Naomi Harvey: Six Months of Digital Preservation at HES – A Retrospective
Naomi Harvey is a trainee with the Scottish Council on Archive’s Skills for the Future programme, ‘Opening Up Scotland’s Archives’, which is a Heritage Lottery funded project. She’s been working in Collections at John Sinclair House for the past 6 months, specialising in the field of Digital Preservation. Read on for a look back at what she’s been up to:
My first weeks at RCAHMS (as it still was, just!) were a bit of a whirlwind of meeting people from different departments. I started to get a grasp of the range of activities that go on within the archive, from the traditional archiving processes to the various other projects and organisations that all live under the same roof – Scotland’s Urban Past, SCRAN and so on. About 4 weeks after I started, Historic Environment Scotland (HES) came into being, and it’s been really exciting to be here at this pivotal time for the organisation, to see all the changes this will bring and hear about new ways of working for the future.
Alongside this, I started to learn about the intricacies of the Oracle database, under the careful guidance of Digital Archives Manager Emily Nimmo and Cataloguing Programme Manager Dr Iain Fraser. My main day-to-day work has encompassed two areas, those being Digital Accessioning and Digital Cataloguing.
Working in both of these areas have let me really get to grips with how Oracle functions, with lots of investigating sites and events in order to correctly identify the material that I was cataloguing. The accessioning process also gave me practical experience of carrying out digital preservation mechanisms, while cataloguing allowed me to have a peek at some really interesting archaeological sites. You can see some images from projects I catalogued in the archaeology gallery https://canmore.org.uk/gallery/1003689 on Canmore, from quern stones https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1491761 to Clydeside cranes https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1503990 and some medieval skeletons! https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1511241
I even managed to include one of the ubiquitous digger-in-a-ditch https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1499577 images that feature so prominently in archaeological reporting – but at least this one has a castle in the background!
Over the course of my placement I worked on two focussed projects. These both gave me a good insight into the scope of what the archive holds.
The first project that I was given the opportunity to work on looked at Accessions Paperwork. Currently this paperwork is held in the Collections office in ring-binders – the aim of the project was to digitise all these records and attach it to the relevant record in Oracle. This means that anyone who needs to access this documentation can obtain a digital copy via Oracle without having to consult the physical paperwork, meaning that the original physical documents can be rehoused safely in archival storage.
Alongside learning about digitising and rehousing the paperwork, the project involved a degree of investigation to track down accession numbers for paperwork which hadn’t been marked, or searching in various other locations for additional paperwork. Invoices, receipts and correspondence may not seem like fascinating subject matter, but of course its retention is vital for demonstrating the provenance and copyright of items, while the descriptions of deposits purchased by, gifted to & on loan in the archive gave me a good picture of the huge range of materials the archive holds.
There was also a feeling of great satisfaction in bringing together relevant records from several disparate locations (a result of different record-keeping systems over the years) and rehousing them neatly.
During the final week of my traineeship I found out that the remaining folders of accessions paperwork are going to be imaged – work carries on and it’s great to know that what started out as a pilot project will be completed, and the paperwork itself can be safely stored away while still granting access to staff who need the information it contains.
The second project that I worked on looked at creating a digital audit of items in the main store. Boxes of archaeological accessions were identified as potentially still containing digital material such as CDs and floppy discs attached to reports which were accessioned in the 1990s and early 2000s before the current programme of digital preservation came into being. These digital items ought to have their content digitally accessed and thereafter be stored in appropriate housing, and this was the focus of the project.
The project entailed taking a 10% sample of the boxes which potentially contained digital material and examining their contents. Of the 77 boxes examined, several were found to contain CDs, floppy discs and VHS tapes – around 90 items in all. Some of the as-yet uncatalogued boxes also turned up some more unusual finds, such as some 17th century letters, a pamphlet from the 1950s on Gaelic place-name elements (one of my own areas of interest) and a lovely set of slides of Edinburgh in a bonny tartan box.
Training & Trips
I’ve been really lucky to attend loads of great training opportunities and field trips as part of my traineeship. These have included events organised as part of the traineeship itself, such as a week-long ‘basecamp’ at TNA http://www.scottisharchives.org.uk/sff/blog/yr2tna and trips to other archives which are also hosting Skills for the Future trainees, such as Special Collections at St Andrew’s University http://www.scottisharchives.org.uk/sff/blog/af2, Glasgow City Archives http://www.scottisharchives.org.uk/sff/blog/cd1 and Falkirk Archives. As part of the traineeship we are also given the opportunity to undertake a CAIS module at Dundee University – marks are just in and I’m pretty pleased with my result!
I also undertook a course on the Digital Preservation Training Programme at the University of London Computer Centre, and a similar workshop with ARA on Practical Digital Preservation – these both really firmed up my knowledge of the theories, purposes and practices of digital preservation. Over and above all of this I found time to attend some brilliant and engaging workshops run by both ARA and the SCA that focussed on Outreach and Education, which will be the subject of the second half of my traineeship, hosted by Midlothian Council Archives. I can’t believe it’s time to move on already!
It’s been a steep learning curve and I can’t quite believe the volume of new concepts and working practices I’ve been introduced to over the past six months, but it’s been an inspiring time. My deepest thanks to everyone in Collections at John Sinclair House for their help, support and friendly advice – I’ll miss you all!