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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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Over the past 18 months it has been wonderful to be working closely with a number of historic schools in South Africa to build them a digital archive. Michaelhouse and St Anne’s in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, St Alban’s in Pretoria and Jeppe Boys and Roedean School in Johannesburg have taken steps to preserve their history in digital form and make their archives available to their school communities, particularly to old boys and girls who play a significant role in supporting the school.

While for each of these schools significant digitisation projects have been a part of building their digital archives, having a digital archive is not just about the past but is of fundamental importance in creating a digital home for digital photographs, video, audio recordings and even manuscripts that are being produced by these school communities all the time in the present.

With many institutions I have found that there is a growing gap between where their physical archive ends and the present. This is because over the past 10-15 years photos have been taken on digital cameras and video has also been digital. Even important manuscripts may only exist in digital form. And for most institutions, when one asks where are all these files, they tend to be spread around a number of computers, hard drives and even DVDs and CDs. There tends not to be a definitive “home”. At best they are gathered on a server in a folder structure.

We have found there tend to be two common features of the storage of digital media on such servers. Firstly, the server tends to be a server that is given to many uses in the organisation. The presence of weighty media files is difficult to manage and so fairly often we find the files get downsized to allow for more space for other files – a disaster for digital preservation. Secondly, they tend to be in a folder structure that is manageable while the collection is small, but it becomes increasingly difficult to find files as the collection grows.

These very issues are why we have managed to partner with these amazing schools to build a definitive home for both their historic material and the media files that are being generated all the time by the institution. We look after their collection for them in our MEMAT system that conforms closely to the ISO Standard for long-term archiving of digital media. And we expect to partner with many other such institutions in the future. Each of these schools has begun a journey that will ensure that in generations to come their community has ready access to the digital files that are being created in the present.

While these are still a work in progress, take a look at the collections that are already available online – click on one of the school archive images below to go through to their website:

 

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St Albans Digital Archiveroedean

It was a proud moment for us at Africa Media Online last Monday evening. It was the culmination of a year-and-a-half of hard work as the ANC Digital Archives were handed over to the President of the ANC and the President of South Africa, President Jacob Zuma.

The handover of the output from one of South Africa’s largest digitisation projects to date was made by Mr Nolo Letele, Executive Chairman of MultiChoice South Africa Group, the organisation that sponsored the project, to the African National Congress at the event held at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg. For the first time in their 100 year history, the ANC Archives are widely accessible to the public (without having to travel to Alice in the Eastern Cape). A selection of the archives are now available on the ANC Archives Public Site and application can be make to gain access to the ANC Archives Research Site that presents all the digitised material.

The gala dinner at the Sandton Convention Centre for the hand over of the ANC Digital Archive, April 29, 2013

The gala dinner at the Sandton Convention Centre for the hand over of the ANC Digital Archive, April 29, 2013. PHOTO: David Larsen / Africa Media Online

As Africa Media Online we headed up the technical aspect of the project taking charge of digitising over 20,000 photographic images (negatives, transparencies and prints) and 24,000 document pages, many of which were fragile. Wanting to keep to our core strengths, we pulled in partner organisations to digitise the audio and video collections. Grahamstown-based International Library of African Music (ILAM) digitised 2,193 audio tracks and Cape Town-based Doxa digitised 774 videos. Multichoice brought Creative Spark, another Cape Town-based company on board to do project management and to build the public web site. The digitisation was undertaken over a six-month period at The National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS) at the University of Fort Hare, Alice, Eastern Cape.

From our perspective this has been a highly significant project for the heritage sector in South Africa. Not only have we digitised a large portion of the archives of the World’s oldest modern liberation movement, but the project saw a collaboration between a political party, an academic institution, a multinational corporation and a number of SMME’s. That we worked so well together is indicative of principles on which the African National Congress was built – that South Africa belongs to all who live in it and together we can do more than we can apart.

President Zuma hands a statuette of the ANC Flame of Freedom to Mr Nolo Letele as an expression of gratitude for their role in funding the digitisation of the ANC Archives.

President Zuma hands a statuette of the ANC Flame of Freedom to Mr Nolo Letele as an expression of gratitude for their role in funding the digitisation of the ANC Archives. PHOTO: David Larsen / Africa Media Online

We believe the project is also significant because it is a local production. It brought together some of the leading experts in South Africa in the area of digitisation and proved that local expertise is up to the challenge of digitising our own heritage and making it available to the South African public and the international community on a world-class platform.

What is so exceptional about the Archives is that it gives access to the source material. One has access to the thoughts and struggles of some of South Africa’s most extraordinary persons as they worked through to a point of vision and largesse in the face of a brutal regime that sought to crush them. In his acceptance speech (presented below) President Zuma highlights this amazing heritage that the ANC has received. Let their legacy, that is available in these Archives be an inspiration to all South Africans and people everywhere.

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