What comes to mind when you think of a ‘digitisation project’? For me, it’s a vision of a beautiful photography studio, with soft raking light, a camera poised above, the gentle ‘click’ of the foot pedal, and a hard-drive whirring away keeping digital files secure.
However, the reality is that digitisation begins far from any camera, with extremely analogue tasks!
I joined the Avebury Papers project team in July 2022. One of my first jobs was to scope out the paper archive: to work out what materials we are dealing with, how much, and whether there any preservation needs. All of this would inform what kind of studio set up to go for.
What’s in the collection?
The bulk of paper materials at the Alexander Keiller Museum relate to excavations supervised by Alexander Keiller himself in the 1930s. There are also documents and photographs from Harold St George Gray, who excavated at Avebury in the early 20th century, and later documents including preparatory notes by Isobel Smith and Denis Grant King made as they brought together and analysed findings from the 1930s work, commissioned by Gabrielle Keiller.
The National Trust has a catalogue of items in its collection (this link shows you everything at Avebury – not just the paper items). However, many of the paper items are accessioned (organised) into bundles or groups – which is quite normal for a collection of this type. So my first task was to conduct a manual quick count of all paper materials.
For facts and figures fans, here’s an overview:
2700 items in the paper collection, including:
- Photographic prints (loose, mounted, or pasted into albums)
- Notebooks and diaries
- Plans and drawings
- Printed books
- Photographic slides (glass and cellulose)
- 1 roll of cine film
- Two CDs, 16 video tape, and 3 cassette tape
From these 2700 items, we will be creating 13,500 unique digital objects. This number accounts for individual pages of multi-page items.
In addition to the paper items held at the Alexander Keiller Museum, we’ve also identified relevant letters, diaries, and scrapbooks at the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes. There may also be materials to draw in from the Historic England archive. I’ll share more about these holdings in future posts!
The variety in item size and type directed my search for the ideal photographic studio set up: we needed equipment that can cope with a range of documents and bound books, handwriting, print, and drawings, as smoothly as possible.
216 items (8% of 2700) are larger than A2, with 50 items larger than A0. So, we’re currently scoping out the best way to deal with these outsized (and often oddly-shaped!) papers.
The fact that 70% of the collection is hand written also presents a challenge for transcription (creating digital, searchable documents). Whereas typed documents may quickly and easily be run through OCR (optical character recognition) software which automatically turns analogue writing into digital type, Alexander Keiller’s handwriting especially needs human eyes – and patience!
Scoping out the collection raised a bunch of questions as well as challenges. Now we know what we have, how exactly would we like people to be able to see and interact with digitised items on their screens at home? Because the collection is so varied, we need to ask this question for each item type.
This question is also guided by what sort of experience we’d like digital archive users to have in the future. This is not a decision that the core project team will make alone – we are planning various workshops in the coming months to find out what users want to see, and how they’d like to use the collection.
I’m also particularly inspired by elements of the Courtauld’s approach to digitising their art and architecture photographic collection. As Tom Bilson explains, they look to facilitate:
“An appreciation that every image presented online has a physical counterpart that still sits in a library box – a set of visual cues pointing to the personalities and voices enmeshed within our collections, and the recognition that appearance online is absolutely not their year zero, but another milestone in their malleable history”Tom Bilson, 2020
For instance, take the Keiller-era photo albums held at Avebury. These consist of photographic prints pasted onto pages that are bound together, sometimes with more than one print per page. One approach to digitisation would be to focus on the prints only, and crop out the mount and album details. However, we’re leaning towards capturing the entire page, so that archive users can get a real feel for the photographs as physical objects with varied contexts.
There are many more decisions to be made about how we photograph and add detail to the collection. Let us know your thoughts and questions below!