Archive

Archives ‘on the go’: ‘What Was Here?’ uses technology to bring content from the ‘research room’ into the wider world, for self-directed exploration.

Introduction

In June 2019, the East Riding Archives (Beverley, East Yorkshire, England) officially launched its new app, called ‘What Was Here?’. This marked the culmination of a 4-year journey in which we had sought to find new ways of engaging audiences with archives in a digital age.

It was June 2015 when I first conceived the idea for a mobile app that allows people to view what a place looked like, while stood in that location, using archive photographs.  I was on my way to work when I passed a beautiful meadow and recognised it as the location of an image from our collections, which featured some buildings that are no longer standing.  Immediately, I thought not many people will realise ‘what was here’ and, in that moment, with smartphone in hand, an idea was born.

Background

Generally, if someone is interested in viewing material preserved in an archive it is necessary to either visit in person or request that copies be posted or emailed.  Whilst some items may be online, it can sometimes take diligent research to identify relevant web resources and items of interest.  This arguably creates barriers to access, primarily physical, but also cognitive, that can cause archival material to be the preserve of the discerning researcher and preclude many from ever seeing historic items they would otherwise have found fascinating.  One of the key drivers of ‘What Was Here?’ has always been to remove those barriers and appeal to broader audiences on the premise that we have a fundamental curiosity about the past, which makes archives relevant to everyone.

Concept & functionality

The ‘What Was Here?’ app involves archive photographs plotted onto a Google Maps base map, allowing users to go and explore points of interest and compare past with present by viewing the historic image from where it was taken.  This self-directed exploration element is combined with guided heritage trails that include route maps, directions, and GPS push notifications.  An augmented reality feature in trails, called ‘Camera View’, generates an enhanced comparative experience by using the device camera to overlay and align the historic image with the modern scene and toggle the transparency with a slider. If users are particularly fond of an image they also have an option to ‘Buy Prints’, linking back to our e-commerce website ‘East Riding Photos’ (www.picturearchives.org/eastridingphotos) and so facilitating the purchase of copies of archival content as gifts, souvenirs, or wall décor for local businesses.  The platform intentionally supports a range of potential uses including tourism, education, family history, exercise, reminiscence, or simply general interest.  Having a commercial offer available is also important to the user experience as it enhances engagement and sense of ownership.

The photographic element marks Phase 1 of the app’s rollout, with Phase 2 currently in development.  This 2nd phase focuses on historic maps overlaid onto the base map in layers of ‘time’ according to date e.g. 1700s, 1800s and is again based on the use of a transparency slider to phase between the past and present for instant visual comparison.

Challenges

From the outset, my concept has been to provide access via a base map, with archive items geo-referenced onto it.  Historic photographs and maps were earmarked as baseline content because I felt these lent themselves most readily to the geo-referencing aspect and intuitively believed them to be most popular with mainstream audiences.

One of the key challenges was identifying suitable photographs with no known copyright restrictions and plotting their coordinates.  This was achieved with over 1400 images across the East Yorkshire region. Obviously, it is not possible to be 100% accurate with every image, which is partly why a ‘Contribute’ feature was added to the platform, allowing users to make suggestions for refinement to the map coordinates.  This should also allow us to tap into the rich photographic collections of private individuals by encouraging the donation of their material.  Alongside the photographic content, the proposed method of presenting archival maps has produced the most significant developmental challenge as the source material is high resolution and data-heavy, so needs to be condensed and packaged in a user-friendly manner.  Once this work is complete it promises an exciting new way of accessing maps from the Archives.

The process of moving from concept to development, and finally to delivery has taken four years, the first three of which were spent in convincing stakeholders that my concept was a viable solution.  Our Archives service operates within a local government setting, where budgets are often constrained, so a rigorous procedure was followed in order to win corporate approval, before any consideration could be given to procurement and development.  This was a test of my persistence and belief in the concept, but in this digital age, where access to information is driven by engagement with apps and the internet, I consider it reticent for an archive not to have the means of engaging users digitally.  It was the belief that this was vital for service provision, as much as my passion for the concept, that saw this project through to its fruition.

Conclusion

The ‘What Was Here?’ concept appeals to our fundamental curiosity about the past and its relationship with our surroundings, placing archives at the centre of that user experience.  However, as with any digital innovation, the level of public awareness of the app’s availability is vital to its success.  In its first six weeks, the ‘What Was Here?’ app received over 1000 downloads on Play Store (Android) in which it trended at No.10 in the ‘Travel & Local’ category, placing it above some major commercial apps.  This is an encouraging start, providing affirmation that the concept has popular appeal, and statistics from the App Store (iOS) have yet to be added to this figure.  In relative terms, the marketing has been on a low budget, and small scale, so with future plans for increasing the promotion it is anticipated that growth in uptake could follow.  My hope is that historic photographs and maps will help the app to gain traction with a mainstream audience and allow for a diverse range of archival content to be hosted on the platform, including audio and video, with other heritage organisations getting involved and ultimately expanding the base map.  Enjoyment and learning should be at the heart of the user experience, and it is a pleasure to consider that we are using archives to deliver that to people in the wider world.  Conversely, the ‘What Was Here?’ app is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of archival content held in the repository, so it should also act as a useful advertisement, pointing people towards resource availability in the research room.  With this technology, we now have the ability and opportunity to transform how people engage with archives, creating a mainstream tool for learning and exploration.

‘What Was Here?’ is available to download free on Google Play and the App Store (search ‘what was here’).  For more information, visit https://www.eastridingarchives.co.uk/archives-online/

Copyright

Featured image was taken by Samuel Bartle

A Blockchain For Archives: Trust Through Technology

At a time when the fragility and vulnerability of digital records are increasingly evident, maintaining the trustworthiness of public archives is more important than ever.

Video and sound recordings can be manipulated to put words into mouths of people who never said them, photographs can be doctored, content added to or removed from videos and recently, AI technology has “written” news articles that can mimic any writer’s style. All of these media and many other “born-digital” formats will come to form the public record. If archives are to remain an essential resource for democracy, able to hold governments to account, the records they hold must be considered trustworthy.

But is this really a problem for archives?

Until recently, this has not been a concern for archives. People trust archives, especially public archives. We are seen as experts, preserving and providing access to our holdings freely and over a lengthy period (since 1838 in the case of The National Archives in the UK). We could rest on our laurels. But the challenges to our practice brought by digital technologies have to lead us to question whether this institutional or inherited trust is enough when faced with the forces of fakery that have emerged in the 21st century.

In 2017, The National Archives of the UK, partnered with the Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing (CVSSP) at the University of Surrey and Tim Berners-Lee’s non-profit Open Data Institute, started to research how a new technology could be harnessed to serve on the side of archives. The ARCHANGEL project is investigating how blockchain can provide a genuine guarantee of the authenticity of the digital records held in archives. A way of publicly demonstrating our trustworthiness by proving that the digital records held in archives are authentic and unchanged.

Often considered synonymous with Bitcoin, blockchain is the technology that underpins a number of digital currencies but it has the potential for far wider application. At root, it is the digital equivalent of a ledger, like a database but with two features that set it apart from standard databases. Firstly, the blockchain is append only, meaning that data cannot be overwritten, amended or deleted; it can only be added. Secondly, it is distributed. No central authority or organisation has sole possession of the data. Instead, a copy of the whole database is held by each member of the blockchain and they collaborate to validate each new block before it is written to the ledger. As a result, there is no centralised authority in control of the data and each participant has an equal status in the network: equal responsibility, equal rights and an equal stake.

As with any new technology, there are issues to be researched and resolved. The most common criticism is that 51% of the participants could collude to change the data written on the blockchain. This is less likely in the case of ARCHANGEL because it is a permissioned blockchain. This means that every member has been invited and their identity is known, unlike bitcoin networks where many of the members are anonymous.

A more practical issue that arose early on was around what information could be shared on an immutable database that would be available to the public, to prove that they were unchanged from the point of receipt by the archives. Every public archive holds records closed due to their sensitive content. This sensitivity sometimes extends to their filenames or descriptions so adding these metadata fields to the blockchain would not be appropriate. We settled on a selection of fields that included an archival reference and the checksum, a unique alphanumeric string generated by a mathematical algorithm that changes completely if even one byte is altered in the file. In this way, a researcher can compare the checksum of the record they download against the checksum on the blockchain (written when the record was first received, potentially many years previously) and see for themselves that the checksums match. As archives sometimes convert formats in order to preserve or present records to the public, the project has also developed a way of generating a checksum based on the content of a video file rather than its bytes. This enables the user to check that the video has not been altered for unethical reasons while in the archive’s custody.

So, the ARCHANGEL blockchain enables an archive to upload metadata that uniquely identifies specific records, have that data sealed into a “block” that cannot be altered or deleted without detection, and share a copy of the data with each of the other trusted members of the network for as long as the archives (some of the oldest organisations in the world) maintain it.

In the prototype testing, we found that the key to engaging other archives is in emphasising the shared nature of the network. Only by collaborating with partners can the benefits of an archival blockchain be realised by any of us. It is blockchain’s distributed nature that underpins the trustworthiness of the system; that enables it to be more reliable, more transparent and more secure, and therefore effective in providing a barrier against the onslaught of synthetic content.

At the same time, the effort of the organisations to make the prototype work demonstrates their trustworthiness: in wanting to share the responsibility for proving the authenticity of the records they hold, they demonstrate their expertise and honesty.

The arms race with the forces of fakery that archives find themselves in is the reason why The National Archives is thinking about trust. We do not want people to trust archives only because of their longevity and expertise. Instead, we want to demonstrate their trustworthiness. We want to provide what Baroness Onora O’Neill said was needed in the BBC Reith Lectures in 2002:

“In judging whether to place our trust in others” words or undertakings, or to refuse that trust, we need information and we need the means to judge the information.” O’Neill, A Question of Trust

This is what we think blockchain gives us as a profession: by being part of a network of trusted organisations which assure the authenticity of each other’s records, we demonstrate the trustworthiness of all of our records.

 

Acknowledgements

The ARCHANGEL Project would like to acknowledge the funding received from the ESPRC Grant Ref EP/P03151X/1.

Copyright

Header image: ‘Crown copyright 2019 courtesy of The National Archives’

Further details:

The project website is here: https://www.archangel.ac.uk/

For a more detailed paper about the project see: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1804.08342.pdf

Akkasah: Preserving Photographic Heritage in the Middle East and North Africa

Akkasah (an old word for camera in the Khaliji dialect), the Center for Photography at New York University Abu Dhabi, is home to an archive of the photographic heritage of the Middle East and North Africa.

Founded in 2014 by New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Professor Shamoon Zamir, the Center is dedicated to documenting and preserving the diverse histories and practices of photography from the region, and its growing archive contains at present over 65,000 images, both digital and analogue, including albumen prints, gelatin silver prints and negatives. Akkasah acquires collections of prints, negatives and digital photographs, and it also creates digital versions of collections that remain with individuals and institutions seeking to preserve and share their collections.

The Middle East and North Africa have rich traditions of documentary, vernacular, and art photography and these traditions have yet to receive the full critical attention they deserve. Akkasah’s primary aim is to establish a major hub for scholarly research on photography in the region. Akkasah is a scholarly enterprise and does not seek any commercial rights over the materials it holds. The archive is open to scholars, students and the general public by appointment. The Center is keen to work in collaboration with other institutions and individuals with a similar commitment to photography and scholarship from the Middle East and other parts of the world. Along with the creation of an archive, the Center’s activities include developing an ongoing program of conferences and colloquia on various topics related to archives, history of photography and contemporary issues in photography, producing a series of publications, as well as establishing a special collection of rare photobooks from around the world.

The Archive

In the core of Akkasah’s activities lies the archive, which includes a wide range of photographs from vernacular photography to contemporary documentary projects. The archive has published over 9500 images online via akkasah.org, including two major vernacular photography collections from Egypt (the Yasser Alwan Collection) and Turkey (the Turkey Collection). Another collection from Egypt, the Samir Farid Collection consists of over 3000 negatives of 265 old Egyptian movies from the 1930s through the 1980s. The Akkasah archive also features photographs that date back to the early days of photography in the Middle East (the Engin Ozendes & Hisham Khatib collections) taken by some of the most prominent photographers from the late Ottoman era like the Abdullah Freres or Sebah & Joaillier. Akkasah also buys historical albums from across the region with the intention to digitize, catalogue and make them available online.

Akkasah’s mission is to maintain the highest standards for photographic preservation and guarantee the preservation of photographs in perpetuity. The Center catalogues each image on the item level with an extensive set of keywords attached to each entry. Akkasah’s intends to store and preserve as much physical material as possible in-house. Along with Akkasah’s Director Shamoon Zamir, the current team members include Özge Calafato, Project Manager of the Center, and archivists Jasmine Soliman and Jonathan Burr.

Given the current state of instability and upheaval in the region, it seems imperative to increase efforts to safeguard photographic collections, but current social and political circumstances also make it difficult to pursue without encountering obstacles. Across the Middle East and North Africa, there are various private photography collections, yet it is hard to know where they are and what kind of photographs these collections include. Even collections that are part of public institutions face the same issues due to poor cataloguing or lack of access. The inability to ensure proper climate control remains a concern for most photographic archives in the region. In this regard, Akkasah is committed to both transparency and open access, with the goal to make its entire archive available online for researchers and the general public.

A custodial model for archiving

Social and political instability poses a major challenge for the preservation of photographic heritage in the region. There is little governmental support for the preservation of photographic heritage. Many of the institutions and individuals who own the collections under threat are rightly reluctant to have them alienated from their and national and cultural homes, even as they seek to have them safeguarded.

Accordingly, Akkasah has developed a custodial model in order to address this issue. In the custodial model Akkasah either digitizes a collection in situ or assists in removing a collection, or part of a collection, to NYUAD, in order for it to be digitized catalogued, and returned to the donor at any time at no cost. This model was first implemented for the Hisham Khatib Collection in Jordan. The Hisham Khatib Collection includes over 2000 historical photographs from the Middle East, with a focus on Palestine and Jordan. For this collection, Akkasah worked with Darat Al Funun, a major cultural centre in Amman, digitizing the entire collection in situ in 2017.

Another major project that used the custodial model includes the archive of College de la Sainte Famille, a Jesuit high school from Helwan in Egypt, for which over 2000 prints from the late 19th century through the 1990s were digitized in Abu Dhabi and returned to the school afterwards.

Traditionally a Eurocentric field, Akkasah aims to shift the centre of gravity in the history of photography eastwards and beyond and focus on global photographic centres, which so far have been on the periphery of the history of photography. Building and maintaining a photographic archive in a region where a lot of archives are at the risk of being disrupted, stolen or lost comes with a number of challenges. In the region, issues related to archives and archival practices are still not fully discussed. Through its archival practices and scholarly activities, Akkasah’s hope is to generate research that contributes to the development of alternative social and cultural histories of the region. Through full open access, Akkasah aims to change the prevalent culture pertinent to archives in the region, and encourage a more participatory approach with regard to preserving and sharing cultural heritage.

Keep updated with the latest additions to the Akkasah Center on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Image Banner: A group of men and women standing on the stairs of a building, Late Ottoman era. Photographer unknown. Turkey Collection, AD_MC_007_ref287 . Visit here. Copyright ©Akkasah Center for Photography, NYU Abu Dhabi. 

Recordkeeping and museum professionals – the same but different? A retrospective musing on the Archives and Records Association annual conference 2017

The author of this article co-planned and participated in a panel presentation and debate on this topic in August 2017, and now in spring 2019, it seems an excellent opportunity to look back at the professional climate as it was 18 months ago and how professional activities in this area have progressed since then.

‘Everybody is a Heritage Professional Nowadays: Should Archivist and Curator Remain as Separate Professions?’ – this was the title of the panel session which took place at the ARA’s annual conference in London, chaired by Adrian Steel (then Director of the Postal Museum), with Charlotte Berry (then Hereford Cathedral Archivist) and Iain Watson (Director of Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums) as co-panelists.

Each of the three panellists presented their response to the question of whether archivists and curators should remain separate professions or not. Suggested topics included whether:

  • each profession had skills that were unique
  • the job titles of archivist and curator empower or stifle professionals
  • it is just the professionals who retain this distinction, whereas the public see archivists and curators as much the same thing
  • two very similar and overlapping professional roles are necessary in times of increasing economic pressures
  • there is a need now for the ‘super’ heritage professional who can do both roles archivists and curators are managers of resources or producers/editors of content?

The viewpoints of the three panellists were diverse and wide-ranging, reflecting their own varied individual professional experiences – two as qualified archivists who now work widely with object collections and museum professional colleagues, and the third as a widely experienced museum professional who now manages a joint service employing museum and archive professionals in tandem.

Charlotte’s slot focused on the very many areas of professional overlap – the importance of collection expertise, understanding provenance and interconnectivity, and cross-sectoral standards of best practice and excellence. Technology and digitisation offer increasing opportunities for public access but also potentially can erode the unique skillset of the archivist – where thorough training in and understanding of legal history, palaeography/diplomatic, administrative history, original order and record types come under pressure as budgets buckle and services shrink. There are also fundamental differences between the two sectors, partly reflecting differences in the development of museums and archives, governance at a national level following the split of MLA and also in different routes for education, qualification and entry to the sectors. Charlotte feels strongly that ongoing workforce and professional development should celebrate the key differences and core skills within our two sectors, whilst encouraging archive professionals to learn from their museum colleagues in areas such as sustainability and resilience, engagement and advocacy. “The same but different” is a useful catchphrase embracing the numerous synergies, encouraging expertise within each profession and recognising the overly generic and homogenous nature of the ‘heritage professional’. With two feet placed firmly within both textual and material culture, archives are well placed to bridge the gaps between the two and to act as a conduit between the museum and library sectors.

Adrian’s viewpoint developed from a wealth of experience working in a trailblazing joint heritage organisation navigating complex governance and legal requirements, where curators and archivists use one Collections Management system which enables one single public access catalogue – a huge benefit to both staff and the public alike. Definitions of the material being cared for can create both synergies and problems – paper material increasingly appears in both archive and museum collections, but is catalogued differently according to existing best practice – for example, a greetings card would be catalogued by colour, dimension, weight etc by curators, but only by recipient/sender by archivists. Handling the original collections is another area of different professional practice – although handling collections enable some museum object duplicates to be handled by the public, most items are accessed via exhibitions or viewing digital surrogates online and it remains the curators who can handle the originals. Conversely, archivists will typically encourage readers to come to the archive and do their own research, or to use digital surrogates and do their research from the comfort of their own desk at home. Professional approaches also differ within interpretation – Adrian suggested that archivists are trained to be more neutral and detached from the narratives held in their collections, and opt to leave the user to take what they will from their archival research and to put it into a wider historical or social context. Curators often have a stronger sense of duty to interpret on behalf of an object, to engage with wider campaigns which increase the social impact of the sector’s work and to engage in museum activism. Although often co-existing happily in mutual contradiction, these distinct aspects of the two professions should not be ironed out but should be facilitated and embraced through increasing collaboration and cross-sectoral working.

Iain explored how using physical definitions to create professional distinctions between curators (objects), libraries (published material) and archives (documentary materials) can be problematic in practice. The dividing lines between all three sectors are becoming increasingly blurred and indistinct at institutional levels, but the fact remains that archivists and curators’ shared responsibility is to make evidence available – “bad archivists write hiding aids”, not finding aids. Iain advocated strongly for introducing broad generic roles in a professional context where specialist skills, knowledge and experience can co-exist and be valued. Three roles would cover the principal functions – information/knowledge manager (holding knowledge about what the item is, what it contains and its significance), the conservator (responsible for physical care and preservation of the item) and the interpreter/learning officer/producer (interpreting and engaging with the item). He urged the archive sector to embrace a more proactive user-based and user-generated approach, where the recordkeeping professionals renounce their expert role and hand some of their power to the public. Archivist and curator are inherently inward-looking terms – instead, the key concern for us all is the user and now to find new ways and means of creative engagement within museums and archives.

Since summer 2017, archivists continue to develop professional and academic interests in managing museum collections. The spring 2018 issue of the ARA’s journal Archives and Records was widely oversubscribed and featured a wide range of international articles looking at sharing best practice and theory across archives and museums. Sessions on museums continue to appear at the 2018 and 2019 ARA annual conferences. A special issue of the ARA’s monthly membership magazine Arc celebrated object-centred engagement and projects in January 2019, and in the magazine, a call went out to assess membership need for training in managing object collections and to set up a new ARA Section. The first training day will take place in May 2019 and Charlotte is currently setting up a new Section for Archives and Museums for the Archives and Records Association (UK and Ireland).

Please contact Charlotte for further information if you’d like to find out more on what is proving to be an area of developing professional interest: archives@magd.ox.ac.uk.

Copyright

Banner image: MC: MP/1/24 Map of Romney Estates, Kent, 1614. With kind permission of the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford. ©Magdalen College Oxford

An archivist walks (back) into a film visual effects company

Introduction: From film to archives, and back to film

From a young age, I’ve been enamoured with films and the magic of bringing moving images to the screen. In my 20s I pursued undergraduate studies in media production and dabbled in many areas of film production, never quite getting my break into the industry. The closest I got was when I landed a job with a visual effects company in Sydney. However, after 11 months of being there, they went into liquidation and closed down.

In my 30s I set aside my dream to work in the movie business and enrolled into a Masters of Information Management. Within a few months, I lined up a professional placement which turned into full-time contract work. Then within a year, I secured an ongoing role in a government archive. I thoroughly enjoyed my new career and didn’t look back to film until one day my friend tells me about a new school being set up to teach animation and VFX. “They’re offering research scholarships”, she told me, “you should apply”. “But what would I research?” I responded puzzled. “Archiving of course!” she said matter of factly.

Almost two years later, and here I am, doing a PhD about film VFX archiving. On many levels, it’s fantastic being in the film world again. This time bringing my archiving expertise back to help a niche group of creative and techy filmmakers preserve their work and reassess the value of their records. However, selling ‘archiving’ to this community is a challenge. In this article, I present some of my experiences and findings so far during my PhD with the VFX industry.

Film VFX

VFX is a creative and technical field of film production, which utilises digital technologies and computer-generated imagery (CGI) in conjunction with live-action shots. The industry is a transnational “media heterotopia” made up of geographically dispersed places and people funnelling work into networked pipelines to create fabricated and seamless visuals for the screen
[1].

Since its introduction in the 1970s through films such Westworld (1973) and Star Wars (1977), the “spectacle, imagery and esthetics afforded by computer-generated imagery has shepherded digital visual effects to the forefront of film production process” [2].

Producing VFX for films involves some specialists skills and tasks including 3D modelling, animation, texturing, lighting, effects and compositing which are provided by digital artists and an array of proprietary, open-source and bespoke software and tools. VFX production also generates high volumes of data, assets and records. Selecting, archiving and maintaining this material can prove to be a challenging process in the industry.

Archiving VFX

VFX studios do not generally employ records management or archiving specialists. Instead, information technology staff or data managers are assigned the task of archiving data, records and assets, usually, once a production project concludes. While some studios have sophisticated tools and processes in place to select only high-value assets that were used in final shots and which represent the ‘hero’ elements (key characters, props etc.). Other information (such as business records and the metadata and contextual information about the assets) are not always archived with the production asset material.

Access and retrieval of archives can be troublesome as archives are generally written to passive LTO magnetic storage tapes. Locating and restoring tape data can often rely upon staff knowledge as there is not always a detailed tape manifest or database to build upon. Besides, another issue is that new generations of LTOs are released every few years, and generally, the tape readers are only one to two generations backwards compatible. This means that if archives are not being migrated to newer tapes, the data becomes trapped due to media obsolescence.

Archiving is motivated by a need to free up online storage space for new productions. When I talked with senior VFX practitioners, they indicated that sometimes they would go back to their previous work if a sequel is on the cards or to reuse a specific technique. However, the technical environment progresses so quickly that most of the time, they just rebuild everything from scratch.

The notion of preserving evidence of VFX for cultural or historical purposes is not high on the agenda for VFX studios. Although, there is evidence that VFX collections do exist in publically accessible archives [3]. VFX is an industry that is continually looking ahead to the next job and the future creative and technical breakthroughs. Looking back to the past—to the records of previous generations of digital artists is something most studios do not consider.

This is partly because they often don’t own the rights to their work. Under copyright law, VFX studios and their artists are considered “work made for hire” [4]. Intellectual property rights sit with the producer (generally a film studio). This means, technically, film studios are the owners of the work and thus should have responsibility for managing VFX archives over time.

Because of the ownership model, the VFX industry takes information security VERY SERIOUSLY. Upon entering any VFX studio, you must sign an NDA and adhere to their strict security policies (e.g. visitors must be escorted at all times, certain machines have zero network access, studios cannot promote their work until the film is released and/or they have permission from the studio).

Conducting research with the VFX industry

So far in my research, I have interviewed over a dozen VFX practitioners based in Australia, USA and the UK. I have heavily relied upon my personal contacts to facilitate the research and introduce me to key staff in studios around the world.

As I experienced, first-hand, VFX studios are very busy work environments. They all have impending deadlines, and staff don’t have precious time to spare—especially not for some Archivist PhD Candidate! Selling the benefits of proper archiving can be a challenge as it inevitably will require resourcing. Smaller-scale VFX studios are generally resource-poor, and the larger studios have competing departments vying for more staff, software or newer tech.

In addition, due to the rigorous information security, I get the impression that for some studios, letting in an Archivist is seen as a risk not worth taking. To try and mitigate this, I have agreed to adopt strict confidentiality and anonymise all my research findings. However, this can also work against me as often the first question potential participants ask me is, “So who else have you spoken to?”. So without having the option to name-drop, I have instead ‘sold’ my research as a potential means to create more online space, improve access and retrieval and usability of their records over time.

Conclusion

In this article, I’ve reflected upon some challenges and findings of my industry-focused doctoral research project with the film VFX industry. In the next year or so I hope to continue to document archiving practices in various VFX studios around the world, share my findings and explore how improvements could be made to help ensure that evidence of this significant discourse of modern cinema is preserved for future generations.

References and notes
[1] Chung, H.J. (2012). Media heterotopia and transnational filmmaking: Mapping real and virtual worlds. Cinema Journal, 51(4), 87–109. doi: 10.1353/cj.2012.0071.

[2] McClean, S. (2014). Digital storytelling: the narrative power of visual effects in film, Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 5.

[3] For example, see Dan Curry papers, 1967-2008, UCLA Library Special Collections

[4] Copyright Act of 1976 (USA), § 101

Translating for a Digital Archive

The Qatar Digital Library

Since 2012, the British Library has been working with the Qatar Foundation and Qatar National Library to create and maintain the Qatar Digital Library. Launched in 2014, this free, bilingual portal hosts a growing archive of previously un-digitised material primarily from the BL’s collections. Focusing on content relevant to the history and culture of the Persian Gulf, items include India Office Records, maps, visual arts, sound and video, and personal papers. The portal also features selected Arabic scientific manuscripts. Alongside these items, the QDL also offers expert articles to help contextualise the collections.

As part of the BL’s translation team, I work to produce and edit the Arabic language content for the QDL. While the collection items themselves are displayed solely in their original language, all of the portal’s supporting and descriptive content is translated, as are the expert articles, meaning that the catalogue can be searched and used just as easily in Arabic as in English.

The bilinguality of the portal has been a key part of increasing the visibility and accessibility of the collections. Users of the QDL are just as likely to access the site in Arabic as they are in English, if not even more so: the most frequently visited individual page on the site is the Arabic homepage and users more often land on one of the Arabic pages than the English ones. Moreover, the terms users enter to search the collections are just as often written in Arabic as they are in English. Consequently, we have a responsibility to maintain the same high stands and make sure that all of the QDL’s features function equally well in both languages.

Our Toolbox: Translation management software

Like many large-scale translation projects, ours involves multiple translators, and several rounds of proofing and quality checks to ensure accuracy and consistency. To manage this, we use a piece of software called memoQ that includes two essential tools: a translation memory (TM) and a term base (TB). The TM functions as a bilingual database of previously translated segments of text; it works by storing pairs of original source-language content alongside its approved translation. When a new text is imported, memoQ breaks it into smaller segments on the basis of punctuation and line breaks, and automatically conducts a search for exact and partial matches. These are then presented to the translator for approval and/or review.

Caption: A segment in memoQ with an exact match (100%) in the TM

Caption: A segment in memoQ with a partial match (85%) in the TM

While a human expert still has the final say on whether to accept any suggestion from the TM, frequently only a minor edit is needed to make the old translation suitable for the new context. This serves the double purpose of saving time and maintaining consistency across the catalogue as a whole. Translation memories tend to prove their worth the larger they are and the more repetition there is in the content. Having grown over the years since the start of the project, our TM now routinely recognises a third of content in a new file, and often much more.

While the TM grows organically over time by compiling and storing translation segments, the term base is maintained manually. It works as a glossary for key terms, allowing us to suggest preferred equivalents for individual words or phrases, and/or to blacklist translations that should be avoided. As the TB is visible to all parties at all stages of translation and proofing, it helps to ensure the consistency of these terms in Arabic.

Caption: A segment in memoQ with terms recognised by the TB highlighted in blue

Caption: Terms recognised by the TB, with approved translations in blue and forbidden ones in black

Authorities: making the most of memoQ

The TB has proved especially useful when it comes to translating authority files. An authority record serves to identify and describe a person, corporate body, family, place name, or subject term that is featured in a catalogue description. Each term is authorised and unique. As every record and every expert article on the QDL is linked to at least one authority file, they form an index through which users can search for all the content related to a specific term.

Caption: Authorities displayed as filters on the QDL

Caption: Authorities displayed at the end of a record on the QDL

To be effective, authorities must be reproduced in exactly the same way for every record. For the English side of the portal, they are extracted from the same central database each time, with no opportunity for them to mutate or change before arriving on the portal – but not so with the Arabic!

For every record, the linked authorities are included as part of the English text to be translated, no matter how many times they may have been translated in the past. This repetition of the process creates an opportunity for discrepancies to creep in. If, for instance, there are several new records, all linked to the same new authority, that are sent to several different translators, it is not only possible but quite likely that each translator will produce a valid but slightly different version of the term in Arabic. If the same records then also go to different proof readers, there is a good chance that the discrepancies will slip through unnoticed, rendering the Arabic authority much less useful than the English equivalent, as any one variant will not be linked to all the related content.

After spending much time and energy on trying (and sometimes failing) to catch these discrepancies at the end of the proofing process, we now make sure to pre-translate any new authority and add it to the TB, along with a unique identifying number (arkID), before sending the related files for translation. This means that when the term appears for translation, it is displayed in the TB along with its arkID, adding an extra means of checking whether this is the approved and appropriate translation for this specific context. Once confirmed and thereby added to the TM, it registers as a 101% match, meaning that there is an exact match not only in the text, but also in the metadata.

Caption: Authority term with arkID displayed in TB, registering as 101% match in memoQ

Cataloguing for Translation

Working in-house at the BL alongside the cataloguers allows the translation team to understand and appreciate their processes and standards, and has also allowed us to show them the impact of their decisions and choices on translation. Over time, we have developed guidelines to help them create the English records with translation in mind. For example, where possible, the cataloguers now use stock phrases for repeated content, leading to a much higher hit rate in the TM, and they understand that their use of punctuation can make a big difference to the likelihood of a match appearing.

Caption: Stock phrase with multiple TM hits in memoQ

Caption: List of correspondents written using punctuation marks to help break the text into smaller translation segments in memoQ

Small changes like this help to streamline the translation process, so we can focus on maintaining the QDL’s high standards across the Arabic side of the portal and make sure the content is just as accessible in either language.

Translation in Digitisation

In my work as a freelancer, I have found more often than not that clients arrive at translation as something of an afterthought. It is frustratingly common to find that they have budgeted neither the time nor the funds required for the work – the deadline tends to be yesterday, and the fee mere pennies. Pleasingly, this is not the case working on this project, where translation has been built into the process from the beginning and is understood to take time, thought, research, and expertise. Moreover, the decision to have an on-site team, working in the same office as the cataloguers, affords a rare opportunity to consult the specialists about their writing when queries inevitably arise, and to reciprocate by sharing our linguistic, cultural, and technical knowledge. We could of course always do more in our efforts to create bi- and multilingual resources for ever wider audiences, and with more and more institutions planning and investing in digitisation, there are deeper and broader questions about how, for whom, and in which languages we do so. Bilinguality has been a vital part of the QDL’s success in opening up the collections to new users and ought to be part of the ongoing discussions in digitisation.

See further:
Copyright:

Banner: Brief Principles of the Arabic Language ‎[F-1-14] (14/184), Qatar National Library, 10680, in Qatar Digital Library. Author: Filippo Guadagnoli. ©Qatar National Library. Usage Terms: Creative Commons Attribution Licence

memoQ Images:  ©memoQ.

QDL Images: ©Qatar National Library. Terms: Creative Commons Attribution Licence

 

 

ACOR Photo Archive, Amman, Jordan

The American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) Photo Archive has recently digitized and made available six collections of photographs spanning diverse subjects in archaeology, social history, anthropology, art and architectural history from 1944 to 2008 from across the Middle East and North Africa.

The ACOR Photo Archive is open-access and all of the 15,000 photos online are available to download for free.  The vast majority of these photos were not previously catalogued, known about, or accessible to the public. Two years in to the four-year digitization project, the ACOR Photo Archive is now accessed from countries all around the world, with most of its users split between Jordan and the U.S. The ACOR Photo Archive Project is funded by a Title VI (2016) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The ACOR Photo Archive Project was initiated to digitize images mostly from Jordan, including donated collections and those of former research center directors. Inspiration for this project came from a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of cultural heritage in the region in the context of the wars in Syria and Yemen, amongst the loss of human life. The Photo Archive Project sought to resist this destruction by turning attention to the resources in ACOR’s basement – the photographic record of now-infamous places such as Palmyra/Tadmur in Syria, as well as less well-known feats of ancient engineering like Marib Dam, Yemen, pictured before they were damaged in the conflict.

The Triumphal Arch of the Great Colonnade, with the Arab castle visible in the background. Palmyra/Tadmur, Syria, 1955. George Bass collection at ACOR.

South sluice, Marib Dam, Yemen, 1995. Jane Taylor collection at ACOR.

From the outset, as ACOR is based in Jordan, quieter forms of destruction – through development pursued without care for the urban environment in its entirety or through the prioritization of some histories over others – were also a factor in the desire to digitize the archives. Comparing the two images below of the Oval Piazza at the Roman and Islamic archaeological site in Jerash, Jordan gives an insight into both the rate of development, and the prioritization of certain historical remains over others.

Oval Piazza, Jerash, 1955. George Bass collection at ACOR.

Oval Piazza, Jerash, 1998. Jane Taylor collection at ACOR.

An unexpected highlight of embarking on the ACOR Photo Archive Project was the enthusiasm with which other institutions in Jordan received ACOR’s heritage digitization efforts. In 2017, ACOR hosted a workshop for fellow heritage and library professionals creating a forum to share and address specific challenges relating to digitizing heritage of Jordan and the wider region. Challenges included how best to describe archival material so that researchers, students and the general public would be able to find it easily, no matter their educational background. When you are handling representations of sites typically inhabited by at least two civilizations with vastly different names for their settlements as well as the variations found when one script is transliterated into another – Arabic to Latin in this case – things quickly become complicated. Some places, such as the Islamic Umayyad (7th-8th century) lodge and bathhouse, Qasr ‘Amrah, in Jordan’s Eastern Desert are also known by a second name in Arabic, Qusayr Amra. This complexity makes it essential to collate extensive metadata (information about data, such as photos) covering all scholarly traditions that discuss the subject matter of the photo, in order to render images findable through simple keyword search. This process transforms individual image collections into a visual bibliography of the region.

Technical training in digitization, particularly slide, print and negative photo scanning, is in demand in Jordan, where archival sciences programs equivalent to those elsewhere are not yet available in the otherwise sophisticated cultural heritage management sector. As a result, in 2018, the ACOR Photo Archive team led in-depth training designed to turn scanning novices into digitization professionals working according to the best-practice recommendations of the U.S. Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines (2016).

As the Photo Archive team began adding layers of descriptive metadata to each image, they realized that they wielded control over how the images would be received and interpreted by archive users. The information presented alongside the images would frame how these were to be interpreted by researchers, school students, and even perhaps future generations. In the postcolonial context of overseas research centers in Jordan, this is a significant responsibility. The initial plan for the ACOR Photo Archive did not include metadata in Arabic. However, the Photo Archive team quickly realized that this had the potential to prevent Arabic-speaking researchers and students from benefitting from the newly available material. Instead, the team insisted upon Arabic-script functionality when commissioning a Content Management Platform – ‘Starchive’ by Digital ReLab – to host the ACOR Photo Archive online.

As the Photo Archive developed into tens of thousands of images presented online, Samya Kafafi, Project Coordinator for Metadata, added descriptions and references for further reading from publications in Arabic – serving as a platform in which the work of Jordanian and international scholars are presented with equal weight. Presenting images of cultural heritage from across the region alongside the premier academic scholarship on its topic became a priority for the team, and is something we are continuing to develop today, as the ACOR Photo Archive grows. Although the archive is run by one of the premier research libraries in Jordan, its potential to serve younger learners was highlighted at the Jordan School Librarians’ Conference (November 2018), which inspired teachers to incorporate the ACOR Photo Archive as a key resource for school projects.

Looking ahead to the next two years of the project, ACOR’s goals are to continue to make more images accessible – a target of 30,000 by late 2020 – as well as to hold photo exhibitions both online and in Amman, to foster further exchanges with experts on subjects included in the archive, and to continue to train young Jordanians in the practices of archiving and digitization.

Keep updated with the latest additions to the ACOR Photo Archive on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Archive in Practice: An imagined exhibition

 Part one: Archive in Practice

One dimension of photography is that it is concerned with the staging of a struggle against the loss of memory – an attempt to archive and preserve what is about to disappear for good.[1] Gerhard Richter

These reflections by artist Gerhard Richter, encapsulate the very reason why I was lured into working with the medium. “An attempt to archive and preserve what is about to disappear for good”… Photography frames subjective experience in time. The act of taking a photograph is a highly romantic gesture – it captures a frame in time, which then becomes a fragment, isolated from its whole.

(Including the black edges of the film strip and a sliver of the next photograph on the film, amplifies the notion of the fragment)

3.2 The View. 2006 [2011]. Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 77 x 46cm. Edition of 3 + 2 AP. (Including the black edges of the film strip and a sliver of the next photograph on the film, amplifies the notion of the fragment)

Every single photograph that I have ever taken contributes to an organically growing archive of irretrievable past defined in pictorial representation. This archive is the foundation of my art practice whereby the images within it become subject to constant reinterpretation and reconfiguration.

Acts of Recall, [sort excerpt], 2015, 16:9, colour, 14 min, 36 seconds, video still

By continually retrieving earlier photographs and combining them with more recent pictures, I explore new sets of formal connections and narrative relationships, which then surfaces other imagery or elements. In this way, my work reflects upon the transitory nature of meaning and memory, thereby amplifying the paradox of photography.

Drifting Down, [The Dome], 2012. Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnem Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 100x100cm. Edition of 5 + 2 Ap

I am working with an acutely active archive, one that is constantly expanding physically as I continue to take pictures using analogue film in combination with digital printing processes. However, it is the emotional impact of each of these pictures that cause my archive to function and how they evoke and interact with my own memory. The enduring questions are:

How does one preserve content in an archive that is driven by “the felt”, the narrative and the poetic?

 How does one organise and manage the content in an archive that is continually changing in meaning and has endless manifestations, inter-relationships and formal and narrative connections?

All The Gardens I Could Find – Installation View
Blindside, Melbourne, 2016.

 I explore these themes through projects and exhibitions. Through the use of installation strategies I create pictorial and spatial structures that often function as a visual and temporal representation of the archival process and the concept of the catalogue as a completed physical item.

I playfully present photographs from my archive as a composite experience across a gallery space, thematically arranged, described and in constant dialogue with one another. This is realized through using colour, components of text and careful placement of the works in relation to the architecture of the gallery space. I usually include mechanisms for storing, reimaging or archiving like boxes, tables, folders, envelopes, and frames as a way of suggesting that the order is not fixed, and that the material is always in a state of being sorted through and processed – meaning is always in a constant state of flux.

Series 5: Overlaps – Garden Green and Sky Blue. Installation View Detail. Blindside, Melbourne 2016.

  For When All the Leaves Will Fall (Chiang Mai, Thailand) 2016 (2015)
  Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 54x37cm.
  Edition of 5 + 2 Ap.

Through working in collection institutions like the State Library of Victoria and the British Library as my day job, I have been exposed to institutional workflows and archival tools and processes used to manage and preserve collection material and to make it accessible and discoverable for users. I have been inspired by the principles of archival arrangement and description and systems used to store, display and handle collections. This day-to-day engagement has undoubtedly woven into my own methodology.

The second half of this article for Archivoz, takes on the form of an imagined exhibition where archival tools and principles are employed to organize and display the works, as well as to amplify readings concerned with the fragmentary. The concept of the archive is also used as a metaphor for representation of the inner workings of the mind.

The Course of Leaving [Of course I will be Leaving]. 2010.
Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta. 60x40cm

 

Part two: An Imagined Exhibition

A single table is positioned across the centre of the gallery, causing the room to be split into two parts. The dimension of this table permits only just enough space for the viewer to move around it and access the other half of the gallery.

The table’s surface acts as a carrier of meaning. Upon this surface, lay fragments of images – unmounted, unframed and resting in piles, that seem to be assembled into groupings according to colour, pictorial content and geometric forms. The surface layer of pictorial content is presented to the viewer, while the photographs embedded underneath are concealed by the nature of the pile. These deeper layers suggest a personal content that is not accessible.

For Proust, the deepest most profound memories really need to have been “lost” by being gradually covered over by other memories…[2]…. Embedded underneath the surface layers of the pile are ‘the true emotional tone of the past

The viewer enters the space through the whiteness and emptiness, being lured toward the zone of the table by the fragments of deep and vivid colors revealed between sheets of creamy white paper and manila folders that evoke the sense of residue that has accumulated over the years. In this structure, the pile is a metaphor for The Ruin and one of the beauties of a Ruin is its ability to be re-constructed.

The space in the back half of the gallery (behind the table) is roused by activity – large scale photographs, evocative and contemplative are assembled onto the whiteness of the walls – activating them with colour, light and image.

“Archives are seen as rows and rows of boxes on shelves, impenetrable without the codex which unlocks their arrangement and location”[3]. In this pictorial structure, it is as though the contents of the archive have emerged from their boxes and folders in storage and are undergoing a process of renewal, construction and re-construction.

A code of access is provided for the viewer, through the visual dialogue that operates between the piles of information laid out on the table and the photographs on the walls. Memory is used here as a device: through the use of installation strategies like repetition, groupings, rhythms, contrasts in scale – the viewers’ own memory can be evoked.

As the viewer passes through the area around the table to access the back half of the gallery, they will encounter a Finding Aid, which invites them to go deeper into uncovering further layers of content, through the descriptive information listed at item level.

The archive presented here is fluid, flowing, and its content discoverable through the act of slowing down and paying attention to the subtle codes revealed visually through the careful placement of works throughout the space.

 A Room for Ordering Memory. 2012. Installation View. Counihan Gallery, Melbourne.

For futher information: www.melaniejaynetaylor.com 

[1] Gerhard R. (2010). Between Translation and Invention: The Photograph in Deconstruction. In Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

[2] Gross, D. (2000). Lost Time – On Remembering and Forgetting in Late Modern Culture. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.

 [3] Breakwell, S. (Spring 2008). Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive. In Tate Papers 9. Retrieved from https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/09/perspectives-negotiating-the-archive

British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme

In October 2014, the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership launched the Qatar Digital Library (QDL), an online bilingual portal that provides free access to material from the British Library’s collections.

The portal displays content related to the history and culture of the Gulf and its surroundings, as well as the Library’s Arabic Scientific Manuscripts. Among the collections that we are working on are: the India Office Records on Gulf History (Agencies and Residencies), personal papers, maps, photographs, and manuscripts. The portal is fully bilingual, supporting study in both Arabic and English. At the moment, there are almost one and a half million images of British Library material on the portal, comprising over 14,000 records and over 136 manuscripts, with more content being uploaded every week. In addition, the Digital Library hosts articles from our experts, developed by the British Library team to help contextualise the collections. There are currently over 140 published articles, with more to come.

Digitising and publishing the documents on the QDL requires the work of a wide range of specialists. We are an interdisciplinary team, made up of more than forty professionals, including computer scientists, photographers, conservators, curators, archivists, administrators, translators, and specialist historians. Together we are working to give users of the portal a comparable experience to seeing the original documents in person.

The most obvious and important benefit of digitisation is the increased visibility and access to the collections. Users no longer have to be physically present in the Library’s reading rooms in London, but can now view these records from any corner of the globe, on a number of different devices. Since the portal has been active, users have been accessing the site from all around the world, with the top five countries being the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and the United Kingdom.

Alongside the digital images, each file is published with a short descriptive catalogue record, created by our team of experts. Cataloguing of this kind allows the Library to better understand and document the nature of the collections themselves, improving its own records and highlighting the importance of the material.

When providing free open access to information online, issues surrounding copyright and data protection must be considered.  On the programme we have a dedicated Rights Clearance team, and the programme works with the Library’s Information Compliance Officer to ensure that we are compliant with current legislation and British Library policy. By firstly determining whether the catalogued material is still within copyright or not, our Rights Clearance team then conduct copyright ownership research into the collection items selected for digitisation, tracing and contacting Rights Holders where possible, such as individuals, companies, publishers, estates and other relevant bodies, working to ensure the correct usage terms are displayed on the portal.

Moreover, there are further challenges on a digitisation project such as this. There can be challenges in scoping the material: its condition, size, the style of handwriting, and the languages in which it is written may all make a given file difficult to read. These issues can in turn have knock-on effects on the time needed for conservation, cataloguing, and digitisation. Assessing the time needed for an item to makes its way from the BL’s secure storage onto the portal is no easy task, and requires clear coordination across all teams. To facilitate this, a workflow with three separate streams has been developed, and is now managed through the use of Microsoft SharePoint. Each team also maintains thorough documentation and guidelines to help ensure the consistency of its work.

We are highly aware of the importance of communicating our work to make sure it reaches new audiences. Among our outreach activities, we promote the portal online through social media and in person through talks and tours of the programme. Many of our specialists also offer presentations at academic and archival conferences, participate in seminars, and write articles and blogs for wider publication. The response of users of the portal is overwhelmingly positive: many researchers and students are using this resource, not only in the UK, but also in the United States and across the Gulf region, and the increased access to this material is allowing for studies of a broader and more comprehensive nature than was previously possible.

Thanks to this project, important historical material from the BL’s collections, some of which had not previously been fully catalogued or studied in depth, is now being disseminated and made available to the general public. The Partnership has just agreed a further three years for this project, until the end of 2021, during which time we plan to make even more material available. We hope our efforts will prove useful to all who access the portal.

For more information please visit Qatar Digital Library and our web in British Library.

This article was originally published in ARC Magazine, a publication of the Archive & Records Association of the UK & Ireland, no. 349, September 2018.

Image: Kitāb na‘t al-ḥayawān كتاب نعت الحيوان [‎208v] (427/534), British Library: Oriental Manuscripts, Or 2784

Reflexivity and Archiving: Reflections on the High Court of Uganda’s Archive

At the end of May 2018, a team assembled in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, in order to appraise, organize, and catalogue the High Court of Uganda’s archive. Over a period of three months, the team of 15+ archivists, academics, and High Court staff members catalogued what is believed to be the largest legal archive in sub-Saharan Africa.

Initiated by Sauda Nabukenya, Ph.D. student in the History Department of the University of Michigan, and Dr. Derek Peterson, professor of history and African studies at the same university, the project’s aim was to “organize and make accessible the very considerable archives of the High Court.” Over the course of the first two months, the team transported over 800 boxes of materials from the High Court’s basement to an offsite location that provided adequate space for sorting. Once there, the team sorted and catalogued over 450 boxes, totaling 45,000 files. Finally, the Judiciary granted a project extension for August 2018 so that the remaining boxes could also be catalogued.

The sheer scale of this project and the rate at which it was completed is impressive and warrants reflection. However, the project provoked several considerations for me, a professionally-trained archivist interested in the politics of archival use and control in the aftermath of colonialism.

Neutrality of the Archive

Neutrality has been a central pillar in the ideals/mythologies of archives. The archivist, armed with their catalogue, is expected to assist a user in navigating a collection by organizing and describing materials much like a GPS would any other terrain – accurately, objectively, and usefully. Though the concept of neutrality has been contested within the archival profession and likewise by researchers, other ideals have not been as discussed. Below, I raise collaboration and reflexivity as useful alternatives.

Useful Imperfection and Collaborative Cataloguing

Working on this project, I was aware of several systematic violations of neutrality. I wish to explore them here with ambivalence. I would argue that some of the conditions of our work (time pressure, resource limitations, asymmetrical archiving skills and knowledge of the material, etc.) are characteristic of archival projects more generally and influenced our cataloguing. For example, we devised a categorizing schema such that records were tagged at the item level based on the nature of the case in the file (i.e. Civil Suit – Labour – Unlawful suspension). These categories depended on our cursory reading of each file to identify the cause of the case and despite our aspirations for uniformity and because of our diverse expertise and time restrictions, our classification undoubtedly varied. Instead, our goal was to operate with useful imperfection: choosing consistency and transparency over objective accuracy so that a researcher could understand how and why we catalogued things as we did.

Our team, stationed in a single workspace, worked collaboratively in cataloguing. Pairs of cataloguers worked together to quickly identify the key descriptors for every file and made joint decisions on classification. The results of this cooperation not only included quicker, more accurate work but provided social contact around each file which, especially in my case, often helped bring to life the significance of the materials. For example, alone, I would not have known that business transfer cases in the 1970s were often consequences of the Asian expulsion process under Idi Amin.

Reflexive not Neutral

Other of our working conditions were more unique. I was the technical lead on this project, and for much of the project’s duration, the only non-Ugandan. On the one hand, I had experience in similar projects in years prior (at the Kabale and Jinja District Administrative Archives) in addition to working as an archivist in the U.S. and U.K. and was professionally trained.  On the other hand, I was the least qualified on the team to understand the contents of the materials, their significance, and the contemporary political situation in which they sit. Geopolitics was at the fore of the very structure of our project’s hierarchy.

Some in the archival profession argue that content-knowledge is unnecessary for an archivist to adequately perform their job. I disagree. The High Court’s archive is a rich resource on many fronts. Historically, it helps in understanding changing notions of crime, punishment, and power. It offers insight into the socio-legal history during the rapid successions of post-colonial governments. Contemporarily, it holds legal records belonging to individuals and families that are necessary to pursue due process. My ignorance as an outsider/non-specialist was challenged and remedied by the expertise of my colleagues – Ugandan academics and citizens. The dangers of empowering ignorance are not as simple as wrongfully describing a file but misunderstanding the file’s power. For example, the international crisis of land grabbing – or contentious land acquisition – is a huge problem in Uganda. The High Court archive contains land deeds and titles which, if recklessly treated, have the potential to accelerate that crisis.

Reflexivity in the archival profession isn’t supported by project-oriented funding structures and the daunting stress of backlogs. In fact, I had to leave my job working as an archivist in order to think more deeply about archival work. However, the stakes are too high not to. The High Court’s archive is a gift to scholars, but it is a right for the people of Uganda. The archive, and those who tend it, are far from neutral – on the contrary, the archive is an intervention. Better to understand this intervention rather than deny it. I am hopeful and enthusiastic to track the future and progress of the High Court’s archive, left in the very capable hands of our 2018 team members.

For more information about the High Court archiving project please see: The Judiciary Web and the article A MacArthur “Genius” Works to Preserve Uganda’s History” by Leslie Station.