Friday, 22 July 2016

Let's get digital...

For many heritage institutions, digitisation can a bit of a double-edged sword, and the question “why don’t you just put it all online?” has been known to cause a bit of eye-rolling and clenched fists amongst archivists. In this week's blog Alice considers the issues that surround digitisation, and introduces an exciting project that LHSA is involved in...

As much as many of us would love to digitise large parts of our holdings, there are practical issues that can stand in the way. Digitisation involves more than simply snapping away with a hand-held camera: to be a worthwhile endeavour, it should produce high-quality digital images that can then be used in a variety of ways. In order to capture such images, you need good equipment, and this can be expensive! Another option is to outsource the services of a good digitisation company, but again, the costs can rise and rise. When beginning a digitisation project, it’s important to consider what is within the means of your institution.

Another concern is what the material you’re looking to digitise can withstand in terms of the photographic or scanning process. With many older volumes, the bindings might make it difficult to produce a ‘flat’ image, as they can cause the pages to curve out of shape. Although a flat image is needed, care must be taken to minimise the amount of stress placed on the most vulnerable areas, and this might require the use of specially designed cradles to hold the volume. Some volumes might be robust enough to go through a scanner which automatically turns pages as it goes – for others, the delicate nature of the pages means this is out of the question. Similarly, exposure to high light levels can have damaging effects on some records, and it’s therefore important to have a carefully-monitored lighting set-up.
The binding of the volume has here caused the pages to 'curve', making capture difficult.
A further concern is about not the physical form of the records, but their actual content. Many of LHSA’s records concern individuals, and as we’ve discussed before, it’s very important that we bear in mind potential issues around privacy and sensitivity when providing access to these records. In a similar vein, it’s also important to consider how any digital surrogates of a record might be used in the future, and how far we are able to control this. While digitisation allows for new contexts to be brought to records, we have to be sure that these new contexts build on, rather than obscure, the original context of the records’ creation.

A recent digitisation venture that LHSA has recently been involved with is the Florence Nightingale Digitisation Project, hosted by Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Centre.  The project aims to create a comprehensive database of digitised correspondence written by the pioneering nurse, and so far they have been able to provide access to over 1900 items.
LHB1/111/3 - Bound volume of letters presented to the
Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh by Miss Angelique Lucille Pringle
Past readers of our blog will remember that we hold a volume of letters written by Nightingale. These were presented to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in 1951 by Miss Angelique Lucille Pringle, who had trained under Nightingale. The two women established a long friendship, and in her letters Nightingale refers to the younger woman as ‘Little Sister’, a nickname bestowed on her for her short stature and kindly temperament.

As part of our contribution to the Florence Nightingale Digitisation Project, we’ve been looking at how to best go about preparing this, and the staff of the University of Edinburgh’s Digital Imaging Unit have been on hand to provide us with guidance. The volume is a tricky one – almost every page is a different size, and there are a number of sections where Miss Pringle has clipped out confidential or private details from the letters, meaning they don’t always ‘sit’ on the page in the order you might expect! Many of these pages are very delicate, and there are one or two where Nightingale has added corrections or clarifications in pencil to a typed letter. This means lighting levels have to be absolutely perfect in order to pick up all these small details without accidently picking up the typed text on the reverse of the page.

One of these letters is already digitised - you can see this in full over on our issuu page – and we’ll be adding more details here as the project progresses. It’s great to see such a wonderful resource for Florence Nightingale enthusiasts coming together, and even better that LHSA is able to contribute to it!


  • This video from the University of Oxford is a great introduction to how digitisation can open up records to new audiences
  • Find out more about the University of Edinburgh's Digital Imaging Unit and the work they do at their blog

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