This week I attended the Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities conference in the impressive Lowry Centre at Salford Quays. Now in its third year, the gathering is designed to foster collaboration between archives and academic research. This year’s theme was exploring new digital destinations, which attracted a bumper crowd of 500 delegates from national libraries and archives, universities, local government, and the private sector.
At Leicester, we’ve been actively seeking to reach new audiences for our collections through digitisation for 15 years – from Historical Directories to My Leicestershire History and Manufacturing Pasts. More recently, we’ve collaborated with Phoenix and Cuttlefish in the creation of the St George’s app, and supported the AHRC Affective Digital Histories project by creating new digital archive content that has inspired creative writing commissions and other activities. We’ve also supported teaching in the School of History by digitising selected items from the University Archives relating to World War I.
In his keynote address to the conference Simon Tanner from KCL challenged the audience to reflect on what is most important in the generation of digital assets. Is it the content, the infrastructure or the consumption of digital resources? Mike Mertens (DARIAH-EU) asked whether the mantra “content is king” still holds or if, with so much content available, “software is sovereign”. In other sessions we heard speakers such as Julian Warren (Bristol RO) and Mary McKenzie (Shropshire) discuss how digital platforms have enabled them to engage users in the generation of new content relating to their collections. In the HE sector, Joanne Fitton from Leeds Special Collections described how digital has supported the engagement of students with their physical collections.
The presentations have provided food for thought and suggested opportunities for how we can develop our own digital collections. Demonstrating Oxford’s impressive new Digital Bodleian service, Lucy Burgess pointed to three principles that have guided the development of the resource: open standards, open licensing, and open software. We don’t develop our own software at Leicester, but we do try to follow open standards in our item descriptions and adopt open licensing allowing our content to be reused. In terms of collaboration with academic colleagues, we’ve enjoyed great support from our colleagues in the School of History who use our digital resources for teaching and research. However, some of the themes emerging from the conference point to new opportunities for developing our digital heritage collections:
- What do we know of our audiences? The answer to this is “a bit”. We know that Historical Directories users are typically family or local historians seeking information about a particular person or place. We know that academic colleagues direct their students towards collections such as Manufacturing Pasts, and we know that Victoria County History volunteers are using our local history collections. But, there is much more we could seek to find out about who our users are, what they want from our digital collections and how we can meet demand.
- New opportunities for engagement. There was much discussion at the conference of crowdsourcing, some of it quite critical. However, where online engagement had been combined with more traditional offline volunteer activities as in the Glasgow Roll of Honour project it is possible to generate new knowledge about and engagement with both physical and digital collections. We know that there are items within our online collections that members of the public in a Leicester could potentially share information about with us. For example, the buildings and streets in Dennis Calow’s haunting Vanished Leicester photographs were demolished with living memory. A well designed public history project tapping into the collective memory of these places could tell us much about how Leicester has changed since the Second World War and the impact of urban redevelopment on communities within the city.
- Repackaging online content for learning. Julian Warren commented that an unexpected benefit of the Know Your Place project was the opening up of resources for use on the classroom as part of place based learning activities in schools. A good deal of our online content is place specific, but our delivery platform (CONTENTdm) doesn’t really lend itself to use in the classroom. It doesn’t offer scope of narrative and interpretation required to build effective learning resources. However, one of the benefits of CONTENTdm is that it is easy to get data out of for delivery via alternative platforms. It would be interesting to experiment with the APIs to see how we can repackage some of our content so that it becomes more attractive for use in local schools.
There are plenty of other lessons gleaned from the week, and much value gained from speaking to colleagues from other institutions facing the same challenges (both digital and analogue). I’m already looking forward to next year.