Wednesday, 24 September 2014

To crop or not to crop? Preparing images for page turning applications

How do you prepare digital images of physical archive volumes for display within a web-based page turning application?

I thought this was going to be a fairly straight forward question when I was faced with it a couple of months ago.

Over the summer I have been supervising an internship project with the goal of finalising a set of exisiting digital images for display within a page turning application. The images were digital surrogates of the visitation records for the Archdeaconry of York between 1598 and 1690 (for more information about these records see our project page on the Borthwick website).

I soon realised that there are many ways of approaching this problem and few standard answers.

Google is normally my friend but googling the problem surfaced only guidelines geared towards particular tools and technologies - not the generic guides to good practice in this area that I was hoping for.

Page turning for digital versions of modern books is fairly straightforward. They will be uniform in size and shape, with few idiosyncrasies. The images will be cropped right down to the edges of the page resulting in a crisp and consistent presentation. 

However, we have slightly different expectations of digital surrogates of an archival volume. When photographing material from the archives it is good practice to leave a clear border around the edge of the physical document. This makes it explicit that the whole page has been captured and helps people to make a judgement on the authenticity of the digital surrogate. 

For archival volumes we have decided the best strategy is to leave a thin border around the edges of the page as shown on the left. The problem with the right image is that it is not clear that the whole page has been captured.

Volumes that we find in the archives are unique and idiosyncratic and often refuse to conform to the standard that we see in modern books. Exceptions are the norm in archives and this can make digitisation and display slightly more challenging. Page turning can work in this context, but it does require a little more thought:

Volumes within the archives do not
always have straight edges!

  • Bound volumes within the archives are not always uniform. Straight edges are rare. Damage is sometimes present, pages may even have holes in allowing other pages to be visible underneath. Should such pages be imaged as is, or should we insert a sheet underneath the page so we can see only the page that is being imaged?
  • Page size may not be consistent. A volume may contain pages of all different shapes and sizes. Fold outs may be present - meaning that a page may be larger than the size of the cover. Fold outs may have writing on both sides.
  • Inserts may be present and can occur in all shapes and sizes. They may be scattered throughout the volume or may be all inserted at the start or the end of the volume. Is their current position in the volume indicative of where they should appear within the page turning application? Should they be photographed in situ (difficult if they are folded and are larger than the volume) or removed from the volume for photography? Should they be displayed as part of the page turning application or as separate (but related) items within the interface?
  • Archival volumes may not all be in one piece. The original cover for the volume may have been separated from the pages. The pages may be loose. Should the page turning application display these volumes as they exist today, or attempt to reconstruct the volume as it once was?

There are lots of different ways we could address these challenges. Here is a summary of some of the lessons we have learnt:

  • Thoroughly assess the physical copies before digitisation commences - having an idea of what challenges you will encounter will help. It is best to work out a strategy for the volume as a whole at the start of the process and have to image the volume only once, rather than have to go back and re-image specific pages (bearing in mind you will need to try and ensure any new images are consistent with the previous ones to ensure a good page turning experience for the end user). If you come across fold outs, inserts or holes, decide how you are going to image them.
  • As part of this assessment process, seek the help of a conservator if there are pages for which a good image could not be easily captured (for example if a corner of the page is folded over and obscuring text). A conservator may be able to treat the document prior to digitisation to enable a better image to be captured.
  • Choose a background that will be suitable for the whole volume and stick to it.
  • Crop images to the spine of the book but with a small border around the other edges of the page. Try to keep a consistent crop size for the resulting images, but accept the fact that where there are fold outs or large inserts, the image will have to be larger. A good page turning application should be able to handle this.
  • Different page turning technologies will be able to support different things. Work out what technology you are using and know its capabilities

The last point to make is that we should not focus solely on dissemination. Image dissemination strategies, tools and applications will come and go but ultimately when you are taking high quality digital images of archives you will need to maintain a high resolution preservation version of those images within a digital archive.

An insert found within Visitations Court Book 2 - should this be
photographed within the volume or separate from the volume?
These preservation images will be around for the long term and can be used to make further dissemination copies where necessary. Think carefully about what is required here and remember to save your preservation originals at the right point within the workflow (for example once the images have been checked and a sensible file naming strategy implemented, but before any loss of information or degradation in image quality occurs). 

Also think about what other images may be needed to fully record the physical object for preservation purposes. It may be necessary to take some images that would not be used within the page turning application but that record valuable information about the physical volume. For example, the spine of the book, or a small detail on the cover that needs to be captured at a higher resolution. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Physical diaries versus digital calendars - a digital perspective

This summer as part of our annual staff festival I had the chance to play at being a ‘real’ archivist. Coming to work at a traditional archive through a digital route with no formal archives training means that there are many traditional archives activities that I have not had any experience of. It was great to have the chance to handle some physical archives as Borthwick staff embarked on a ‘mass list in’ of the Alan Ayckbourn archive.

Given a couple of heavy brown archive boxes and a pencil (no pens please!) and paper I was tasked with creating a box list (essentially just a brief description of what the boxes contained) for a selection of Ayckbourn’s diaries. This proved to be an interesting way to spend a morning.

My job doesn't take me into the strongrooms or searchroom very often and opportunities to handle physical archives are rare. Opening a box from the archives and lifting out the contents was reminiscent of my past career in archaeological fieldwork, in particular the excitement of not quite knowing what you may find.

The diaries I was looking at were appointments diaries rather than personal journals. The more recent diaries were used by Ayckbourn in a fairly standard way (as I use my physical appointments diary today). They were brief and factual, recording events happening on a particular day, be it the dress rehearsal of a particular performance, dinner with friends, Christmas parties or a reminder to take the cat to the cattery.

Earlier diaries from the late eighties were used in a slightly different way by Ayckbourn. These are A4 diaries with a page devoted to each day of the year. This format provided more space and allowed for uses beyond the simple appointments format. The diaries were used for to-do lists (with lots of crossings out as tasks were completed), names and addresses, notes and thoughts and thus had more points of interest as I looked through them. Much of the content I couldn’t make sense of – the handwriting was often a challenge (particularly when crossed out), and notes were often present without relevant contextual information required to fully understand them. These diaries were very much a personal tool and not created with future access in mind but this does not mean they could never be a valuable resource for research.

Whilst looking at these diaries it occurred to me to think about the modern day digital equivalent of these hard backed physical diaries and how they might be preserved and re-used into the future.

I am a keen user of a digital calendar in my professional life. At York University we have embraced the Google suite of tools and this includes Google calendar. It is an incredibly valuable tool with benefits far and above anything that could easily be achieved with its paper equivalent. I can share the calendar with colleagues to enable them to see where I am when, check multiple people's calendars at the same time and invite colleagues to meetings. Of course it also helps me manage my time in an more immediate way by popping reminders up 10 minutes before I am meant to be at a particular meeting or appointment.

Will we be archiving Google calendars in the future instead of (or alongside – I certainly use both at the moment) their paper equivalents? I think so. In December last year Google announced a new (and long awaited) feature which enables users of the calendar to download their appointments to a file. This of course would enable donors and depositors to hand their digital calendar over to a digital archive for longer term curation and access just as they would with their physical diaries and no doubt this is something we might expect to see delivered to us in the future.

This is the message Google sends once your calendar
has been prepared for export and archiving

Information from a Google calendar can be downloaded as described in the Gmail blog post. It exports the calendar data as iCalendar format (.ics) which is an independent format for exchange of calendar information (rather than something that is specific to Google). The fact that it is essentially a plain text file is great news for us digital archivists. It means we can open it up in a simple text editor and make some sense of the content without any specialist software.

After downloading my calendar from Google I had a look at it to see what level of detail was included within the iCalendar file and whether all the significant properties of my online calendar were preserved. Initial inspection shows that this is a pretty good version, though of course not as easy to read or understand as it is in its creating application. All the information appears to be there,
  • the date and time of each event
  • the date and time the event was created and last modified
  • whether my attendance is confirmed or not
  • the location of the meeting
  • who created the calendar event (including e-mail address)
  • who else is invited (including e-mail addresses)
  • any further details of the meeting that have been included in the entry

So although this is the modern equivalent (and even the future) of the physical appointments diaries in the Alan Ayckbourn archive, it is a very different beast. In some ways the data within it is better - more consistent and more detailed - than the physical diary and this can be one of the key benefits to working in a digital sphere. In other ways it is far less rich - there are no crossings out, no scribbles within the margin, no coffee stains and very little personality. The very things that are good about the digital calendar are the things which make it harder to get a sense of the real person behind the appointments.

Musings on value aside, it is good to know that when I'm faced with this question in the future I am in a better position to understand how we might preserve a digital calendar for the long term within our archive.