With my thoughts in digitization and updating our online database (and let’s face it, since it's October I am also thinking about apple pie recipes) I often forget to slow down and remind myself of how researchers interact with resources at the archives.
A tweet from the Society of American Archivists on October 2nd, 2019 during #AskanArchivist day pulled me away from scanning a photograph album from 1872 to ponder the question of how researchers locate and engage with records online:
“How do you get students and your community excited about archives and your collections?”
For example, how do I make this digitized image from a wet collodion glass plate negative from the 1860’s engaging to researchers? (please see above) I found a print of this image with past exhibition materials last month and for some reason the image stuck out to me. With further research I discovered that the sitter of this image was Mrs. Robert Light (A1907.01.056) who was born on February 3rd, 1826 in Bath, England. Mary Light, nee Cobb, immigrated to Canada in 1857 and married Robert G. Light who worked in Napanee as a lumber merchant in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Although this portrait of Mary from November 2nd, 1863 has left an impression on me, how do I create engaging ways for researchers to interact with this record?
For more information about Robert and Mary Light please visit our Past Perfect online database
Did you know that in our collection we have over 3439 boxes of archival material? That staggering high number doesn’t include maps, artwork, bound items (such as ledgers) and library books that also make up the archival collection. The whole collection roughly estimates to be over 750 meters of archival material! Question is, how do you make it all discoverable?
Scanning a record and placing it online doesn’t automatically equal excitement for history or easy discoverability. There are several behind the scenes steps that are needed to help researchers find records and preserve context to understand what a record illustrates about history. A recent article in Archival Outlook posed the question of using alternative text for increased accessibility.
“Archivists talk about accessibility a lot – how to provide access to information, make hidden collections accessible, and access records across formats.
But what does accessibility entail in digital spaces?”
Courtney Tkacz, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,
Archival Outlook, Society of American Archivists, June 2019
Alternative text (or alt text) is a method for standardization of metadata to help make records discoverable and assist researchers who use accessibility software. I try and focus my archival practice around alternative text to create a “verbal description” of records.1 Creating standardized metadata templates for records demonstrates the context of records to help researchers discover and engage with records.2
Researchers and students often ask “what percentage of your collection is available online?” during visits to the Lennox and Addington County Museum and Archives which prompts a conversation about alternative text and discoverability. For me, discoverability is more important than digitization (especially in our world of born digital records). Sure, digitization makes my soul happy, but discoverability of records creates opportunities for engagement and preservation of context.
On a fun side note, did you know the Library of Congress has an online database of memes?
When I’m not digitizing or researching ways to provide new access archival records, I spend most of my free time reading about digital preservation. If you had told me five years ago when I was in my Masters of Art History program researching the iconography of 1st Century BCE Roman wall painting that I would be working on preserving born digital records I would not have believed you!
Although the field of digital preservation is always changing, one theme that remains the same is how will we access born digital historical records in the future? How are we preserving cultural memory in a “digital first society”?3
Think of the amount of digital records you produce in one day. From the email about a meeting to a Facebook post about going apple picking at your local orchard. Now imagine trying to determine which records are candidates for long term preservation and how will you provide access to those digital records in five, ten or a hundred years? The American National Archives and Records Administration announced that they “will no longer take records in paper form after December 31st, 2022” which will be in less than two years!4 How will historians access information about our society in the future?5 The benefit of digital records in the last twenty to thirty years is that there will be more primary records to select from when doing research.6 However, preserving and providing access to those digital records in the future is still a giant question.
I’m excited for the future of digital preservation and workflows surrounding how we preserve and provide long term access to digitized analogue and born digital records. I look forward to sharing my journey of digital preservation. Feel free to reach out about recommendations for resources about digital preservation!
1. Courtney Tkacz, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Archival Outlook, Society of American Archivists, June 2019.
2. Courtney Tkacz, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Archival Outlook, Society of American Archivists, June 2019.
3. Catching up to the Present: Join the Born Digital Community of Practice, Trevor Owens, May 19th, 2018.
4. Historians’ archival research looks quite different in the digital age, Ian Milligan, August 20th, 2019.
5. Historians’ archival research looks quite different in the digital age, Ian Milligan, August 20th, 2019.
6. Historians’ archival research looks quite different in the digital age, Ian Milligan, August 20th, 2019.