to share their priorities, experience, and recommended practice.
The project team have employed the Collections Trust’s Revisiting Archive Collections methodology, which is aimed at helping cultural organisations understand the significance and meaning of their collections in a contemporary context, by encouraging community engagement and interpretation. They are keen to see the library become a living collection – consumed and remixed for any purpose imaginable – and to have these reinterpretations folded back into the collection for its future enrichment.
How to reach communities effectively? Partnerships. The project team appreciated that the city is already packed with cultural heritage organisations, schools, and charities with far better connections to and understanding of the communities they serve than the team could hope to access by working alone. The project team sought to connect with these groups, then further connect with wider communities. They marketed structured offers of engagement with the collection at speed dating-style events. Organisations could consider and select from a range of onsite and offsite options, with different levels of co-design and support from the library.
Onsite options include: tours and education workshops; family days; community curated exhibitions; and volunteering opportunities (assisting with archive research, conservation, digitisation, social media, public engagement, and education). Offsite, the library is offering support for: teachers wishing to develop Shakespeare-themed events or visual arts activities within schools; venues seeking to host the First Folio as it tours around Birmingham; neighbourhood Shakespeare productions; and the opportunity to showcase work, exhibitions and performances at an international festival in 2022, when Birmingham will host the Commonwealth Games.
In terms of digital content, the team wants ‘to give it away and get something else back’ – to offer their images for re-use and re-mixing by anyone, for any purpose. Delegates highlighted a number of examples of good practice, such as the British Library’s Off the Map scheme. This challenges full time UK students in higher or further education to make videogames, digital explorable environments, or interactive fiction based on digitised British Library collection items. Girls Who Code was identified as a group that may be interested in transforming raw catalogue data into new forms. The Museum of London’s Fire of London website was named as an example of an innovative online exhibition, which features educational games and support for Minecraft. It was also suggested that the library could ensure complete support for digital scrapbooking and interoperable image sharing by ensuring adherence to the International Image Interoperability Framework.
The project team will hear if their HLF bid has been successful in the next few weeks. Follow them on Twitter to keep up with the latest developments!
Keynote: Navigating the digital shift through the lens of arts and culture, Tonya Nelson, Arts Council England
Tonya’s keynote began by stating three major digital challenges facing society, each illustrated with examples of digital art and culture works aimed at addressing them:
- Making sense of the vast quantities of information now available to us: Anna Ridler’s Mosaic Virus, which draws on the history of the 17th century tulip boom to make sense of bitcoin; Refik Anadol’s Black Sea data sculpture; and Lumen prize winner Resurrecting the Sublime, a video installation aimed at capturing the sense of smell.
- Transforming information into power (using archives to change society): Cleveland Museum of Art’s open access policy, which encourages artists and developers to remix; the British Library’s Imaginary Cities, an exhibition which remixed images and data from the library’s digital collection of historic urban maps into fictional cityscapes; and Justice Syndicate, an immersive theatre and courtroom simulation in which the audience play the part of a murder trial jury confronted with a wealth of conflicting information, and challenges how this can be navigated without bias.
- Supporting new forms of authorship and ensuring its capture for future generations: Tonya mentioned the need for conversations around ethics and intellectual property in relation to machine learning. Choreographer Wayne McGregor trained a machine to learn from an archive of his own dance videos in order to generate new work in his style using AI – to what extent can he claim intellectual or artistic ownership over this output? How can archives manage this kind of training data, and ensure that it is transparent and free of bias?
Tonya’s key message was that the time for heritage institutions to be passive providers of information is over: libraries, archives and museums must become laboratories for the processing of information, ensuring that it remains meaningful to each generation. They must drive change, become platform innovators: developing online tools to facilitate the manipulation of existing information to create new works.
To meet this new challenge, she acknowledged a need to build skills capacity in the sector. As an output of the 2018 government report Culture is Digital, a Digital Maturity Index is being launched to encourage heritage organisations to adopt a focused strategy that is relevant to their needs. There is no need for every institution to attempt everything – it is for each to decide where they are now, and where they would like to be. To support this, Arts Council England have employed Tech Champions, digital specialists based outside the sector, who can offer advice and training in their areas of expertise: data analytics, websites, digital marketing, social media, search engine optimisation, and e-commerce. Tonya spoke frankly about the need to review current Arts Council funding models, which can make it difficult for organisations who are already struggling to deliver a core service, to take innovative risks and embrace change.
Panel: Developing Digital Platforms
Eating the elephant: tackling the Express & Star photograph archive one bite at a time, Scott Knight, Business Development Manager, University of Wolverhampton and Heidi McIntosh, Senior Archivist, Wolverhampton City Archives
Scott and Heidi spoke about the partnership of the Express & Star newspaper, the University of Wolverhampton, and Wolverhampton City Archives to digitise, catalogue, preserve and make publicly available their archive of photographs of 20th century daily life in the West Midlands.
The Express & Star is currently the largest regional newspaper in the UK, and their photo archive is very much a working collection. It remains held on site in the newspaper offices and is accessed by employees several times a day. I was interested to hear how Heidi managed the logistical challenge this presents – removing small sections in batches for cataloguing, digitisation, upload to the newspaper’s website, then transferring the originals for archival storage.
Funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, they spoke of the value of their HLF mentor, who helped define expectations of what the project could realistically deliver. Principally, to understand the complexities and true costs of mass digitisation, and managing risk around copyright. The archive totals 1 million images, but it became apparent that once the costs of equipment, image storage and hosting was factored in, their HLF grant only stretched to digitising 3,000 images. A team of volunteers has helped to sort 65,000 further photos into categories to aid retrieval, and while this work continues, further funding is being sought to continue digitisation activity, as well as support for digital preservation, which was not costed into the initial project.
Many of their initial assumptions were challenged, such as the expectation that they could generate match-funding by selling images. There proved to be no viable market for this, and they abandoned this approach in favour of sharing content freely on social media. This generated publicity rather than income, which they now appreciate to be of greater long term value for their institutions.
The GDD Network: towards a Global Dataset of Digitised texts, Paul Gooding, Lecturer in Information Studies, University of Glasgow
Paul spoke about the growing need for a central resource to address uncoordinated digital activity in the UK. Many research libraries are undertaking mass digitisation programmes, but there exists no single discovery platform for discovering either single texts for reading, or large corpora for digital scholarship.
The AHRC-funded GDD Network (British Library, National Library of Wales, and National Library of Scotland) addresses the feasibility of creating a global dataset of digitised texts through collaborative outputs. These include a prototype dataset of digitised texts, and expert workshops to inform a study of the impact of a global dataset.
The key needs identified were to avoid duplication of effort, provide a single point of access, and ensure that data is both trusted (with traceable provenance) and interoperable. A holdings analysis by Hathi Trust aimed to data match digitised texts across catalogues, but met with limited success due to the inconsistent use of OCLC and ISBN numbers. Machine learning was subsequently attempted, by training a Support Vector Machine classifier – with the conclusion that cross-institutional duplicate detection is ‘very difficult’.
Manchester Digital Collections, John Hodgson, Head of Special Collections, University of Manchester Library and Ian Gifford, Digital Library Applications Development Manager, University of Manchester Library
The presentation ended with a demonstration of the viewer, but focused mainly on the challenges of working collaboratively with an institution that operates within a very different context, and the lessons learnt by both parties:
- Governance: Manchester University Library has limited autonomy: decision-making is collaborative, largely driven by researcher demand, and tends towards risk aversion. Good communication with Cambridge was essential to avoid misinterpretations and false assumptions based on cultural differences, with partners meeting face-to-face as much as possible. Establishing a project board helped to coordinate stakeholders and encourage their input. Interestingly, Manchester’s collaborative approach has caused Cambridge to rethink their dependence on key individuals for decision-making.
- Technology: Cambridge have a dedicated digital team, with bespoke development activity matching the personal interests of its members. Conversely, Manchester have struggled to get their IT team involved with digital projects, due to their many other commitments, and library staff have had to upskill to fill the gap. However, a very positive and collegial dynamic has developed between the new library digital team and the IT team.
- Content: Cambridge’s dedicated team develops its digital content systematically through funded projects, while Manchester had large quantities of legacy content digitised in a variety of formats, with inconsistent quality standards and metadata. Ingest was impossible to automate in this context, and staff were not sufficiently skilled to upload content manually. A project role was created, solely to manage and organise the preparation and upload of legacy content. Manchester are reviewing their current processes and rethinking workflows around image capture and cataloguing, in an attempt to match the more orderly creation of data achieved by Cambridge. They are consolidating and standardising practices, formats and tools for the preparation of content, and staff are being trained in the Text-Encoding Initiative to ensure future proofing.
Moving forward, Manchester has decided to continue to prioritise improvements and integrations that support researcher requirements, like online exhibitions, collaborative development via Open Source, and partnerships with other institutions.
Keynote: Liz Jolly, Chief Librarian, British Library
Liz spoke about the various initiatives that the British Library is supporting to get its content out beyond London:
- Business and IP Centre network: 20 centres in public libraries across the UK to aid support for small business start ups.
- Living Knowledge network: panel displays in public libraries that are enhanced with material from local collections (775,000 visitors so far).
- Single Digital Presence for Public Libraries: scoping the possibility of a central resource, with a deep shared LMS, UK-wide content discovery, unified digital lending, a safe social space to discuss and communicate shared issues, and one library brand.
- UK Research Reserve: partnership for de-duping journal holdings – helping University Libraries move away from being ‘sheds for holding print’.
- Alan Turing Institute for Digital Scholarship: supporting projects like Living with Machines.
Panel: The digital workforce: navigating the skills shift
The everyday (digital) archivist, Jo Pugh, Digital Development Manager, The National Archives
Jo reported on a large scale digital survey of the sector carried out with Jisc, and discussed The National Archives’ digital capacity building strategy, Plugged In, Powered Up, formulated in response. This includes:
- the development of new ‘Novice to Ninja’ digital preservation guidance, and intensive courses for archive staff in collaboration with the Digital Preservation Coalition.
- A new network, Digital Archives Learning Exchange, which will meet at locations around the UK.
- ‘Archives School’, a free taught digital preservation programme delivered at Kew.
- Supporting the British Library and Birkbeck, University of London, to develop a postgraduate certificate in Computing for Cultural Heritage.
- Applications for new Digital Engagement Grants are opening in January.
- Future work includes a peer mentoring scheme for archivists looking to engage in more extensive digital work, a leadership programme for senior managers, and an engagement toolkit for digital storytelling and audience development.
Keepers of manuscripts to content managers: navigating and developing the shift in archival skills, Rachel MacGregor, Digital Preservation Officer, University of Warwick
Rachel spoke about the perceived barriers to developing digital skills – a lack of time, resource, IT support, confidence and subject knowledge. However, since spending time working in research data management, she has noticed many similarities between archives and data – perhaps the gap is not as large as we think? She highlighted the SCONUL report on Mapping the future of academic libraries, which discusses the development of AI and machine learning, datafied scholarship, and the increasing pressure on libraries to provide support for these areas of research.
Archives West Midlands: New skills for old? The shift from analogue to digital, Joanna Terry, Head of Staffordshire Archives & Heritage and AWM Trustee and Mary McKenzie, Shropshire Archives Team Leader and AWM Trustee.
Joanna and Mary discussed the work of their regional network, Archives West Midlands (AWM) launched in 2016 as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO). AWM has been successful in delivering two grant funded projects focused on digital preservation. The first project established ‘digital preservation readiness’ across member services in the West Midlands. Their goal is that everyone does something towards digital preservation, with an aim to reaching NDSA (National Digital Stewardship Alliance) Level 1. The second project built on this to establish model policies and guidance to enable members to navigate the skills shift from analogue to digital.
Workshop: Digital scholarship and the modern research library: Judy Burg, Head of Collections, Durham University; Siobhán Convery, Assistant Director, Collections Strategy, University of Glasgow; Anna Grigson, Head of Content and Discovery, LSE; Lorna Hughes, Professor of Digital Humanities, University of Glasgow.
The workshop discussed what collections-led research might look like in the digital future, and what this means for collections.
We discussed the impact of AI, machine learning, disruptive tech like VR, robotics, data mining and normalisation. We asked, how can archivists and librarians enable their collections to thrive in the digital future? Do we have the skills as professionals to meet that challenge? If not, how do we get ready? Who might we need to partner with? What research processes and structures do we need to be a part of, and what impact might this have on our spaces, digital and physical?
Our discussions led to several conclusions:
- we need to identify and learn from sector leaders and best practice.
- we need to accept that outside influence is needed to develop skills; there is little point in us only talking to each other.
- we as individuals don’t need to possess all the skills – just know where to find people who have them.
- we should open the sector and pull people in: not everyone who works in an archive needs to be an archivist.
- collaborative working was offered as a solution to how HEIs can afford to pay a developer when they are able to earn so much more in the private sector. If HEIs work together, they can share the costs to buy in this expertise, rather than each institution paying for the same knowledge individually.
- what is being taught on archive courses is not fit for purpose, and has created a situation where increasingly self-taught ‘digital archivists’ find they have more in common with systems developers than with other archivists.
Keynote: A reckoning in the Archives: America’s scrapbook, Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, University Archivist, University of Maryland
I don’t think I would be alone in stating that Lae’l’s keynote was the highlight of the conference. She spoke eloquently and passionately about black American archival silences, asking us to imagine being a member of a family that routinely removes you from photos, despite making every effort to prove yourself. She spoke movingly of how this persistent cultural erasure, this inability, from early childhood, to find characters like herself in books, or experiences she could relate to, left her asking ‘am I alive, am I really here, am I a ghost?’
Later in her education, she would scour archives in the hope of finding these stories, but was all too often defeated in these efforts. She decided that she wanted to stop searching in the scrapbook of American history, and start creating it, by becoming an archivist herself. Her stories of working with donors with an intense mistrust of heritage institutions were fascinating – her efforts to call every week or so to exchange the latest family gossip, to join them at church, and even check that their driveway was clear when it snowed – in a keen attempt to try and rebuild these damaged relationships.
Following a discussion of the difficulties, both practical and ethical, of capturing social media activism, Lae’l ended her keynote with a call to arms. She urged archivists to abandon neutrality in favour of social justice. Our work is not neutral – a collection development policy is not neutral. It decides what is important now and in the future. She asked us to consider, which of us has the arrogance to decide this easily?
Workshop: Transcription in the age of machines
As a not-very-secret geek, I was over the moon to have the opportunity to play with Transkribus, a free platform for handwritten text recognition (HTR). It has the potential to automate text recognition for any collection containing large amounts of manuscripts written by the same person, such as correspondence or diaries. I had heard about the software being used to support the Transcribe Bentham project, and was keen to learn more.
Users can upload up to 500MB of images at one time, more via FTP. A range of file formats are accepted, including pdf, tif, jpg and png. There are no restrictions on image quality, but 300 dpi images are recommended for best results. The software analyses each image, and segments it into lines. Then it’s over to the user to transcribe each line exactly as it appears – every spelling error, hyphen, abbreviation and symbol. The user is telling the machine what letter or symbol is being represented by each mark on the page. It is completely language independent, because the machine is reading shapes, not words.
Once around 50 pages, or 10,000 words have been transcribed, the fun really starts. Users can take this data, known as ‘ground truth’ – images and their matching transcriptions – and use it to create a machine learning model which can automatically transcribe documents written in the same hand. The output can be edited and corrected, then fed back into the model to improve its accuracy even further. The final transcripts can be tagged, exported and searched. The software is available for download, and a lite version is available in browser.
DCDC19 left delegates in no doubt that there is a digital shift, and that we must act now – as individual practitioners, leaders, and institutions – to ensure that we are not left on the wrong side of it. The key message of the conference was the importance of partnerships. Upskilling and continuing professional development is one approach that we should all take, but at the same time, we need to work smarter, using resources already available to us. Skills of communication, negotiation, and collaboration are ones we already possess – half the battle in addressing the digital skill gap is identifying the right people to talk to, and understanding how to talk to them respectfully and effectively.
There are tools and partnerships we could use to help us on this journey, critically those provided by conference organisers Jisc and RLUK, but also at the regional and city-wide level. Taking a more strategic approach – asking ‘where are we now, and where do we want to be’ – and making the answers honest and realistic, is preferable to panicking and putting our heads in the sand. As individuals, and as institutions, we do not need to be all things to all people. By working together, by being open, by sharing our content, as well as our skills and resources, we are all in a stronger position to navigate the digital shift.