Sunday, 10 November 2013

Making the most of possibilities of digitisation: an #rbscg13 write-up

Rare Books and Special Collections Group Conference (programme (.docx)).  The theme this year was digitisation (last year was fundraising and advocacy).  The three recurring themes across all of the papers were audience, metadata, and the 'thinginess of things', with some very useful practical advice thrown in. I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow account of every paper, but rather to pick out the bits I've been chewing over since.

All three themes were addressed in Simon Tanner's keynote, which adeptly summed up the current situation as well as challenging us to think more imaginatively about the future and shaking us out of complacency about what we're doing now.

Tanner started by using the analogy of an ant mill to describe the fate of too many digitisation projects.  He emphasised that it's vital to plan properly and to seriously consider audience, opportunity costs (what aren't you doing if you are doing digitisation instead?), and to keep asking the 'so what' question to keep you focussed on why you're doing what you're doing. He also shared lots of useful resources:
Sian Prosser presented a case study on cataloguing and digitising a comparatively small collection of  manuscript fragments. She emphasised that even though there weren't many fragments, a very high level of specialist knowledge was required to describe them well, and that any project of this type is likely to take more time than envisaged.
  • TEI by example. Sian's project used TEI to mark up the descriptions. TEI by example is a set of free online tutorials.
  • Ransom Center Fragments. This is a very useful Flickr site displaying images from a large collection of manuscript fragments at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.
My favourite paper from the conference was  Rowena Willard-Wright on 'Transforming our data for the internet on a tight budget'.  Willard-Wright works for English Heritage and described their work on digitising and improving their catalogue, including photographing objects, improving old records, cataloguing from scratch, and create varied means of access to the records.  Her talk really exposed infuriating and frustrating the problems faced by all cataloguers are.  As she spoke I wrote:
Willard-Wright's description of migrating and updating catalogue data is very familiar: data has been lost and garbled in transfers over years. Cataloguing has been and still is viewed as archane, and a thing not worth funding, because catalogues were and are seen as not for general consumption. I.e. they are perceived as been the exact opposite of their whole point. This problem that has been seen with the English Heritage catalogue is *exactly* what is being exposed as libraries moves from traditional OPACs to resource discovery/next-generation systems. And, most infuriatingly, the things that cataloguers have known and have been saying forever (e.g. consistency matters, access points matter) is suddenly being "discovered" as if it's new.
Willard-Wright was talking from the perspective of a museum catalogue, which is in some ways very different to a library catalogue.  Museums don't have such a tradition of the publicly accessible comprehensive catalogue, and write much more descriptive and less codified entries for their objects.

The English Heritage cataloguing project used teams of volunteers with very well-defined tasks.  They write clear, concise, engaging, small chunks of description - i.e. entries that confirm to the principles of good writing for the web. The volunteers aren't necessarily experts on the objects, and they're writing for audiences who aren't necessarily experts either. However, there's a recognition that the audience may have additional knowledge or stories to share, and for this reason a 'tell the curators something about this' button is being built into the public catalogue.  I absolutely love this - it's baffled me for years that so few library catalogues have a 'tell us if there's a mistake' button. Copac is a notable exception.  I fear that many libraries don't have one because, if it was ever mentioned in a meeting, someone piped up and said "but think of all the extra work" which likely trumped "think of how handy that will be for our readers, and how useful for us to make use of their knowledge".

That lack of connection to the audience was hammered home for me in another way throughout Willard-Wright's talk.  The museum descriptions are being written for general audiences.  Rare books records contain descriptions that are, frankly, written for librarians.  Not even, really, for most researchers. Yes, we include all sorts of useful information, but we code it up in impenetrable ways, and there's all sorts of information we don't include accessibly.  This has maybe been less of an issue in the past, when catalogue records were only seen by those initiated into our arcane world. But now catalogue records go along with beautiful/intriguing/important digitised books that all sorts of people might want to see, and our gibberish means *nothing*, and doesn't explain any of the basics. (How many records for the first folio show clearly that this is a first folio? Or the Nuremberg Chronicle?)

During Willard-Wright's paper Jill Dye commented that "The only difference between an online catalogue and a digitisation project is adding a photo?", and I think that in one way she's right: it's completely wrong to think that a digitisation project stands apart from cataloguing. However, making materials accessible in any way, but especially if they're freely available online demands a new attitude to description. We really need to step up our game.

Melissa Terras is director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, and she presented a wide-ranging paper highlighting some of the possibilities of high-end digital imaging. She works on these projects in collaboration with computer scientists and engineers, and they're often adapting techniques already used elsewhere (such as in medical imaging). As well as drawing our attention to current projects, Terras made some important points about the theory and practice. Digitisation means lots more sorts of metadata needed so that we can properly interpret the images. As Hannah Thomas put it, Terras' work is "not just about creating a surrogate but about using the image to discover new things, inspire new research". Terras made the point that digital images are *not* exact reproductions of originals. Terras asked us to talk to her if we know of collections or items that would benefit from advanced digitisation and imaging work; part of her role is to connect the various people involved.
  • The one resource I'll share is this breathtaking (there were audible gasps in the room) video of the digital flattening of the great parchment book. Watch it. It's amazing.
Alixe Bovey spoke from the academic's perspective, and addressed some of the threats posed by digitisation. She was heavily involved in the campaign to try to prevent the sale of some of the Mendham Collection books last year. Bovey passionately explained that the digital is not the same as the physical, and we all need to communicate this better.  With the Mendham sale, the existence of digitised copies of the titles on databases such as EEBO and ECCO was used as justification for the sale, ignoring the copy specific details of the Mendham copies, as well as the failings of the scans themselves. Earlier digitisations have been particularly lacking. Never mind the poor black and white reproductions of scanned microfilm, they tended, for example, not to include any blank or apparently blank the source copy (see this post), and also ignored bindings, and made it difficult to determine the original size of the book. But we're not past such difficulties even with the best modern digitisations; they tend not to include scale rules, (see this post for difficulties of determining size), and give little indication of other factors such as weight, quality of materials used, or even smell.

Anne Welsh spoke very pragmatically from the point of view of libraries and library staff themselves.  She pointed out that we are continually needing to update and improve what we've done before: both content format and types of description.  She faced the fact that we can't do everything, and used the example of the University of Manchester Library Digitisation Strategy Group's 'Criteria for ensuring value to the Library for partnerships' (pdf link), which considers the value to the library of any potential projects.

Nicolas Pickwoad spoke about one element of early books which is too often overlooked in digitisations: book bindings. Most bookbinding digitisations (Pickwoad mentioned the Uppsala Probok project as an exception) show only beautiful, expensive, fancy and/or fine bindings, turning bookbinding digitisation has into "a decorative arts ghetto". This doesn't represent most early book bindings, which are less extravagant, but can tell us a very great deal about the book's history, and may often be the most interesting.

There's also a vicious circle at work: bindings aren't so often described in catalogue records, soscholars can't ask for them, so there's not so much research, so it's not seen as a priority... At least when books are viewed in person, the binding will be seen 'by accident' as it were.  If they're not included in digital surrogates they disappear altogether. Like many specialist aspects of digitisation, imaging bindings takes special requirements, including lighting, including to show structures accurately.
  • I'm keen to keep an eye on Pickwoad's Ligatus project, which is working on guidelines and terms for describing bindings better. It's hoping to develop vocabulary and multilevel descriptions for bookbinding including the ability to record negatives (e.g. 'no clasps'). This is key, because otherwise you just can't tell whether a feature is absent or it's just a bad record.

So all in all, my summary would be that we need to be using better, subtler and more flexible descriptive frameworks and presentational tools to make digitised materials accessible and available to the audiences who want to see them.  Digitisation can help with some, but not all, problems, and we need to advocate loudly for the intrinsic physical value of the things we want to digitise, to try to stem the tide of feeling that a copy is as good as, and entirely replaces, the original.
    There was lots of tweeting throughout the conference:

    Thursday, 20 June 2013

    Illicit collections: some thoughts

    One evening in February I rocked up at the Wellcome Trust for the start of the Library & Information History Group's walking tour of Bloomsbury and surrounds, 'Lonely hearts, wedding bells and illicit pleasures'.  Led by Alice Ford-Smith, the tour was absolutely super: I learnt new things, found new bits of London and had fun.  It started with an introduction to some of the Wellcome Library's superlatively diverse collections, given by the Wellcome Library's own Ross McFarlane, including a book on Psychopathia sexualis, the ephemera of King's Cross phone booths over 20 years, international AIDS-awareness posters and public health films and adverts.  After that we set off into the night, taking in John Bejteman's rather creepy advances towards Joan Hunter Dunn, the first lonely hearts ads (published in the eighteenth century), books banned at Bow Street Magistrate's Court (including Fanny Hill and The Well of Loneliness), the information management of an eighteenth-century pimp, and 84 Charing Cross Road.

    Bow Street Magistrates by remittancegirl, on Flickr
    Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License
    Bow Street Magistrates
    by  remittancegirl 
    The stop that most caught my imagination was at the British Museum, where we heard about hidden collections at the museum and its library (now the British Library). The BM Secretum was a designated area intended to keep closed away items considered to be obscene, including ancient erotica donated by George Witt (1804–1869).  (I guess this post isn't going to get this blog well and truly blocked by all 'good' web filters. So be it.)  The secret or private area or class is by no means limited to the historical British Museum.  The British Library Private Case (with the unimaginative shelfmark 'pc') was a similar collection of donated material deemed far too corrupting for most people to access.  In Cambridge University Library the rare books class Arc (short, I believe, for 'Arcana'), holds material deemed at one point, either through morals or law, not to be fetched for readers.  Some particular historic items in the collection may still not be fetched, as they are still, technically, illegal. Some modern material is still placed in this class, as also happens with the Phi (a pun on "Fie!") class at the Bodleian in Oxford.

    Another similar sort of collection acquired and amassed by different means is preserved by the Radzinowicz Library in the Institute of Criminology in at the University of Cambridge: it now houses a collection of printed books once held by the Home Office as examples of banned books.  Some of these books were, indeed, legally outlawed, but others are examples of books sent in by the public demanding that they be banned.  Obscenity trials and banned books featured in more than one of the National Archives' LGBT History Month podcasts, which I happened to be listening to shortly after the walking tour. I'd recommend 'Fictional obscenities: lesbianism and censorship in the early 20th century', and 'Genius on trial: key sources relating to Oscar Wilde at The National Archives'

    These sorts of collections are fascinating to me, because they seem to bring to the surface a great number of questions which apply to most collecting.  Many of these books (or objects) were brought together and kept by individuals or institutions out of a particular interest or for a particular purpose.  Others drifted in through chance and accident, not deliberate action. But the controversial nature of the material throws into relief the chancy nature of preservation, especially of non-mainstream material.  The controversial nature of the material ensured it was kept together, and that's hugely useful to us now, as the grouping reveals a lot about historic attitudes. On the other hand, it's luck and chance that these books and objects were preserved at all: they may not have been accepted for inclusion in the collections at all.  What items do we all reject today (for whatever reasons) that we should be hanging on to instead?  Is controversial material, perhaps, more likely to be kept, but the mundane to be disregarded and lost?

    How can we tread the line between keeping every last scrap and creating collections that can actually be managed? I've no idea.  But this tour and the thoughts it provoked have inspired me to consider the marginal more and the obvious a little less when considering collection development.

    Edited to add Ross McFarlane's name.

    Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    CILIP CDG visit to RCP - acronym soup, difficult questions and #speccolls resources

    Yesterday afternoon it was my great pleasure to host a group visit by the CILIP Career Development Group London and South East Divisions.  It's a super, and very active group, but I do wonder if it couldn't do with a better name? CILIPCDGLSED is a bit too much for even the most seasoned acronym mangler to manage.

    Royal College of Physicians by tonyhall, on Flickr
    Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License

    Royal College of Physicians by  tonyhall 
    Anyway, they came to see the Royal College of Physicians, and to hear a little from me about what working in special collections is all about, and how to get ahead in the field.  I feel much less like a fraud given a talk like that this year when I have what feels much more like a proper rare books job, than I did last year when I was hopping from temporary post to temporary post.

    I based what I said on various previous talks and presentations I've given, primarily those linked in my previous post.  The lovely guests also asked some really pertinent and difficult questions, and I promised I'd write up my thoughts about them here and add some useful links.

    What are the first steps you should take in exposing, and trying to get support for working with, a hidden collection?
    I've written about hidden collections before. Everyone has something that's hidden, and in some places the entirety of the special collections can be classed as 'hidden'.  There's some practical advice over on this write-up from earlier in the year. It's an issue that's being discussed more and more - there's an African Studies conference on the subject in a couple of weeks, for example.  I really think that the most important thing to do if you have a hidden collection is to start by getting a handle of just what it is.  You can't start by cataloguing in detail, but simply being able to say something like 'we have twenty shelves, mostly of printed books, with some pamphlets in 4 boxes.  It mostly looks 19th century and relates to cookery and gardening' starts to make the problem manageable, rather than being a great and mysterious unknown.

    Edited to add: Emma Greenwood has just written a really super blog post about her work with the special collections at the Jerwood Library at Trinity Laban, which I would recommend you read for a case study of how to begin dealing with hidden collections.

    How can you make special collections materials that have been long ignored seem relevant and worth supporting to an institution and library with a very different and tightly focussed audience and purpose (such as a hospital library)?

    This can be a very difficult question.  I think that answering it successfully depends on being able to get a grip on just what it is that makes the people in the organisation with the power tick. Very often it's the simple finances that matter: maybe the special collections can help to garner funding, by impressing donors or demonstrating history and prestige.  But maybe adherence to a strategic plan is most important? Then you can try to find a way in which uncovering hidden collections could contribute explicitly to a strategic aim.  In other places, personal connections matter, so finding one supporter whose opinion is valued can turn things around. I fear these are none of them very satisfactory solutions.  Some of my thoughts after last year's Rare Books and Special Collections Group conference, which focussed on funding, may be of use.

    If you would like to come and see the RCP building or gardens, we have free general tours once a month (first Friday for the building, first Wednesday for the medicinal gardens). And exhibitions and other events.

    Lastly, here are a couple of links to ways to get more involved with the profession in general, and special collections in particular:
    • The Historic Libraries Forum is free to join. It sends its members a twice-yearly bulletin, as well as updates about events and courses. It runs courses and an annual conference, which is consistently one of the friendliest and most useful I've been to. It also campaigns on behalf of historic libraries under threat, and gives advice to people in charge of historic libraries.
    • The CILIP London branch maintains a London Library Events Calendar, listing not only what they do, but also all sorts of other events. (If you have something to add, I think you email cilipinlondon at gmail dot com.)
    And last of all, Alison Cullingford's Special Collections Handbook is a very good place to start for all things #speccolls.

    If you were at the visit and think I've forgotten to mention something I promised I'd link to, please say in the comments and I'll make amends.

    And it would be great to hear other people's thoughts on the difficult questions. Any success stories of bringing hidden collections in small or uninterested institutions into the light?

    Edited to add links to RCP tours and events.