Sunday, 17 July 2016

Uncovering the lost library of John Dee: exhibition reflections

The biggest (though not the only) project on which I’ve been working over the last couple of years has been the creation of the exhibition Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee. It’s the first time the Royal College of Physicians museum has dedicated one of its temporary exhibitions primarily to rare books, and it has been the RCP’s most successful exhibition (in terms of media coverage and visitor numbers) to date.

I first suggested the idea of holding an exhibition of John Dee’s books (of which the RCP holds the largest known surviving collection) in January 2013, only a few weeks after I started working there. So this has been a project that has lived with me for a good long while. It’s been a long slog and one of the hardest things I’ve ever worked on. It’s also one of the most rewarding things I’ve done, and one of those about which I feel most proud. Credit is due in huge part to the museum team at the RCP who did all of hard work.

I wrote an article for the May 2016 issue of CILIP Update magazine about the process of putting the exhibition together. After a month’s embargo, I’m now able to share it directly online.



I’m continuing to reflect on the process, and will continue to do so for quite a long time, I suspect. I’ve written up a different version my thoughts here, in case it’s useful.

Things that are particular to John Dee

  • John Dee had such a varied and complicated life that it’s hard to know where to start writing about him or describing what he did. He’s a well-known figure but doesn’t have any famous things named after him, or one book to his name that everyone’s heard of.
  • The books are pretty difficult to interpret: they’re mostly written and annotated in Latin, many of the subjects are complicated to explain, most of the authors are not very well known. And taken as a whole, Dee’s age had a very different world view to ours. It’s hard to explain all of this satisfactorily in short captions.
  • We were expecting a wide audience for the exhibition: from rare books and bibliographical experts, people who’ve read widely on Dee, those generally interested in Tudor history, to people who’d never heard of Dee or never looked at an old book before. That made it hard to know where to pitch the text: it takes a lot of crafting to create descriptions that explain technical details without being baffling to the non-expert or obvious or simplistic to those with specialist knowledge.
  • A lot of the ‘facts’ about Dee’s life and books are, in fact, not 100% certain. Hedging around issues makes for less compelling reading and add lots of words to text. But you can’t portray as certain truth something for which you know there isn’t hard evidence. Cue further tinkering with the text, adding and removing lots of ‘may have been’s, ‘is believed to have’s, ‘has been suggested that’s and so on.

Worst bits

  • I found Dee as a subject completely overwhelming. It took a really long time to get a sense of just what the exhibition would really be about.
  • At some points it felt like progress slowed to barely a crawl: collaborating with other teams required a lot of sending ideas and files back and forth to get every concept and every detail correct.
  • However carefully you plan, there’ll always end up being a time when it feels like everything’s happening at once. For me, this was definitely the final week of installation, where the work of actually making sure everything looked good in the cases seemed to take a back seat to media interest and promotional demands as we were installing

Best bits

  • I really wasn’t looking forward to day when we tried out the actual layout of each of the display cases with the books themselves: I feared that it would show that all of my ideas were unworkable and that we’d have to go back to the drawing board. However, it was actually really good fun, and incredibly exciting to see the exhibition start to take shape in front of our eyes.
  • I made a few gifs of some of the exhibits, which proved to be more wildly successful that I could have possibly imagined. I thought they were maybe a bit naff. Or at least a bit niche. But #earlymodern Twitter and beyond really took to them. Bonus: making them was really fun.
  • We devised an audience engagement/participation activity by the name of #DoodleDee: here’s a blank postcard, why not leave us an exhibition-inspired doodle (for the chance of a monthly prize)? I had no idea people would take it up so keenly, and imaginatively. There have been some really charming (and bizarre) doodle submitted.
  • Opening day was amazing. It’s very very rare that, after doing something, I genuinely feel pleased with it and can sit back and bask in the warm glow of pride and satisfaction. This was one of those occasions. There are, of course, things I would change if I could, or wish I had done differently, but nothing so much that I’m unable to appreciate that what was achieved is good.

Things I learnt about myself

  • I really, really, don’t like uncertainty in the early stages of a project like this. For some people, the myriad possibilities and options are exciting and stimulating. For me, they threaten to be completely stymieing. I have to impose some order – for example, making arbitrary decisions about content and arrangement – in order to make progress.
  • While I have an eye for (some) details, and a clear idea of what ‘right’ will look like, I don’t enjoy having to request corrections from other people, especially if it takes more than one attempt to get corrections implemented. I went through agonies when we were proof-reading the design work. I need to learn a way to say ‘[this bit] needs to look like [this thing]; it currently doesn’t have [something or other]’ without worrying that I’m being a malicious control freak.
  • Even though I started out not knowing... my priorities – both large and small scale – did emerge. It was surprising to see what I did, and didn’t, consider vital: the orientation of an image on the wallpaper mattered a great deal, but I really didn’t mind changing the placement of the display cases on the gallery even at the last minute.
  • I didn’t really know what the exhibition was about, or what the overall story was until I started given tours to journalists the week before we opened. I would have done well to start imagining the tours well before that.

Advice

  • Start early. No, earlier than that. Synthesising information takes time; the sooner you’re on top of the facts and figures, the sooner (and more easily) you can get down to the creative side.
  • Take notes. Take more notes. Tiny details will suddenly take on huge important as deadlines approach. Future-you will love past-you if you’ve written down as much as possible. Don’t trust your memory!
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses. What are your usual failure points? Let your team know, and what they can do to mitigate!
  • Guess. Sometimes there just isn’t a right answer, or, at the very least, not one you can work out right now. So guess: pick an option and try it out. If it’s not working you’ll know soon enough and can change. If it is working then you’re sorted.
  • Know your priorities. If some things need to change and you’re not too concerned, then let them go gracefully. There will be some things you’ll really want to stand and fight for, and you’ll know it when it happens; save you energy for those.
  • Build in flexibility from the start. If you pick one option from two-or-more equally as good (or more-or-less as good) options, keep a note of those you didn’t choose, in case the first idea doesn’t pan out.
  • Don't forget your passion. It can be easy to overlook the things, objects or ideas that made you go ‘wow’ right at the start. Keep them in mind: they’re the best selling point.
  • Trust your exhibits. Let them tell their story. Work out what the key feature of each item is, and make sure that’s what you communicate to your visitors. Know exactly why each item has been included.
  • Promote early, promote often (and use the professionals). The huge coverage for ‘Scholar, courtier, magician’ was the product of three things: Dee’s cult status, giving plenty of notice (a year plus) about the exhibition, and hiring a professional publicist.
Lots of people have asked me what come next after Dee. For the museum, it's a new show about the Great Fire of London. At the moment for me it’s ‘More Dee’: we’re reworking the exhibition text into a printed catalogue of the exhibition.  After that? I’ve no idea. I’m sure something will come along...


Monday, 28 March 2016

Digitisation: practicalities, pleasures and pitfalls. #HistLib15

On 12 November last year I went to the Historic Libraries Forum annual conference, titled ‘Practicalities, pleasures and pitfalls: uncovering digitisation projects’. As ever, it was a really informative and useful day, and a great chance to catch up with people.

The theme of the day was digitisation: how to plan, run and maintain a successful project. As someone who'd been involved for the last 18 months as one of the partners in the UK Medical Heritage Library project, I could only wish that the conference had come round two years earlier: it would have been a great help! But no matter, the case studies and advice generously shared by the six speakers will certainly be of use as I plan projects in the future.


1. Calum Dow, Towsweb Archiving. ‘The importance of planning for digitisation’

Townsweb is a company that undertakes digitisation for individuals and institutions. Calum provided a very clear overview of what you need to consider when considering and planning a project.

Key points
  • Start with formal goals: use SMART objectives. Consider your desired outcomes, and the purposes of the digitisation: is it for for preservation, for display, for searchability, for access, for revenue? Who are the core users of the digital collection? What are your ideal timescales and milestones?
  • Communicate with your supplier! Make sure everyone understands your project goals, including the end purpose of the digitisation. Ensure your supplier is happy to keep you updated.
  • What to digitise? You might choose the items in greatest use, or at greatest risk. Ideal concerns have to be balanced with the items’ suitability in terms of condition and format.
  • Image outputs and resolutions: capture your master images in an open-source, non-proprietary format.
  • Access: metadata is vital to both your internal archive or document management system and your external website.
  • Practicalities: you’ll need to consider how and where digitisation will take place. Different formats and materials have different requirements. The better quality digitisation will usually be achieved offsite. Very rare or fragile items may have to be digitised on-site, but you need a room with controllable lighting, good power supplies, space, etc.
Resources

2. Damian Nicolaou, Wellcome Library. ‘Hand in hand: The ups and downs of partnerships in digitisation’

Damian presented several case studies of collaborative digitisation projects. There can often be encouragement or inducement to work collaboratively these days, either with commercial or non-commercial partners. The Wellcome Library works with lots of partners. There are commercial (eg ProQuest) and non-commercial (eg the Internet Archive) organisations doing the digitisation. And then there are the organisations that use the output (eg Zooniverse), funders (eg JISC), publishers, academic partners, software developers, licensing societies, and internal partners. Some of the projects are London’s Pulse, ProQuest Early European Books, and the UK Medical Heritage Library.

Various themes recurred throughout the case studies that Damian presented:
  • The difficulties of balancing your priorities against your partner’s (or partners’) priorities.
  • Are the people at the coal-face of the digitisation working directly for you or for someone else?
  • How to communicate well in order to manage relationships and expectations. Be clear who has responsibility for what.
  • When collaborating, you need to agree tight standards for images and metadata. Sometimes the standards are baggy and imprecise, and even though everyone is adhering to them, local practice variations still make interoperability difficult.
  • That doesn’t only apply to metadata: agree everything to do with the project in writing and even then interpretation may differ
  • Things will change over time, including the people and staff you’re working with in partner organisations, and the goals of those organisations can change, too.
  • Can you live with the conditions imposed by (commercial) partners? Are you prepared to do things their way?
  • Could you do it on your own?
  • Even ‘free’ things have costs.
Aside from the points directly relevant to collaborative working, there were other points to consider for all projects.
  • Consider use cases for the digitised material both for the present and future, before you sign: keep things open!
  • Broaden your reach by hosting the digitised content in multiple places (eg Wellcome Library website and the Internet Archive)
  • Don’t neglect your internal departments, eg the conservation team.

3. Abby Matthews, Sutton Archives. ‘From Cellar to Hard-Drive: The Challenges of Digitising Glass Plate Negatives’

On a much smaller scale than the Wellcome Library, Sutton Archives is digitising fragile glass-plate negatives. ‘The Past on Glass’ is a 2-year Heritage Lottery Fund project, working with negatives from a photography business that was abandoned in 1918. The collection of negatives is vast, and there were several issues to address.
  • The time-frame of project was set in advance, at the point of applying for funding, with little idea whether it was realistic or not, so part of the project has been working out how to best prioritise the work.
  • There is a large and unknown number of damaged plates, so they’ve prioritised those in good condition.
  • The project relies on volunteers, who have varying skill sets, so the workflows need to be written very carefully, with different volunteer roles available.
  • There are a limited amount of resources available, including space and equipment, so they have been inventive about how to make the most of the scanner.
Abby gave some really useful advice:
  • Do as much research as possible before you start. Seek advice. Know your options.
  • Think carefully about specific needs and long-term requirements.
  • Be prepared to go your own way.
  • Set strict project methodology and workflow, and make sure everyone follows it.

4. Jamie Robinson, John Rylands Library. ‘CHICC - Heritage Imaging at The John Rylands’

Jamie described the work of the The Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care (CHICC), based at the University of Manchester Library. They work for the university and external organisations, too. With university items, they try to digitise the whole item when there’s an imaging request for one part of it, to save having to do further work again later on the same item. They are constantly updating their equipment, and make the most of new developments, for example working with a pigment specialist on how best to image gold used in printed books and manuscripts.

Key points
  • Different specialist materials need specialist imaging: this developing all the time.
  • New techniques, such as multi-spectral analysis, have a lot to offer, and are leading to new research avenues on the primary sources.
Key resources

5. Steven Archer, Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. ‘The legacy of Parker on the Web

Parker on the Web was one of the first major manuscripts digitisation projects. It launched in 2009. Steven spoke about how digitisation is only the beginning with a project of this scale and scope. The project has a large maintenance demand: corrections and additions to images, references and bibliographies appear in semi-annual releases. In addition to this, the interface is now starting to show its age to some extent, so plans are underway to launch a new version in due course.

Steven also had some interesting reflections on the way digitised content has changed reading room culture. Remote access gives the librarian much less idea what people are working on, and thus fewer outlets to help them! They hope that the new version of Parker on the Web might have more facilities for interaction between scholars working on the manuscripts.

Some resources mentioned:


6. Naomi Korn, Naomi Korn Copyright Consultancy. ‘Copyright issues in digitisation’

You can't consider digitisation without considering copyright. And copyright is complicated. Works whose authors died before 1969 and whose works weren’t published by 1 August 1989 are still in copyright until 2039. Something that looks like it might be 'one' item, like a scrapbook or diary, might have multiple copyright holders. Naomi had some very practical advice for how to manage rights in (our rights (or lack thereof) to digitise and reproduce) and rights out (what rights we’ll grant other people to use the digitised images).

Key points:
  1. Be aware what the digitisation contract says re: what’s expected and required. You need to exercise due diligence!
  2. Be aware of layers of rights: for example, cuttings stuck into a diary. Resources are needed to check and clear rights.
  3. Rights management is risk management.
  4. Check what the terms are regarding the licences on the digital images. Heritage Lottery Fund projects are required to use a CC-BY-NC licence, so you need to ask rights holders for this level of permission. When asking for rights you can ask for equivalent rights, or ask for as much as possible (but latter has risk that rights holders will say no as asking too much.)
Tools for reverse image searches (to try to uncover image sources)

Conclusion

So, to sum up… Knowledge is power when thinking about a digitisation project. The more detail and understanding you have about the materials you want to digitise, the easier the planning and implementation should be.
  • Think before you act! Know your collections. (Really know your collections.) Know your audience(s).
  • Think about the future: allow for possible new uses.
  • Host it far and wide – the more places, the better.
  • Have clear project plans and workflows.
  • Talk to everyone as much as possible, and don’t forget your internal partners and collaborators.
  • Plan for what happens after the project finishes: how do you maintain it?
  • Factor in the time and money involved in copyright clearance from the start.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

John Dee: how I made the exhibition gifs

The RCP library has the largest known surviving collection of books owned by John Dee, the Elizabethan polymath. In several of these Dee’s signature has been over-written or obliterated by a man called Nicholas Saunder.

It’s possible to disentangle the two different signatures if you examine them very closely. As part of the exhibition research I edited an image of them in order to show Dee’s original signature and then Saunders’ over the top.

Astrologiae iudiciariae ysagogica. Jean Taisnier, published Cologne, 1559
I’d hoped to use this image in the exhibition proper, and to display it next to the book itself. The image didn’t make the final cut, but we’ve been using a gif (animated image) of the two different signatures fading in and out as part of the exhibition publicity.


I started with a high-quality close-up photograph of the signatures, and I edited it using Photoshop Elements. Other photo-editing programmes (such as are available, such as the free GNU Image Manipulation Programme) and would work just as well. The functions will probably look a bit different, though

As in the editing process I described earlier, you need to use layers to create gifs. Layers are like old-fashioned sheets of acetate that you can pile up on top of each other. You can edit what’s on each layer individually, and can set the transparency (and other attributes) of each layer.

You need to make one layer for each individual frame of the animation.

For this animation, the frames followed this progression:
  • Original image alone
  • fading in the layer which highlights Dee’s signature (ie by decreasing that layer’s transparency step by step)
  • fading in the layer which highlights Saunder’s signature
  • fading out the layer which highlights Dee’s signature
  • fading out the layer which highlights Saunder’s signature
  • original image alone.
I started with a copy of the Photoshop file I’d made to extract the two signatures. Then, for each frame of the animation, I did the following:
  • set the transparency(/ies) of the overlay layer(s)
  • duplicated the overlay layer(s) and background layer (you need to keep the originals to continue working with them)
  • used ‘Merge down’ to stick the overlay layer onto the background layer – to make the one single layer needed to run the animation
  • re-named this new layer to say which transparency value(s) were used.



The transparency value were more-or-less as follows:
  • No overlay
  • Dee on its own: 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%
  • Dee at 50% with Saunder at: 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%, 50%
  • Saunder at 50% with Dee at: 40%, 30%, 20%, 10%, 0%
  • Saunder on its own: 40%, 30%, 20%, 10%.
After all the layers were ready, I made sure they were in the correct order (you can drag and drop to move them around).

Then I duplicated the first and frames a few times so that they would show for longer.

So save as a gif us the File>Save As option, and choose ‘gif’ (‘CompuServe gif’) as the file type. Tick the ‘Layers as Frames’ box. In the next dialogue box, tick ‘animate’ and then choose the frame rate. Remember to save the Photoshop file, too, in case you want to change things later!



And that was it, more or less.


I used more-or-less similar processes to make the other exhibition gifs. Some were much more straightforward: I just took lots of slightly different photos of a book with the camera mounted on a tripod, in the fashion of traditional stop-motion animation. It’s then just a case of layering up those images, by cutting and pasting them into a Photoshop file.