Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Image from Military Archives Pensions Files
Click on any image for a larger version

The Council of National Cultural Institutions (CNCI) organised a symposium entitled Digitisation Case Studies in the National Gallery of Ireland on 9 November 2017. I think it was primarily intended for digitisation managers and archivists and the presentations were quite detailed as a result.

Nevertheless I came away with a host of impressions which I will attempt to share below.

John McDonough, National Archives of Ireland

The seminar was introduced by John McDonough, Director of the National Archives of Ireland. Though his institution didn't have a presentation as such he stressed the importance of archives and in particular the current extensive digitisation programme of the National Archives.

I don't know if they will ever best their digitisation of the 1901 and 1911 censuses. That was an amazing project which opened up huge avenues of research. I have made extensive use of it myself and have referred to the project in a blog post on Catríona Crowe who must take the credit for it.

Jenny Doyle, National Library of Ireland

Jenny Doyle, who is Digitisation Programme Manager at the National Library, filled us in on the digitisation of the Decade of Commemoration. We're only nearly half way through this decade at the moment, having covered the 1913 Lockout, the outbreak of WWI in 1914 and the 1916 Rising. We are now into Phase 3 of the project, dealing with the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Clearly material must be catalogued before it is digitised and so far some 16% of what has been catalogued has been digitised. This includes some 105K items and 601K images. I'm not quite sure what this means exactly and one of the issues raised during the morning was how digitised material should be counted. Different institutions adopt different practices and some of them, no doubt, do themselves down in the process.

For many of us the question Why Digitise may be redundant. We know the advantages. But it is no harm to recap some of them here from Jenny's list and we will be coming back to them in detail later.
• Reduces Damage
• Security
• Saves Space
• Meets user needs
• Improves or enhances access
• A step towards digital preservation
Jenny then gave us details on the workflows and staffing involved in the project. What I took from this is that it is very labour intensive, despite a certain degree of automation, and that it needs to be adequately resourced.

Ines Byrne, National Library of Scotland

Ines Byrne is the Digital Transition Manager in the National Library of Scotland. That library's digitisation programme has a lot of elements in common with NLI's programme. But Ines highlighted a number of specific points of interest.

She stressed that the fundamental purpose of digitisation in her case was to provide access to useful collection materials. This involved prioritising and this in itself was tricky.

She added in two subsidiary effects of the programme, supporting innovation and driving economic development.

She touched on the approaches needed in the light of the varying rights attaching to material.

She distinguished between bespoke material which needed particular individual attention and that which could be more or less mass processed.

She outlined some of the cost elements involved and the various funding options available, some of which then fed back into the choice of priorities. The process was a balance between desire and pragmatism.

Cécile Gordon, Military Archives

Cécile is the Military Service Pensions Project Manager at the Military Archives. This was both an innovative and very sensitive project. It involved releasing files on people who applied for pensions in relation to military service in the cause between 1916 and 1923.

Applicants could be those who served, or if deceased, surviving relations who could show that they were dependent on them during the period in question. Some 85,000 people applied of which 18,000 were successful.

The full collection consists of 250,000 files of which 20,000 are currently online, so the project seems to be still ongoing. Cécile stressed the degree of planning and preparation that went into the project and said that this is the stage where most projects fail.

Processing the pensions presented particular issues of security and confidentiality and so had all to be done on site.

Final presentation of the results included grouping of related files which was an enormous boon to researchers.

I have made slight use of the pensions data so far in looking at the files related to the O'Reilly brothers who were killed in the 1921 raid on the Custom House. Stephen O'Reilly was a friend of Peggy Medlar, a cousin of mine who was a renowned Irish dancing teacher in Dublin and who came from a militant republican family in Kilkenny.

Cécile gave us a great run down on the digitising of this most interesting material.

Audrey Drohan, UCD

Audrey is Senior Library Assistant on Digital Initiatives at UCD and she gave us an overview of this vast area. We're talking of some 80 collections with 5 million file assets, whatever that last one means. Anyway they're obviously very big numbers.

The UCD digital library hosts a vast range of esoteric material from the historical to the newly created. It has a range of collaborators across the nation, mostly in the research area and it offers digitisation advice to other institutions. It is hard to describe the scope and content of this area and you'd best go and check out the website.

Órna Roche, UCD

Órna is the Metadata Librarian at UCD Digital and she brought us through the more technical aspects of the digitisation process.

She showed us the various layers intervening between the viewable objects and the actual stored data. She brought us through the various processes involved in getting the originals into the system. This is where I learned a new word "ingesting", new to me at least in the digital context. And while I'm at it I also learned a new term "born digital". This refers to data originally created in digital form.

I am not familiar with the Mirador IIIF Image Viewer but Órna drew our attention to a recent upgrade and when I very briefly looked it up on the site it appeared to be just magic. I'll have to try it out in the context of my family and local history researches.

Heather Stanley, PRONI

The final presentation of the day was from the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). In case you're wondering what they have to do with anything, remember that this island was under a single administration prior to 1922. I tend to forget this myself when following up my local and family history. Not all records pertaining to the South are held here. There is a vast amount of island-wide material stored in the North.

In the first part of this presentation Heather Stanley, Head of Preservation and Collections Management at PRONI, took us through some recent projects. These included church records, glass plate negatives, photographs and prison registers.

I am always relieved to see glass plate negatives digitised (or even photographed). This dates from my own experience in the National Library in the 1970s when I was consulting the Lawrence Collection. I was handed piles of original glass plates to look at. I still shudder at the memory.

Joy Carey, PRONI

Joy Carey is Digitisation Manager at PRONI and she took us through some of the more technical aspects of their digitisation programme.

She took us through one example of a photo album containing 99 photos. This was to be catalogued and digitised and made accessible to the public. Because PRONI use a three-layered system, for security and preservation, this involved generating 297 digital (tiff/jpeg) images. The first layer was of master copies (tiff), the second of restored copies (tiff), and the third for public access (jpeg).

And I can't resist mentioning this one. Digitisation in the right hands can involve not only preservation of existing resources but their restoration.

The photo on the left is from a Gransha Hospital Case Book and you can see how faded it is. This would not be an exceptional case. Depending on the processes used at the time many photos have seriously deteriorated. One of the great benefits of digitisation is that it allows very sophisticated manipulation of the digital image as the final product on the right shows.

Finally a few general remarks arising out of the morning's session.

The digitisation undertaken by these institutions in recent times has been nothing short of amazing. It is a resource-intensive exercise and has been undertaken in a time of financial stringency. The enthusiasm for their work, which came across clearly in the presentations, must surely be a major factor in this conjuring trick.

I have made considerable use of the National Library's resources over the years and I'm well used to the hardcopy slog, even when the material is catalogued and well indexed. I have written about some of this here.

Today it is a different matter. Digitisation means I can access this material from home. I don't need to take copious notes or put in for photocopies. I can call up the originals at any time.

Most importantly, digitisation is a quantum leap for the consumer. Now you can do comprehensive searches, find what you want or satisfy yourself that it is not there. For example in the 1901 census (from the National Archives who were not presenting today) I could determine that my grandfather was NOT in the returns. (He was a commercial traveler and probably fell through a crack on the night.)

Also, digital searching enabled me to discover that Major LaChaussée, who surveyed my then local area, Killiney Bay, for the British in 1797 was later financing French royalist rebels in their unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Napoleon in 1804.

Of those institutions presenting today I have used both hardcopy and digital resources in the National Library, the National Archives (census/wills), and the Military Archives (Free State administrative files, witness statements, pensions).

The question of resources is a difficult one. This is true for the institutions generally but may be a particular issue post digitisation, if there is such a state possible.

For example there was a lot of funding sloshing around for projects connected with 1916 given that event's high political profile. Some of this may continue for other digitisation projects within the Decade of Commemoration. But there may be a danger that once this period has passed people will feel that the institutions have now been automated and can continue to operate on scant resources. I just mention it as something to watch out for. I had such an experience in the State department I worked for many moons ago.

A participant from the University of Limerick made an important point during the Q&A. The context was the need for standardisation and interoperability between the institutions and with the wide world outside.

The different institutions and their projects have different needs and these often give rise to bespoke solutions. The participant made the point that such bespoke solutions may be very convenient in the short term but in the longer term and with evolving technologies these could end up isolating material from the mainstream and limiting public access.

I remember the same, or an analogous, problem in the early days of computerisation in the State department in which I worked. People were developing their own bespoke solutions, often outside the network and on their own PCs. These were then left behind, so to speak, when the networks were upgraded. In fact some of them only came to light years later, if at all.

So my strong feeling is for standardised and joined up action. I know from listening to the presentations that this feeling is shared across the institutions. Nevertheless it is clear that some bespoke solutions were adopted in some cases and it is important to remain aware of the dangers.

Events like today's are making a serious contribution to this awareness.

My final remark is to note that, apart from John's introduction, all the presentations were made by women. Make of that what you will.

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