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The Forum for School Museums and Archives is having a conference in Pietermaritzburg on Saturday February 28, 2015 at St Nicholas Diocesan School under the theme “Collections Make Connections.” For curators of museums and archivists as well as senior management in historic schools it is a wonderful opportunity to interact with colleagues from other institutions as well as gain input from leaders in the field covering topics such as the formulation of archives policy, caring for archival materials, the importance of oral histories to running a museum on a small budget. I will be giving input on “Initiating the Digital Process” – how to go about building a digital archive from scratch that will last for generations to come. I do believe it is an opportunity not to be missed. Below are links to the conference programme and the registration form that you need to send through to Renee Alcock at Epworth Independent School. I encourage you to sign up now!

Final FSMA Conference Programme 2015

FSMA Conference Registration_2015

 

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This is the fourth post in a series that looks at steps toward building a digital archive. After an introduction to building a digital archive we looked at the Scoping process that aligns your goal of building a digital archive with the vision, mission and strategic objectives of your organisation, and the Screening process that asks probing questions about your collections to establish which collections should be prioritised for digitisation, or digital processing, for incorporation into the digital archive. Once you have established which collections should have priority, the Selecting process then forces you to engage closely with the collection and actually select which items in your analogue collection should be digitised and incorporated into your digital archive or which born digital files should be selected out, processed and ingested into the digital archive.

A Museum exhibit at the Maritzburg College Museum in Pietermaritzburg is an example of careful selection of objects to tell the story of the school.

A Museum exhibit at the Maritzburg College Museum in Pietermaritzburg is an example of careful selection of objects to tell the story of the school.

Selecting is a controversial activity. The argument is often made, if we select what is to be digitised and what is not, then we are distorting access to our full collection. That is true and a point well made. The point, however, fails to take into account the fact that your very analogue collection is not a collection of everything. In itself it is a selection from all that possibly could have been collected. You did not have the space, time or resources to collect everything, so you collected what had meaning for the body of work as a whole, to take on a weight of meaning and perspective that is important to communicate with your audience. Likewise the same is true about a born digital collection. Take a digital photographic collection, for instance. The photographer did not take a picture of everything. The photographer made decisions about what to capture and what not to capture. Those are selection decisions. There is not the time or resource to capture every moment.

So too, in building a digital archive, you do not have the time and resources (and digital space) to digitise or digitally process everything. You need to identify what carries a weight of meaning in terms of your whole collection and what doesn’t. Professional photographers do this all the time. So do newspaper editors. And so too, do you and I in everyday life.

The Pulitzer Prize gallery at the Newseum in Washington DC showcases winning images from decades past. The quality of the images is a direct outcome of a careful selection process drawn from a large pool of images appearing in the press.

The Pulitzer Prize gallery at the Newseum in Washington DC showcases winning images from decades past. The quality of the images is a direct outcome of a careful selection process drawn from a large pool of images appearing in the press.

Selection is, in fact, an important activity fundamental to the way in which we make sense of the World. Good historians and bad historians alike select from all the facts of history certain facts and moments in order to draw out meaning and conclusions. What separates a good historian from a bad one is not the fact of selection, but the openness, honesty and integrity with which the decisions are made.

Does that open us to the accusation of presenting a partisan view? Absolutely. We can do no other. We are all a product of history, of a particular time and cultural milieu, and to claim to be uninfluenced by our presuppositions and the emphases of our times would be dishonest. Getting back to openness, honesty and integrity, then, it is important that when embarking on the tough process of selecting we make our presuppositions known in the process. That will assist future generations understand our methodology and hopefully they won’t judge us too harshly for it.

One of the toughest aspects of selecting I find is scope creep. Not sticking to the absolute boundaries of what one has decided to select. One always wants to include more. It is not the items that should obviously be included or obviously be excluded that present the problem, it is the borderline items that one potentially agonises over. So a useful exercise, I find, is to firm up the boundaries by using what I call the Selection Funnel.

A gallery of memories at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Every one of these photographs was selected out to take its place in the exhibit. A careful selection process is part of good curation of a physical exhibit, this is no less the case for building a digital archive.

A gallery of memories at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Every one of these photographs was selected out to take its place in the exhibit. A careful selection process is part of good curation of a physical exhibit, this is no less the case for building a digital archive.

Let’s say, for example, that my institution is set up to showcase the best of South African English literature and the Scoping process has identified that as an institution we need to emphasise struggle literature in the 1960s to tie in with a significant anniversary in our nation’s history. And perhaps in the screening exercise you identified that there was a particular need to support the school curricula with poetry in English relating to the struggle. One might therefore create a number of positive statements of what you want selected such as:

  • Select works from our collection published by South African authors
  • Select works from our collection published in English
  • Select works from our collection published in the 1960s
  • Select works from our collection that are directly related to the Struggle
  • Select works from our collection that are poetry

One would want to then create the opposite statement to reinforce the statement in the mind of the selector.

  • Do not select works from our collection not published by South African authors
  • Do not select works from our collection not published in English
  • Do not select works from our collection not published in the 1960s
  • Do not select works from our collection that are not directly related to the Struggle
  • Do not select works from our collection that are not poetry

Then one creates a joint statement

  • Select works from our collection published by South African authors, Do not select works from our collection not published by South African authors
  • Select works from our collection published in English; Do not select works from our collection not published in English
  • Select works from our collection published in the 1960s; Do not select works from our collection not published in the 1960s
  • Select works from our collection that are directly related to the Struggle; Do not select works from our collection that are not directly related to the Struggle
  • Select works from our collection that are poetry; Do not select works from our collection that are not poetry

Now you have a bunch of statements that may seem to be all over the place. What you want is to arrange them in order from broadest to narrowest statement, creating a funnel that makes it more and more difficult for any piece of literature to qualify in terms of all the statements as one proceeds down the funnel.

Members of the Associação Moçambicana de Fotografia in Maputo Mozambique make a selection of photographs for an exhibition on election violence to coincide with the display of the World Press Photo Exhibition in the city. Quality curation always involves a determined and ruthless selection process. In a context like this, where many are involved in the selection process, it can create vigorous debate.

Members of the Associação Moçambicana de Fotografia in Maputo Mozambique make a selection of photographs for an exhibition on election violence to coincide with the display of the World Press Photo Exhibition in the city. Quality curation always involves a determined and ruthless selection process. In a context like this, where many are involved in the selection process, it can create vigorous debate.

The order I place these statements is also going to be influence by the arrangement of my collection. So if my collection is arranged at the broadest level into poetry, novels etc. then that is going to be at the top of my selection funnel. If however, at the broadest level my collection was arranged by language, then that would be at the top of the funnel. Assuming the former scenario I might arrange the statements like this:

  • Select works from our collection that are poetry, Do not select works from our collection that are not poetry
  • Select works from our collection published in English, Do not select works from our collection not published in English
  • Select works from our collection published by South African authors, Do not select works from our collection not published by South African authors
  • Select works from our collection published in the 1960s, Do not select works from our collection not published in the 1960s
  • Select works from our collection that are directly related to the Struggle, Do not select works from our collection that are not directly related to the Struggle
The World Press Photo exhibit in Die Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, is an annual exhibition showcasing the best of photojournalism around the World. The several hundred winning pictures are selected from over 100,000 images submitted by professional photographers all over the planet. The quality of the exhibition is determined by the quality of the selection which is performed by an independent selection panel made up of photo editors from some of the World's leading publications and photo agencies

The World Press Photo exhibit in Die Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, is an annual exhibition showcasing the best of photojournalism around the World. The several hundred winning pictures are selected from over 100,000 images submitted by professional photographers all over the planet. The quality of the exhibition is determined by the quality of the selection which is performed by an independent selection panel made up of photo editors from some of the World’s leading publications and photo agencies

So one can see that the exercise of creating a Selection Funnel both helps to firm up decision making about what is in and what is out of our selection, but it is also helpful in documenting our approach to selecting so that future users may understand the method in our madness!

 

 

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I find a customer relationship management system (CRM) is one of the most useful tools in building a business or keeping track of people who are interested in what our organisation is doing. And that is true of people who are interested in your digital archive. This is why MEMAT has an integrated Open Source CRM known as Sugar CRM. It is a exceptionally useful piece of software. The details of anyone signing up on your MEMAT site end up in your CRM and the CRM allows you to search for them, see their contact details, communicate with them and even record your interactions.

To help you in using your CRM, we have created a help page on the MEMAT blog with a help video. View it here: Use Your CRM

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In my previous 2 posts I have dealt with why it is going to become critical for organisations and institutions to build a digital archive and I have looked at the the first step toward building a digital archive – Scoping. In this post I will cover the second step to building a digital archive, which is Screening.

The Scoping process sought to align the goal of building a digital archive, with the vision and mission of your organisation. It helps your organisation decide why you would “build a digital archive”. The Screening process, on the other hand, involves a process of asking probing questions about your collections, the potential audience for the collection and the broader context in which your institution operates to check that the theoretical goals established in the Scoping process are applicable to the realities of your collections.

Let’s take a newspaper organisation as an example. What may be a fundamental part of its vision and mission, along with keeping the community it serves informed about what is going on in the World, is also to make a profit out of that activity. The Screening process, then, may look closely at the newspaper’s actual collections of old papers and photographs and look at its audience and see whether its audience is not only interested in its archive but is also prepared to pay for access, to make the exercise of digitisation and making it available, economically viable. If, for instance, the Screening process discovers that there is great interest, but few are prepared to pay, then the conclusion may be that it is not the right time to build a digital archive or that an alternative funding source other than the newspaper’s own resources, is required in order to ensure that the exercise of building a digital archive aligns with the vision of the organisation to be a profitable entity.

Collections managers and archivists are often the best people to assist in answering key questions of your collections. They know the collections and they also know what parts of the collections are used most often. Here Vuyo Feni-Fete, archivist at the National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS) is seen in one of the vaults that holds the ANC Archive. PHOTO: David A. Larsen

Collections managers and archivists are often the best people to assist in answering key questions of your collections. They know the collections and they also know what parts of the collections are used most often. Here Vuyo Feni-Fete, archivist at the National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS) is seen in one of the vaults that holds the ANC Archive. PHOTO: David A. Larsen

To carry out the Screening process well is going to require the input of important people in your organisation:

    • those who know the collections really well, such as collections managers, can answer the questions that you need to know of your collections such as the size of the collection, the fragility of the materials, how comprehensive each subcollection is, the availability of metadata, the copyright status, and so on
    • those who know the audience for your collection really well, such as your marketing department, can answer questions  such as who is likely to be your potential audience and should they be paying for access and then of your potential audience such questions as what materials in your collection is of particular interest and will this interest change over time, would digitisation enhance access to the material and what impact will it have on the demand for the original materials, would they be prepared to pay for access, and so on
    • those who know the wider context in which your organisation operates, such as the leadership, can answer questions such as what the organisational priorities are, what the budgets available might be, what sources of funding are there, what resources such as equipment, people and expertise might be available, what legal implications are there in making digital collections available, what other institutions or organisations may be interested in partnering in the project, and so on (1)

So the Screening process is really the first part of the question “What, if anything, are you going to digitise and what born-digital materials are you going to make a part of your digital archive?” Scoping answered the “Why?” and Screening begins to answer the “What?” In the next article we will look at the Selecting process. Where the Screening process helps you identify the subcollections in your collection that should be incorporated into your digital archive, the Selecting process helps you determine what items within those subcollections should be selected for digitisation (in the case of physical materials) or ingestion (in the case of born digital or already digitised materials).

Previous blog posts on the topic of Building a Digital Archive:

1. Why Build a Digital Archive anyway

2. Steps to Building a Digital Archive: Scoping

(1) UK based JISC Digital Media used to have a good article explaining many of these questions. Sadly it is no longer available. Their site, however, has a wealth of information.

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Having dealt with why it is going to become critical for organisations and institutions to build a digital archive the next question is, okay, how do we go about it?

The first step in building a digital archive is  Scoping.(1)

My experience is that when most people think about digitisation they think about pressing a button on a scanner. How hard can that be they ask? Surely that does not take much skill?

The truth of the matter is that digitisation or even managing born-digital files and the wider process of building a digital archive is a highly complexed undertaking that requires significant skills and resources. The process of capturing an item into digital form is only one of many in the process of building a digital archive. To do digitisation and manage born-digital files well, involves expensive equipment, skilled people and an enormous amount of time… and while one may reasonably expect the cost to come down over time (especially once the backlog of analogue collections is complete) the cost is certainly not going to go away, it is going to be ongoing for decades and even generations. There are no short cuts. So before you start down the road to building a digital archive, it is worth knowing what you are letting yourself in for.

This is why the Scoping step is so critical. Scoping involves aligning building a digital archive with the vision and mission of your organisation.

Scoping is the first step in the journey of building a digital archive

Scoping is the first step in the journey of building a digital archive

One of the goals of Scoping involves getting buy in from everyone – from the chairperson of the board to the the most junior staff member. Why? Because building a digital archive is like having an accounting function in your organisation – it has got to be done well, with great consistency, without any end, and it requires significant skills and resources to keep it going. In other words, it becomes fundamental to the functioning of the organisation and so requires complete buy-in from all. We don’t debate the necessity of an accounting function, likewise there should be no debate about building a digital archive. There often is, however, partly because the digital era is something new so people are still getting their heads around it, so it needs debate and engagement by all so that the matter can be settled.

But the Scoping process is not just essential while our organisational culture is getting used to the digital world, it is also fundamental for ensuring that the digital archive we build is one that genuinely serves the vision and mission of the organisation. Aligning the digital archive with your organisational or institutional vision and mission is critical to its long-term sustainability. There is no debate about the critical nature of an accounting function in your organisation simply because it is so fundamental to the survival and endurance of the enterprise. Building a digital archive becomes that fundamental in the minds of all when it is built in line with the vision and mission of the organisation.

How does the digital archive support the vision and mission of the organisation? Well it is very easy for a digital archive to simply become that activity in the background that “those interested in history” are involved in, or perceived as a drain on resources because those running it are wanting to collect everything and digitise everything. For a digital archive to support the vision and mission of the organisation it needs to give priority to collecting, preserving and giving access to material that supports the primary purpose of the organisation. In this sense, building a digital archive is no different to building a physical archive. If you are a museum, there is a purpose for which you exist and your collections tend to reflect that purpose. If you are a business, the digital material you collect would reflect your activities, your achievements and your market. The quick access to high quality material in that collection should support other functions such as marketing, communications, team building, product development, organisational identity and so on.

So practically what form does a Scoping exercise take? Well at the upper end, particularly for large organisations with extensive collections, it would certainly involve the creation of a digital archives strategy. For smaller organisations it may simply involve a clear agreement between the stakeholders what is to be accomplished and how it supports the vision and mission of the organisation. It is always best to write this down so that it can be referred back to from time to time, even if that referring back is to adapt and refine it.

Scoping is a solid first step toward building a digital archive because, for your specific institution or organisation, it answers the question “Why is our organisation building a digital archive?”

Other blog posts on the topic of Building a Digital Archive:

1. Why Build a Digital Archive anyway

3. Steps to Building a Digital Archive: Screening

(1) When we were working on the National Policy on the Digitisation of Heritage Resources for South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture, Roger Layton of Roger Layton Associates came up with a model for understanding digitisation in terms of 10 processes. In an Annexure to the Policy our team adapted the model to the actual process of running a digitisation project and to building a digital archive. Scoping is the first of the 10 processes. Based on its experience Africa Media Online uses its own adaptation of the model in its training and consulting services and our blog posts refer to our own adaptation. Any shortcomings in what we present are our own doing.

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We have been hard at work recently producing help videos for just about every aspect of the MEMAT user experience. MEMAT is Africa Media Online’s digital asset management (DAM) system for the long-term archiving of digital media collections.

While we have had a MEMAT help website for a number of years, and we tend to give personal training to MEMAT site administrators and their assistants, we’ve held off on the help videos until now as the system was still maturing. Over the past month we have been populating most of the help pages on the site with videos that explain the functionality in question. Most help pages on the site now have both a video and step by step text instructions with illustrations.

These videos are aimed at those who already have a MEMAT site, but for those looking in, it can help to give you some insight into the system. Starting at the beginning, the first video we’d like to introduce you to is an Introduction to Logins. This brief introduction is a good starting point for understanding how the system benefits various types of users.

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Why build a digital archive? That is a very good question, particularly since building a digital archive involves a lot of effort and considerable expense.

For memory institutions (archives, museums and libraries) the need to build a digital archive is compelling. As the European Union funded DigiCULT Report (p.90) stated, in the new information economy memory institutions are inextricably in a process of evolving:

  • Archives: From “storing objects” to the management of the life cycle of digital / digitised products
  • Libraries: From “reading room” to digital information service centre
  • Museums: From collections to narrative connections and new experiences

There is no way of turning back the clock on this. As the general population adopts digital technologies in every day life, the very pervasiveness of digital media means that for your institution to be visible to your audience, you must embrace digital technologies, and not just for marketing and reaching out. You must embrace them at the heart of your institution – which is your collection, your content, your narrative. That means a digital archive of some kind must become a fundamental part of who you are and what you do as an institution.

An LTO tape backup system. Such tape systems that allow for offsite storage of backups are best practice for the backup of digital content stored on servers. They are a fundamental part of an archival digital repository system.

An LTO tape backup system. Such tape systems that allow for offsite storage of backups are best practice for the backup of digital content stored on servers. They are a fundamental part of an archival digital repository system.

But it is not just memory institutions that are impacted by this. All institutions will be, for the simple fact that much that is produced these days no longer has a physical instance – it is born digital and remains digital throughout its life.

Last year I wrote to the Bursar of a boys school who was quite rightly querying the need to build a digital archive. I made an attempt to communicate to him that the need for a digital archive cannot be seen as a peripheral undertaking simply to preserve some “old stuff”, but it is an essential foundation for the proper operation of the organisation. This is what I wrote:

I find that most organisations tend to think of the future of archives as being much the same as archives have been in the past i.e. the continual gathering of physical material and their safe and secure storage. While there will always be some physical materials to gather, actually the primary growth of archives in the present and the future is, and is going to be, digital. This is because much of the archival content that is being produced at present, either is produced digitally and then printed out, or only exists in digital form (photographs, documents, video, music etc.). This means that for any organisation, building a digital archive becomes not just something you do to store the digitised material of the past (an exercise that can be seen to be peripheral to the operation of the organisation, a nice-to-have), but rather is something you do for the present and future functioning of the school. In this sense it is more fundamentally at the heart of the functioning of an organisation than is commonly thought, in a similar way that a computer network is a fundamental part of a modern organisation. This is because so much is being produced in digital form only, and until one prioritizes the building of a digital archive at the heart of the organisation, that digital content has no ultimate home. Without this home it is often distributed in many places having been produced at a range of quality and differing levels of backup. The digital archive is the home where all critical media files produced at the right standard should flow to, where they are backed up and preserved, and from where they can be made accessible to whoever needs to call on the files – in an efficient and effective manner that saves time and money.

Write-once media such as CDs and DVDs have been a useful short-term storage solution for digital files. But they don't last. Over time they become unreadable. With the size of digital files growing, they are also becoming less useful in coping with the mass of digital output. Access to the files is also very slow and unless a separate database is maintained, there is no way of searching across DVDs. They still remain a useful offsite backup solution for smaller collections, however.

Write-once media such as CDs and DVDs have been a useful short-term storage solution for digital files. But they don’t last. Over time they become unreadable. With the size of digital files growing, they are also becoming less useful in coping with the mass of digital output. Access to the files is also very slow and unless a separate database is maintained, there is no way of searching across DVDs. They still remain a useful offsite backup solution for smaller collections, however.

I went on to describe who the audience for the digital archive will be and how they would benefit.

This motivation is applicable to all organisations and institutions that are likely to have any longevity, or need the memory of their activities recorded in any way – which is the vast majority of, if not all, organisations. It is my conviction that every institution is going to need to build a digital archive to provide the digital home for digital media recording the life of the organisation. With the proliferation of born-digital media, few of which get transferred into analogue form, it is time to stop debating and time to start building a digital archive!

Other blog posts on the topic of Building a Digital Archive:

2. Steps to Building a Digital Archive: Scoping

3. Steps to Building a Digital Archive: Screening

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We’ve never created a video that gives the context for our archival digital repository system called MEMAT and why it is that such systems are needed by everyone really… at least everyone who needs or wants to keep their digital media for the long term. There is always a first time though, so here it is and we hope it educates and clarifies what we are on about.

We began to build our first version of MEMAT in 2000. At the time one of the partners in Africa Media Online was The Blue Box – a software development company. I remember the owner of the company, Paul de Villiers, being enamoured of my idea to build a system to put images online and sell use rights to them. He thought programming the system was going  to take him a weekend…! It took a whole year to get MEMAT 1.0 launched.

Since then we have rewritten the MEMAT code from the ground up twice over and we have expanded it to be applicable to a wide range of organisations and market sectors as well as building it into a full multimedia system. The video below reveals something of why we built MEMAT in the first place and the problem that organisations face that it seeks to solve.

View example sites and find out more about MEMAT.

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The history of Rondebosch Boys High School stretches back to 1897. This longevity and the traditions that have been built up over more than a century is a significant part of the value that school presents to its community. Recently the Old Boys Union at the school took the decision to work with us at Africa Media Online to capture this amazing history digitally and make it available to the whole extended school community on our MEMAT archival digital repository system. They were the first historic school in Cape Town to take the leap!

Rondebosch has hundreds of photographs of sports teams all with the names of the boys in the teams carefully listed below the photograph. The real power of a digitised archive is its searchability. It is wonderful watching Old Boys search for their own name and find all sorts of interesting items and information that they may have forgotten. So what we did to capture all the names from beneath the photographs was that we used Optical Character Recognition software to extract the names. It didn’t work perfectly and we had to do quite a lot of manual fixing up, but it was a step in the right direction for automating photo metadata capture.

Rondebosch's MEMAT powered archival digital repository system is not just a web site but a system that looks after the high resolution files and stores them securely as well as making derivative files available for searching

Rondebosch’s MEMAT powered archival digital repository system is not just a web site but a system that looks after the high resolution files and stores them securely as well as making derivative files available for searching

To get something of what Rondebosch Old Boys will experience try it out yourself on the Rondebosch site. Go to Rondebosch Digital Archive and do a search for “everything”. Then find a name in the associated metadata of one of the files. Finally search by that name and see what comes up.

Something you will notice when you search is that there is a limited amount of material available on the site. Phase 1 of the project included the digitisation of a small selection of school magazines and some historic photographs as well as the design of a MEMAT powered website. Rather than embarking on a large scale funding drive to do it all at once, Rondebosch has decided to gradually chip away at it and consistently build the archive over the next few years building the cost into their budgets. We have been encouraging various institutions to take this approach as it tends to work well from a budgeting point of view as well as proving to be manageable for school staff who have to prepare the material for digitisation and capture metadata once the media is in digital form. As a service provider it also helps us not to have to ramp up to a large-scale project with lots of staff and then when the project is over struggle to keep them employed.

If you would like to discuss this approach further or if you need assistance with building a digital archive for your organisation, please feel free to contact me, David Larsen on editor@africamediaonline.com or call me on 0828297959

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