Writing in the tumultuous 1920s, novelist John Galsworthy wrote ‘if you don’t think about the future, you cannot have one’. As we mark our 90th anniversary, we recognise that although the Library is an institution rooted in the past, we remain oriented towards the future. In the spirit of modernisation, in the 2020s the Library has embarked on a major digitisation project in order to conserve, and make even more accessible, our unique collections.
As part of the Digital Transformation Project, launched in September 2021, we have to date digitised 185,000 pages from our collections, ranging from pamphlets to documents and letters through to photographs, postcards, and stamps. Over the next 12 months we will be launching a Digital Library, offering improved access to some of our most significant collections via the Reading Room and online.
The importance of preserving and improving the accessibility of our wide-ranging collections is self-evident, but it may not be wholly clear how this process is actually undertaken. Decisions are made as to what we digitise, in what order, and how it is electronically preserved, stored and accessed.
Digitisation is the conversion of text, images or sound into a digital file that can be stored and accessed via a computer. Digitising collections from our archive therefore makes the evidence we hold more accessible, as it can potentially be viewed online from anywhere in the world.
One of the primary challenges facing the Library as we continue to grow our collections is the availability of physical space, particularly within our small Russell Square footprint. Digitisation ensures we can continue to grow our archive (it is currently growing at the fastest rate in our history) without needing to permanently store as many collections in diminishing on-site space. It also reduces the need for delicate items to be handled, thereby preserving them for the future even more effectively.
There will always be a need for the existence of a physical archive, and for researchers to access materials in their original form, however digitisation can work to democratise our archive, opening it up to as many interested people as possible.
How do we digitise our collections?
Our Digitisation Project Assistant, Elaine Woodbridge, explains how the process of digitising our varied collections actually works…
Can you describe the range of items and documents that you digitise day to day?
On any given day I could be digitising pocket book diaries, business papers, condolence letters, photo albums, certificates for studies or sports, passports, propaganda, ration cards, press cuttings, pamphlets, recipe books, music sheets, shopping catalogues, idealistic Nazi-era calendars. Sometimes the collections include testimonies of persecution or enduring evidence of ways of life that were lost, such as pet photos and family holidays, the loving relationships of the past written down in letters, and formal documents that evidence the settlement processes and struggles of refugees.
How does the digitisation process fit into the work of the wider collection team?
We catalogue and number items before they are digitised, so they always appear in the order they are found in the box and you can see their ‘archive numbers’ pencilled in a corner or margin. Items such as letters are opened up and flattened, and we find all the little inclusions for example at the back of pocketbooks, so we can present them all in digital form. Stamps, envelopes and anything that accompanies an item is also digitised.
If anything is written on the back of a document, even a scribbled shopping list, we will digitise it too. We also remove all rusty clips and staples, but you can still see the marks they leave and any stains and wrinkles on the original in the digital image. The photos are processed for the best quality and true likeness but are not altered or filtered in any way. We handle everything gently, some of the pages are very fragile as they were never meant to last as long as they have. The thinnest onion skin paper is stronger than the thicker yellow brown wood pulp variety, which leaves crumbs behind on the scanning bed.
I’m extremely glad to be creating digital surrogates, which is part of the long-term preservation strategy at the Library.
Can you describe a collection or document that you’ve digitised recently that has caught your eye?
Some of the things that catch my eye are elements that were part of the visual and commercial culture of the 1930s and 1940s. I don’t have time to read every single word while scanning but I enjoy annotated photo albums, and the sheer variety of paper and formats that people use to record information.
I love old logos and motifs, particularly the little factory drawings I see on business stationery among personal papers. I enjoy the occasional shopping catalogue, drawings and ephemera, and find the design of propaganda items interesting. Handwriting styles, stamps, the texture of aged and worn items is aesthetically interesting, especially close up on the computer screen. There are little surprises every day, and with so much material passing my eyes it is a feast of human experience and culture, although quite often serious themes are present, and not all the material is exciting.
It is amazing to see my work become immediately useful day to day for example, I’ve been able to help translators of documents get to grips with handwritten letters by providing scans of such high quality you can zoom in on individual handwritten words and letters. It is also fascinating to help enlarge images of tiny or seemingly blurred photographs for our exhibitions, seeing the collections come to life for the public to see.
How are digitised collections used?
Some items from the archive may be digitised specially to be featured in a forthcoming exhibition or for use as part of the Library’s digital output, on our website or social media. Digitised family papers collections can be added to our growing Refugee Map, and we increasingly accept digital donations, whereby we digitise a collection of documents and return the originals to the donor. Researchers will soon be able to access digital versions of some of our most significant collections through our Digital Library.