Revealing watermarks – a remote collaboration between Conservation and Imaging

As for so many people, lockdown has meant huge changes to our working lives. As the conservation and imaging staff on a digitisation project, many aspects of our work rely on physical access to collection items, studios, and equipment, and at first it seemed difficult to reimagine a work life so rooted in practical tasks. While this moment of reimagining felt simultaneously exciting and confusing, one thing it provided was the chance to reallocate time. With the removal of ‘business as usual’ came a rare opportunity to dedicate time normally reserved for the essential to the wider elements of what constitutes ‘work’. One way we managed to navigate this was through a collaborative project based on the watermarks from some of the documents we have been digitising for the Qatar Digital Library (QDL): a series of ship’s journals from the East India Company’s earliest voyages (1605-1705).

The idea began within the conservation team (Heather Murphy and Camille Dekeyser) who initially intended to use these watermarks to trace historic routes of the paper trade and commerce within Europe. We had hoped to use the watermarks to uncover specifics about papers and documents, such as their date and location of manufacture, but quickly found that establishing these details depends on a wide range of variables. It became obvious that the project could grow in multiple directions. As well as revealing the watermarks’ value for academic research, we wanted to highlight other enticing elements: their curious symbols, aesthetic appeal, and ability to appear and disappear. This rich combination of factors seemed worth investigating, to see if we could help people experience these often hidden parts of the collection (especially in their digital form, where watermarks are invisible most of the time).

The first step was to make our own watermarks out of wire, and trial these by making paper. After researching how to make a mould and deckle, we were able to sew the watermarks onto the frame and begin making our first watermarked papers. This proved both fun and instructive, so much so that we went on to run a papermaking workshop for other colleagues at the British Library.


It felt logical that a project with multiple elements would benefit from multiple inputs, so we sought out collaborators from among our talented colleagues. Before anything else, we needed to create good quality images of the watermarks which could be easily viewed. Until then, we had been working from handmade tracings, which we had been compiling, researching, and comparing with online databases.

These were a helpful starting point, but lacked accuracy and clarity. With this in mind, we began collaborating with Senior Imaging Technician Jordi Clopés Masjuan and Senior Imaging Support Technician Matt Lee, to discuss the practicalities of creating clearer images. Jordi suggested creating a series of images through which the watermarks could be ‘revealed’: one image capturing the watermarks as they appear on the digitised image (almost or completely invisible), and another showing them illuminated by backlighting.

Although the imaging studio we use is equipped with high quality lights, sensors, lenses, etc., the technique Jordi used to capture the watermarks was quite simple. We first designed and made a triangular structure from vivak (commonly used for exhibition mounts and stands), which enabled us to support the page safely and ensure that it would not move during the capture.

Using a tripod to avoid any movement, we took two consecutive images using only one light for each image: the first was strategically placed behind the camera (to light the ‘original’ view of the folio) and the other behind the document as a backlight (to highlight the watermark). It was crucial that neither the camera nor the document moved, in order to create two images for an exact comparison. Once captured, Jordi worked with the images in Adobe Photoshop to accentuate key points of contrast. While the first image needed no editing, the second required custom adjustments to the levels, curves, saturation, and brightness to reinforce the watermarks.

Jordi then further suggested that we could overlay the two images online, using a digital tool that would allow the user to slide one of the images across to reveal the other, enabling an interactive comparison.

Fortunately, the watermark images were captured prior to the first national lockdown in March 2020. Working from home, Matt imported these digital images into an iPad and traced the outline of the watermarks using the Procreate drawing and painting app. The task was time-intensive, but proved a welcome distraction.

These digital drawings gave the watermark designs a more tangible form and enabled us to compare and categorise them by type. The fleur-de-lis is one of several common motifs, while another features a jug (see below). Compiling the different iterations has revealed subtle differences in the design, shape, and lettering.

In these earlier examples, it is harder to discern the origins of the design, but they often draw on imagery related to trade guilds and religious symbols, as well as incorporating lettering and abbreviations. Many early watermarks can appear almost identical, but exhibit many small differences which are likely imperceptible unless you know what to look for. This may result from distortions caused by wear and tear to the moulds, but could also be due to early papermaking techniques which used a pair of moulds, or double mould, to create pairs of watermarks referred to as ‘twins’. Even these may contain minor differences, perhaps because they were created by different workers, and/or were placed on opposite sides of the mould. A design might have been reversed on different sides of the mould, or placed differently in relation to laid and chain lines. Some include abbreviations of names and initials, or differences in countermarks. Matt’s drawings of the different variations in our watermark designs offer a great way of studying and comparing their motifs.

With these digital tracings, we decided to add a third ‘view’ to Jordi’s interactive comparison tool, incorporating Matt’s drawings to further illuminate the watermarks.

As the GIF shows, Jordi was able to combine our images with this ‘slider’ tool, allowing people to unveil the invisible watermarks by moving the arrows. Our hope is to incorporate this into the QDL, along with contextual articles about the watermarks, but integrating such a tool requires considerable back-end coding, and at the time of writing it has not yet been possible.

The latest addition to this work emerged from conversations with a close friend Eva Sbaraini about her work in 3D printing, when we decided to collaborate to investigate potential uses for 3D printing within conservation. We started by trialing a 3D print of one of the designs in an attempt to give these partially hidden images a physical form.

From these first tests, we are hopeful that 3D-printed watermarks could be used as tactile visual objects for tours, demonstrations, presentations, or workshops, and have been eagerly gathering input from colleagues across different specialisms on other applications. Moving forward, we see possible uses in the realms of teaching, learning, and engagement.

We have also sewn 3D-printed watermarks onto our mould, to test them in the papermaking process. This has allowed us to adapt and study elements of existing designs.

This 3D-printed watermark is an enlarged replica from one that appears in our collection. It was created by converting Matt’s vector image into an SGV file from which to 3D print.

We have even created and 3D printed our own entirely new and intricate design, which is next in line for a papermaking trial. It is made up of the initials of everyone involved in this project.

This collaboration has taught us about each other’s distinct specialisms, and is a remarkable testament to what can be achieved together while working remotely. We have seen the project move from practical, physical elements into the digital realm, and from the digital creations back into new physical manifestations. When we are back in our respective studios at the British Library, we plan to continue working on digitising the watermarks of other series, perhaps finding more ways to make these available for audiences to study and enjoy.

Further reading:

To read more about the process we followed in digitising the watermarks, see the blogpost ‘Making Watermarks Visible’, written for the British Library Digital Scholarship blog.

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The Coloniality of Dutch Archives: What can be done and on what terms?

In 2017, the National Archives of the Netherlands held a conference, ‘Rethinking the VOC’, highlighting the new research made possible now that their entire archive of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) had been digitized. The conference ended with a roundtable discussion on decolonization of Dutch archives in which I was a participant. In 2019, I wrote an article for the Low Countries Historical Review summarizing that roundtable. I pointed out that much of the debate in the Netherlands thus far on decolonization had focused on museums rather than archives. That is probably the case because much more is being done in the museum sector, as for instance by the Research Center for Material Culture’s ‘Words Matter’; the Van Abbe Museum’s Deviant Practice, Queering the Collection, and Why am I here? programmes; the Amsterdam Museum’s decision to refrain from using the term “golden age” to refer to the seventeenth century; and the museum formerly known as Witte de With (named after a seventeenth-century colonial naval officer) recently changing its name. Here, I will look further at Dutch archives and decolonization, focusing on state institutions.

In my previous article, I used the term non-colonial over decolonization, and I still advocate for that term when seen from the perspective of (Dutch) state archives, as the idea of decolonization originating from state institutions seems lofty at best. In writing this essay, I thought of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s point that ‘the focus on The Past often diverts us from the present injustices for which previous generations only set the foundations’ (Silencing the Past, p. 150). Is thinking in terms of decolonization pointing us too much towards the past, leaving institutions like the National Archives of the Netherlands to focus on colonial archives like those of the Dutch East India Company, rather than on our (colonial) present and the future? Is it more important for an archive to act in non-colonial and non-racist ways, and to focus on the communities that exist today through new forms of outreach and collection development? Or does decolonization point out the coloniality that exists in contemporary society? If decolonization only manifests in short projects like the digitization of a colonial collection or repatriation, then I fear it is only the former. Such projects try to atone for the sins of the past rather than addressing the sins of today.

Take, for instance, the case of the returned Suriname archive. Records from the Dutch colony of Suriname were sent to the Netherlands during the colonial period for safekeeping. After the transfer of sovereignty to the Republic of Suriname, the records were legally the property of the new republic, but it was only in 2017 that the records, having first been digitized, were returned to the National Archives of Suriname. The digitization and online availability were conditions for their return set by the National Archives of the Netherlands, despite acknowledging Suriname as the legal owner. This choice, to digitize and make colonial archives accessible was done by the former colonizer and was not necessarily the wish of the National Archives of Suriname. Was it lingering colonization or an attempt to make a more inclusive archive in the Netherlands? Decolonization or neo-colonial thinking from the upper echelon of Dutch government power?

Also in the past few years, an overlooked change occurred at the National Archives of the Netherlands. After a multi-year process, researcher Harry Poeze added individual descriptions in the inventory of the NEFIS (Netherlands Forces Intelligence Service) archive to over 4,000 documents that were ‘seized, found, or stolen’ from Indonesia during the war of independence from 1945-1949. However, this being the National Archives of the Netherlands, the descriptions of records stolen from Indonesia are still in Dutch for a collection that is predominantly in Indonesian.

What about outside the National Archives? What work is being done to change the archival landscape in the Netherlands? One of the most well-known examples in the Netherlands is Amsterdam’s Black Archives, founded in 2016. Through its exhibitions, research and outreach, the Black Archives acts as a community space that also records and addresses historical and contemporary Black experience in the Netherlands.

But such projects do not have to exist only outside archival infrastructure. Archives like the International Institute of Social History have begun to realize that old descriptions are crammed with coloniality and are trying to write new ones through the lens of inclusivity. Meanwhile, Verloren Banden (Lost Tapes) was a project that brought a collection of videotapes created by the Moluccan community in the town of Vaassen to the Gelders Archief (the archive of the province of Gelderland). These tapes were made in the 1970s by members of the community organization Waspada. They offer views into the Moluccan community in the Netherlands that run counter to the traditional narrative of victims of the VOC, of soldiers in the colonial army, of refugees in the Netherlands, of a community ravaged by drugs and violence in the 1970s. The tapes show personal stories, weddings, concerts, and other social activities. In January 2020, project organizer Jeftha Pattikawa presented the project at a conference held at the Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision (Beeld en Geluid) and described his attempts to find a suitable archive for the collection. An attempt to deposit the tapes at Beeld en Geluid led to him being told that the institute already had enough material about the Moluccan community—despite the only material in their collection referring to a string of train hijackings by members of the Moluccan community in the late 1970s that reinforced old stereotypes. That his presentation was held at the same archive that turned him away, at a conference that explicitly claimed to be on decolonizing the archive was particularly telling. What are we decolonizing if we our collections are not changing? Thankfully, the Gelders Archief saw the benefit of the collection and it is now housed there, with descriptions written between archivists and community members. Such a non-colonial archive has eyes on the past (the 1970s), but also the present (community-sourced descriptions), and future (the next generations of the Moluccan community in the Netherlands who can view the videos).

Certain archives, like those of the Dutch East India Company, will always be colonial. Scanning them and making them accessible, or repatriating archives to former colonies, is a necessary step that large institutions like the National Archives can and should continue to pursue, but they are still colonial. A new, non-colonial archive looks very different, from the inside out. And it must continue: with each selection decision, with each project begun, it must be asked if it is non-colonial. A good example from the National Archives is their recent work with the Tracing Your Roots programme, inviting young people with roots in the Indonesian archipelago into the archive to view and work with colonial records. Such a programme uses the coloniality of the archives in a non-colonial way. For a state institution, this is the sort of mind-set that must be embraced. Never settling for what has been done, never believing that the road to decolonizing archives ends, and always building new links between the past and the future.


Trouillot, Michel-Rolph (1995). Silencing the past : power and the production of history. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press.

Transmemo Project: a study on Second World War memories and family transmission in Belgium

Photo: departure of Belgian workers for Germany, Antwerp, 1940 © CegeSoma/AGR

Transmemo is a research project funded by the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO), which focuses on the memories of Belgian families of collaborationists and members of the resistance during the Second World War (WWII). Launched in October 2017, the project brings together eight researchers from two Belgian universities (Universiteit Gent and Université catholique de Louvain) and the national Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society (CegeSoma). It includes historians, socio- and cognitive psychologists, and one political scientist.

As well as this interdisciplinary diversity, it also spans the country’s two main linguistic communities (Dutch-speaking in the North and French-speaking in the South). Transmemo’s objective is to study how the families of people who resisted or collaborated during the occupation of Belgium during WWII have transmitted this family history to their descendants. In doing so, the research aims to offer a “from below” perspective on the evolution of this history within Belgian collective memories.

#Transmemo studies how the families of people who resisted / collaborated the occupation of Belgium #WWII have transmitted this history Click To Tweet

Belgium collective memories of the Second World War cannot be disconnected from the particular context of the conflict between the two main linguistic communities. Scholarly literature from different academic disciplines has repeatedly confirmed that language was one of the main divisive rifts that caused political, cultural, and social conflicts in twentieth-century Belgium. WWII further reinforced the differences between the Francophone community and Flanders as separate communities of memory. It is a commonly held view that this WWII-rupture still continues to cast its shadow.

This becomes mostly explicit in the different views of collaboration held by both country’s main linguistic communities. During the war, collaboration with Germany in the North was supported by an important anti-Belgian Flemish nationalist party. In the aftermath of the conflict, Flemish nationalist collaboration was framed as justified within the larger struggle for equal rights within the Belgian state. More importantly, post-war purges were framed as an ‘anti-Flemish repression’ by the Belgian state.

The topic of ‘amnesty’ for convicted collaborators became the basis for an extraordinarily successful struggle for memory in which an apologetic stance on collaboration became the dominant view in Flanders. This is also why collaboration and its post-war aftermath has been well researched and documented by Dutch-speaking historians. In contrast, the South of the country developed a stronger identification with the memory of the resistance, which even lead to a certain silence about its own collaborationist past. Enduring historical myths, a lack of true dialogue, and the enduring, real threat of political tension all form part of these persistent schisms in Belgian cultural memories.

The ambition of the Transmemo project was thus to examine this past but through the innovative angle of family memories transmission. Examined through an interdisciplinary lens, the family level of analysis can be used as an intermediate scale (meso) between the individual (micro) and the collective (macro). This research aims to shed some light on how these conflicting memories can help to explain how these dissonances could become so entrenched in society and how they have determined the way we think about Belgium as a national community today.

This WWII-rupture still continues to cast its shadow Click To Tweet

Thus, the research also has the potential to address the more universal question of why history and subsequent memories can become agents of division, and how the failure to reconcile opposing historical narratives can become so strong that they ultimately help to determine the political fate of a country. As such, this project also appeals to the broader intention to use Belgium as a stepping-stone for a more general reflection, in relation to international literature on reconciliation.

To answer these questions, Transmemo’s initial ambitions were to interview 240 people from 80 families with a resistance or collaboration background, and from both main linguistic communities. Each family had to include three generations, starting with the generation that were children during the war. Nevertheless, the team encountered major difficulties in finding French-speaking families with an ancestor convicted for collaboration, where all three generations were willing to participate. This already indicates that memory transmission of collaboration in French-speaking Belgium is more problematic than in Flanders. For this reason, the final sample is different from the initial ambitions.

We interviewed a total of 197 people from 79 families. Each interviewee completed pen and paper questionnaires before we met them for an audio-recorded semi-structured interview. We followed both a non-directive approach that allowed participants to share their testimonies openly and more specific questions so that we could collect quantitative data. All these recorded interviews will be added to the federal scientific heritage collections, as the new oral sources created within the framework of this project will be donated to the CegeSoma (State Archives in Belgium) audiovisual collection, where further access and valorisation is assured under certain conditions that respect the anonymity and privacy of each participant.

The dissemination of Transmemo’s results will be aimed at the scientific community, as several articles will be published in 2020. Nevertheless, Transmemo is also a project with a strong societal dimension. Consequently, the Transmemo team is committed to disseminating their results to the general public. Historian Koen Aerts participated in two documentary series broadcast in the North entitled “Children of collaboration” (November 2017) and “Children of the resistance” (November 2019), which both received very high ratings within the Flemish public. In the same vein, CegeSoma is currently developing its own podcast, based on interviews with families of the project.

Finally, the entire Transmemo team presented some of their results during a large-scale study day organised at the Senate on 3rd October 2019, in front of an audience composed of project participants (families), journalists, experts, and politicians. Throughout this important day, all sides of the conflict and from both communities sat together for the very first time to discuss the place that family stories should take in the current landscape of Belgian memories of the Second World War.

“Data archives have been around for some time, but they are more relevant nowadays than ever”. Interview with the Social Sciences Data Archive project

The inter-institutional project SODA (Social Sciences Data Archive) aims to develop a prototype for a data archive as Belgian representative in the Consortium of European Social Science Data Archives (CESSDA) and beyond.

To learn more about SODA, Archivoz’s Llarina González spoke with researchers from the project:

Benjamin Peuch, researcher on information science, manages Dataverse and studies the needs of researchers, archivists and historians for the correct custody and description of digital objects.
Freya De Schamphelaere, legal researcher, examines the role of the data archive in the Belgian context and the impact of the Directive on copyright and open data.
Jean-Paul Sanderson and Laura Van den Borre, demographers, are the link between SODA and social scientists.

(Archivoz) How does SODA operate in Belgium’s complex institutional landscape?

Since 1970, Belgium has been going through an institutional evolution from a unitary entity to a federal State with three regions and three linguistic (non-corresponding) communities. The competences of the State were redistributed between those six entities. In this context, the State Archives remained part of the federal administration and became a scientific research institution.

SODA therefore combines two approaches: a centralised perspective with a data archive representing Belgium as a whole amid CESSDA; and a decentralised perspective with the data archive of the State Archives catering to both researchers and affiliated institutions at the federal level and to those at the levels of communities and universities, though universities and communities are developing their own institutional repositories.

SODA would thus only be one actor, although an international one as the CESSDA representative, in a network of Belgian repositories. Cooperation between different Belgian actors will be key to make research data findable for researchers from all backgrounds.

(Archivoz) What is the role of the State Archives of Belgium in SODA?

SODA originated in the world of social sciences at the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the French-speaking Université Catholique de Louvain. The State Archives were brought in for their expertise in archival science and eventually became the coordinating institution, with two full-time researchers tasked with creating the deliverables of the project.

The State Archives investigate issues such as possible business models and legal entities of the future data archive, metadata and data quality requirements, transfer agreements with depositors, and so on. Universities link SODA to the research community by surveying the needs and documenting the practices of researchers.

(Archivoz) Can you clarify the concept of ‘data archive’?

Data archives have been around for some time but they are more relevant nowadays than ever. Essentially, data archives are like traditional archive institutions but dedicated to the preservation of research data and to make them available for reuse. Much of scientific research is performed thanks to public funding, therefore the ensuing data belong to the public and must be open for reuse. The nature of research data, the archival precautions they require, and the particular needs of scientists make it necessary to build specific archive facilities: data archives.

(Archivoz) We would like to know more about SODA’s relationship with scientists.

Scientists are our key users: both our main data providers and the prime potential data reusers. Their needs in terms of research data management, both for the phase of data archiving (ingest in OAIS terms) and data reuse (access), must be regularly surveyed and accounted.

But in the future, we will investigate whether other types of users might be interested in accessing social science research data. Could journalists, teachers, genealogists find it interesting to integrate such datasets in their corpuses? This entails a proactive policy to foster new user communities.

(Archivoz) Tell us about standards and formats in SODA.

At first sight, the amount of formats and standards in such a context can be daunting! Data-wise, it’s not so bad because most files produced by researchers either already exist in open formats or can be converted using the data ingest and dissemination software Dataverse.

But in terms of metadata, things get slightly more complicated. Most CESSDA members follow the international standard for documenting datasets in social sciences, the Data Documentation Initiative (DDI). DDI encourages the recording of a wide range of information about datasets, including:

  • administrative metadata: dataset producers, principal investigators, sponsoring organization(s), repository responsible for providing access, etc.
  • technical and descriptive metadata specific to the social sciences: methods of data collection, cleaning and control operations, aggregation and analysis, kind(s) of data, the universe of the study, variables, etc.

Incorporating traditional archivists into the project highlighted the lack of historical metadata, which are meant to describe in detail the context of production of datasets with information such as biographies of researchers, descriptions of research centres, contextualisation, etc. These are more long term-focussed metadata compared with DDI, which addresses the immediate needs of social scientists seeking reusable data. Historical metadata will help researchers 10, 20, even 50 or 100 years from now to understand how and why datasets were produced. Such metadata will likely have to be recorded by historians and social scientists with an interest in the history of science.

(Archivoz) What are your thoughts on the new movements for opening research data in all scientific areas?

As Ron Dekker noted in Lisbon in May 2017, private pharmaceutical companies share their data in a sort of “pre-competitive stage” because they know they will all greatly benefit from doing so even though they are commercial rivals. Is the same tendency spreading to all scientific fields? Hopefully, this rather denotes a new spirit of sharing.

From a legal perspective “open data” is not just an invitation anymore. Since the publication of the European directive 2019/1024 on open data and public sector information (the third of the PSI directives) it has become law: publicly-funded research data must be open for reuse by default through an institutional repository in accordance with the “as open as possible, as closed as necessary” rule of thumb and the FAIR principles. It will be very interesting to see in the coming years how this directive can open up more publicly-funded research data, how researchers and data archives will adapt to it, and if it can contribute to new developments toward open science and linked research data.

(Archivoz) What are the main problems you have faced?

We seek to offer tools that fit the needs of our users by customizing the Dataverse software to simplify the deposit procedure and ease the search process for reusable data. This involves reconciling the needs of several stakeholders. We are currently gathering beta-testers among Belgian social science researchers (our key users) to this end.

SODA is part of a European consortium so we must also work for researchers abroad. For example, this entails translating the title and description of our datasets in English. We must also allow the CESSDA Data Catalogue (CDC) to harvest our metadata through an Open Archive Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) and comply with the CESSDA Core Metadata Model, a list of conceptual metadata elements to which CESSDA service providers must map their own metadata so that the metadata harvesting can take place.

Legally speaking the main problem is the unclarity of certain obligations, leading to uncertainty among researchers, who will prefer to “play it safe” and not open up their research data. We are wrapping up our research on legal open data obligations and writing the standard licenses and guidelines that will ensure researchers are aware of the implications — but also and especially the advantages — of making their data “as open as possible.”

(Archivoz) What importance do you consider that research data and projects such as SODA have in the lives of citizens?

It might seem that data archives are only remotely relevant to citizens’ interests since it is such a niche infrastructure with such complex technical needs and purposes. But just like traditional archives, data archives play an essential part in a modern society; the archives of science are vital for scientific and social progress.

Reevaluation and reproducibility are fundamental to the credibility of science. However, they can occur only if documents and data from studies are preserved. For example, the Stanford Experiment, long presented as incontrovertible proof of the evil and corruptibility of humans, was recently reevaluated (1) (2) and its soundness was heavily reconsidered against modern standards for rigorous and ethical scientific experimentation.

Data archives will take on increasingly larger and more complex databases Click To Tweet
(Archivoz) If you had to highlight an element of the project, what would it be?

Legally there are several challenging yet interesting issues, for example how the Belgian Archival Act affects a data archive. According to the Archival Act, archived files can only be accessible after 30 years. Yet this is not what a data archive tends to do. Here the principle is: all data must be open unless there is a good reason (copyright, personal data, other). SODA will work through private deposit agreements for archiving and opening up the data.

(Archivoz) How do you imagine the future of data archives in social sciences in a few years?

Data archives will take on increasingly larger and more complex databases. Such a challenge can be tackled by reinforcing the network of data archives — of which CESSDA is a sterling example — and by sharing experience and know-how. We also think that social science data will become a booming business (if it is not already, all things considered). An extra challenge in this respect will be to keep the focus of our efforts on science and not so much on financial gain.

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


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.


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’ ( 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.


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.


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


Featured image was taken by Samuel Bartle

Heritage is often embedded within socio-political crises and identity contests | CoHERE project

CoHERE (Critical Heritages of Europe: performing and representing identities) was a large, European Commission-funded project responding to an instrumental drive to solve critical social and political problems in Europe through recourse to heritage. The project was one of the largest investigations to date into the politics of heritage in and of Europe. Concluding in March 2019, it comprises three years of research conducted by a consortium of institutions over nine countries, including eight universities, one research institute, two museums and a non-profit cultural network, led by Newcastle University in the UK. The project sought to identify, understand and valorise European heritages, engaging with their socio-political and cultural significance and their potential for developing communitarian identities. Addressing multiple senses of political and social crisis in the EU, researchers explored the ways in which heritages can be used for division and isolation, or to find common ground and ‘encourage modern visions and uses of its past’ as hoped for in EU and Council of Europe policy

CoHERE involved a general subscription to the idea that heritage can produce civil and societal benefits, but that this should be tempered by a realist understanding of the ways in which heritage can be used against civility, against EU values, against unity and against difference. CoHERE challenged the dominant narrative of European policy and discourse. This presents heritage unequivocally as a social good and as a means of creating communitarian identities likely to counteract division within and disaffection with the EU. Instead, heritage – the symbolic valorisation of the past in the present by social actors, whatever their position and type of agency – is often embedded within socio-political crises and identity contests, and instrumental policy and practice need to recognise these difficulties in order for substantial communitarian and civil benefit to become possible.

The implication of heritage in social division is readily illustrated by mobilisations of European pasts in right-wing populism, in discourses around belonging and bordering connected to the Refugee Crisis, and in contemporary seismic shifts such as Brexit. It is at its height in cases of othering, exclusion and even terrorist violence, where notions of European heritage and identity are used to justify political and socially divisive action in the present. Much of European heritage and memory policy attempts to create unity from situations of conflict and disharmony between and within diverse populations. However, the recognition of past and present differences, of marginalisation and of imbalances of power within difficult memories (as well as a difficult present) is crucial to preventing alienation from the idea of a harmonious EU. Contemporary population movements, political polarisation and populism all feed into and from notions of who or what is or is not part of a ‘European heritage’. Historical explorations of diversity that show longer histories of inter- and trans-cultural exchange and negotiation may ameliorate social tensions in the present and combat mistaken views of a harmonious, monocultural past ruined by present-day multiculture and the incursion of others into Europe. Typical narratives of European heritage can be exclusionary and researchers argued for the need to entertain a more complex set of stories as an account of the European past. As an example, the Classical past is often presented as one of the touchstones of European heritage, exemplified by the idea of ‘heritage’ as ancient ruins, historic texts, significant figures, etc., but contemporary Europe comprises  people with diverse and multi-layered identities, connected to places within and beyond the boundaries of the EU.

the recognition of past and present differences, of marginalisation and of imbalances of power within difficult memories (as well as a difficult present) is crucial to preventing alienation from the idea of a harmonious EU Click To Tweet

The project explored these issues across multiple areas, including museums and heritage sites that represent European history, uses of the past in party politics (such as Front Nationale’s use of Joan of Arc, or references to Magna Carta as part of Brexit ‘Leave’ campaigns), heritage festivals, school curricula, historical re-enactment, folk music traditions, digital and online heritage practice, and the importance of food for understandings of European and national histories. This shows that heritage is more widely significant than current European heritage policy recognises. In place of an idea of heritage as embodied only in historic buildings, landscapes and practices, researchers argued that heritage is more like a force circulating through all sorts of cultural practices – from official uses of the past by governments, to the everyday ways in which people rely on a sense of history to position ourselves and articulate their identities and belongings. Current heritage policy is dispersed and disconnected, yet heritage itself is connected to many aspects of European life today – to our politics, society, places and people and to the ways in which EU member states are perceived, positioned and bordered.

Another novel aspect of the project was the development of the research over multiple cultural forms. As well as producing conventional academic research in the form of books and journal papers, researchers also made films, composed and performed music, designed videogames and developed new ways of working for the heritage sector. The film Who is Europe? by renowned documentary filmmaker Ian McDonald was commissioned as part of the project to explore the complex ways in which the past circulates in the present, not always with the positive connotations of ‘heritage’ as a valuable legacy of the past. Ethnomusicologist and composer Valdis Muktupavels composed the oratorio Rivers of our Being as a way of exploring both the confluences of European folk musics and the contemporary politics of EU fragmentation. As part of the EU-research funding, many of the book chapters and publications are freely available as open-access online documents, including the keystone book for the project Dimensions of Heritage and Memory: multiple Europes and the politics of crisis. In addition to this, researchers contributed to the CoHERE Critical Archive, which was built to be a fast-response, searchable platform to offer free online resources, work in progress and short reports on the key research topics about European heritage to a wide audience. The Archive contains films, music, essays, reports and links to a range of other project outcomes.

CoHERE was built to be a fast-response, searchable platform to offer free online resources, work in progress and short reports on the key research topics about European heritage to a wide audience Click To Tweet

The results should be exploited by politicians, heritage policy makers and practitioners with a view to their wider effects upon general heritage audiences, broadly understood to include all those who engage with representations of the past in the present via museums, sites, commemorative events, re-enactments, historic festivals, formal education, food culture, and politics. The specific aim is to inform policy and practice about the nature of identity contests in which heritages are important and generate ideas about how to respond and intervene with responsible and innovative strategy, particularly at the level of official heritage. This has the connected aim of influencing public attitudes in ways that ameliorate social division where heritage is implicated and mobilized, and to equip practitioners with the tools to respond constructively to identity contests, othering and fast-moving socio-political change.

“Not being an archivist, nor an academic, however I learned how important it was to preserve those memories.” Interview with Juan delGado, director and funder of Qisetna (part two)

The interview is organised in two parts. The first explores the origins of the project and what it covers. The second considers the future of Qisetna and some archival questions.

(Archivoz) What language barriers does the project face?

(Juan) When we started, our core team agreed that Qisetna would commit to promoting the cultural heritage of Syrians, which included publishing the stories in English and Arabic. As many of the collaborators were ordinary Syrians, the stories were written and told in dialect, and we decided to respect that. Our team of translators, who are spread all over the world, were aware of this, and our editors acknowledge the local accents of the authors. We make a great effort to respect the integrity of the voice, balancing the style and the standard Arabic used. Our aim is to make visible the diversity of accents and dialects across Syria, which we believe should be preserved and documented for Syrians themselves.

(Archivoz) How does this project work in terms of its structure? What do the volunteers do? If somebody would like to volunteer, how can they become involved?

(Juan) Our initiative operates with a horizontal structure, meaning we make decisions as a team. As a creative producer my role is to propose new activities to the editorial team. Our volunteers are a mix of professionals and students, both Syrian and a wide range of other nationalities. We actively encourage Syrians to participate in ways that benefit them, such as meeting other Syrians, or learning skills in creative writing, marketing, social media, etc. Our volunteers contribute to the project as editors and translators; and recently some volunteers have started to produce digital content for our social media.

(Archivoz) Could you explore the future of the project?

(Juan) Qisetna is anchored in the reality of what is happening in Syria and how Syrians are adjusting to the huge demands of the circumstances they are living under. The power structures are establishing a new status quo in the country. We are continuing to contact individuals in the hope of sharing our concern for the preservation of memories that are otherwise in danger of fading away. We are also connecting with the Syrian diaspora across Europe and beyond, as well as talking to universities and the Centre for Migration Studies in Turkey to assist with translation. Turkey is an important place for us as there are many Syrians living and settling there and we want to increase public awareness. Many Turkish people do not come into contact with Syrians and when they do, they often display xenophobia and racism. There is a massive language barrier because a majority of Turkish people don’t speak Arabic, which means they cannot engage with Syrians. We are planning to translate the project into Turkish, to make the stories accessible to Turkish readers both on our website and social media, thereby promoting social integration. We honestly believe this can help tackle the increasing hostility against newcomers. Our aim is to engage Turkish citizens in the translation and encourage dialogue across communities.

We also have plans to develop our social media presence. For example, we are planning to create a YouTube channel which will feature interviews with Syrian artists living in the diaspora. We hope that the In Focus platform can promote Syrian artists who want to share their experiences, vision, and artistic practices.

Secondly, we are growing our archive in order to preserve Syrian cultural heritage and this allows us to develop new content. We pride ourselves on being different from other archives because we work with current stories and contemporary oral history. We are what you would call a living breathing archive which is constantly developing.

(Archivoz) We are an archivist journal. We know that you are not an archivist project but your project appreciates the importance of preserving oral history of Syria. Could you explore this aspect?

(Juan) Oral stories are told by living individuals about their own past, or the past of other people. Because those who provide the information are generally older members of the family, both their lives and their memories are at risk of being lost to time. Of particular value are the stories, anecdotes and family traditions, songs, and especially information associated with pictures, documents, and other records. We also understand the importance of connecting stories across generations and want to disseminate content using platforms that are used by young people. We recently started a campaign, Syrian Diaries, in which we asked Syrians to share a photo of an object that is precious to them and a short story attached. Qisetna is actively exploring new ways not only to preserve but also to share and disseminate the stories that land on our desks. Podcasting is a new way to engage with global audiences and we are producing digital content to connect Syrians across borders with contemporary artists through our new project In Focus.

(Archivoz) In 2017 you won an award form ARA (Archive and Records Association UK and Ireland). Was that gratifying? Could you tell us a little bit about what the award consists of?

(Juan) The Community Archives and Heritage Group (CAHG) is a national organisation which aims to support and promote community archives in the UK. Its Community Archive Award celebrates the contribution of community archives within the archive sector and aims to promote and share good practice. Qisetna (Talking Syria) was the overall winner in 2017, and also won the ‘Most Innovative’ category in this year’s awards. In reaching their decision, the judges commented:

Qisetna (Talking Syria) is an extra-ordinary example of an archive both preserving the voices of displaced and fractured communities for the future and acting as an engine of community resilience in the present. This is an archive at its best: raw emotion, portraying real life and its impact on individuals and families, community leadership and involvement, a focus on tomorrow – the younger generation – and an excellent website for outreach and advocacy. This archive will become an outstanding research tool for the future. But it is also – evidently – succeeding in its principal short-term goal of community building. We also commend Qisetna’s website and encourage everyone to take a look. The use of large apps gives a wonderful simplicity and clarity. From the first click, we all felt compelled to keep reading.

(Archivoz) Since the award, has the ARA been in contact with the project? Do you have any archivist volunteers? 

(Juan) We are currently seeking an archivist and this is one of our priorities for 2019. As a small team we have so far always been preoccupied with sourcing stories, editing, translating, and mentoring the contributors.

(Archivoz) Do you have any archive systems or an inventory for your project?

(Juan) We don’t have any. With all our content, we rely entirely on our bilingual archive, and disseminate it through our social media. At present we are talking to several academic institutions which we feel could help with building an inventory for Qisetna, becoming a repository for future researchers.

(Archivoz) Are you aware of the issues and problems of digital preservation? Do you ever consider that?

(Juan) It would be unfortunate if one day the web disappeared! For the past seven years we have been producing data and digital content that is available on the web. Although we produce a monthly backup of our archive and are learning how to effectively preserve and make our content accessible, we have had to learn more about how to secure the content from technological failures or errors.

(Archivoz) Many thanks for your time and the opportunity to explore this amazing project.

<< back to part I of the interview

Further information:

Twitter: @qisetna


“I realised the tremendous relevance of making visible the experiences of people” Interview with Juan delGado, director and funder of Qisetna (part one)

Today, we have an atypical interview, not with an archivist or anyone related to our sector, but with Juan delGado, a director and founder of a project called Qisetna. Here he explores Qisetna, an online platform aiming to preserve the cultural identity of Syrians living in the diaspora.

The interview is organised in two parts. The first explores the origins of the project and what it covers. The second considers the future of Qisetna and some archival questions.

Archivoz’s Noemi spoke with Juan to learn about the project and explore how it relates to our sector.

(Archivoz) How did this project come about? Can you tell us about its beginnings?

(Juan) In 2011 I was invited by Artschool Palestine in Nablus to develop a project in collaboration with students of Media at An-Najah National University. I spent six weeks researching and learning about how young Palestinians were living. Despite the extremely oppressive conditions of their lives, these young students laughed in a way that I later understood was a form of resistance: “they are colonising our land and they also want to occupy our minds; but laughing is the best way to keep anger away….’  There, I produced my first project in the Middle East entitled, ‘Fluctuations on Time’, in which I started to collect oral stories from young people, their grandparents, and neighbours based in Nablus.

At that time, I realised the tremendous relevance of making visible the experiences of people who until then seemed detached from me and yet, through listening to their stories, had become closer. It was September 2011, and young Syrians had started peacefully demonstrating for change. I learned also that Syria had experienced the worst drought in the country’s modern history. Hundreds of thousands of farming families were reduced to poverty, causing a mass migration of rural people to urban shantytowns, and the civil uprising turned from a predominantly peaceful protest movement into a militarized rebellion. I started to contact Syrians through social media to try to understand the situation on the ground. My motivation was not political; after my experience in the West Bank, I was increasingly interested in learning about these communities that I knew so little about.

(Archivoz) Could you tell us what Qisetna is and what the aims of the project are?

(Juan) In 2013, I initiated this project called ​Qisetna (Talking Syria)​, which in Arabic means “our story”. Qisetna is an online platform aiming to preserve the cultural identity of Syrians living in the diaspora. At the time, the massive influx of images coming through mainstream media showed the destruction of cities and bombing of civilians by all sides. Syrians witnessed the transformation of their country into a hellish battlefield, while the rest of the world seemed paralysed and failed to stop the massacre. In the middle of this tragedy, we decided to approach Syrians themselves with a determination to listen. Using social media and based on the trust we had already built through our friends and contributors, in late 2014 our network spread into areas that were physically impossible to access.

We organised a creative writing workshop with a group of children based in Yarmouk, a former refugee camp inside Damascus. This project was a collaboration with Bassam Dawood, a Syrian actor and Hakawati (storyteller) who was living in exile in Berlin, and Jafra, an organisation based in Yarmouk. Using Skype, Bassam connected to the place where the children were and during a six-week period he encouraged them to write a story. It was an extremely challenging project as we first had to establish trust, but the children participated and engaged with writing their stories. This proved for us that social media could be used in a meaningful way to connect with individuals and communities that were impossible to reach physically.

Encouraged by the response from our workshop in Yarmouk, we contacted a young man from Darayya, a city outside Damascus. We had learned that a group of young people had been rescuing books from under the rubble and had built a library of hundreds of books. He apologised for not being able to speak as he had just found out that his father had been killed the previous day. This and other experiences of the young people we were trying to reach, pushed us to moments of tremendous despair, forcing us to reflect on our goals and the consequences of working in such stressful circumstances.

(Archivoz) What is the process leading up to publication?

(Juan) Reaching out to people has been my role since the beginning. I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling. I grew up in a Spanish family whose members carried the trauma of a civil war. Like many who survived the war, my grandparents could not talk directly about what had happened, and it was only later that I came to understand how many people were living with the trauma of those days. Many turned to drink or violence as a coping mechanism to deal with something that they did not know how to address.

Being neither an archivist, nor an academic, I nevertheless learned early on how important it is to preserve memories. This is one of the main reasons I started Qisetna (Talking Syria) in 2013. In collaboration with two young Syrians, including a journalist, we decided to rescue the tradition of the Hakawati, which refers to a poet, actor, comedian, and historian rolled into one: someone who tells stories. Its root is ‘haka’, to tell a story, or ‘hikayah’, a fable or story, and ‘wati’ implies expertise in a popular street-art.

We wanted to draw out the Hakawati from inside every Syrian, and create a safe space for Syrians to tell their stories. We wanted them to re-claim their voices, which in many cases have been taken from them by the war.

From the very beginning, we wanted to publish in both Arabic and English. This required a tremendous effort to translate and edit the stories in both languages. However the most challenging part was to source the stories and access potential writers, most of whom are ordinary Syrians, students, farmers, some with no formal education. For this we used social media and word of mouth to first build trust, explaining that our project had no political agenda. We noticed that many people had become suspicious of other Syrians and felt utterly frustrated that their tragedy, their individual stories, were not fully acknowledged by the media.

So the process of reaching out to people required us to pay attention to their specific background. This required that we understand not only our own purpose in asking them to share, but also that we pay attention to the dramatic situation many were living under. Our requests of “would you write a story?” were met with surprise and disbelief. However, we gently initiated this conversation which allowed many to re-establish themselves in their own context; they told me “my country is under war, all rubble…and you, coming to ask me to write a story, to tell you a story…. has made me realise how detached I have become from my own being… I see now that I have been living in survival mode for all these past years since the war started.” This initial conversation is the first opportunity to start building trust by carefully listening and giving time for the person to come to terms with their feelings. Once the person agrees to write or tell the story, we assist by reading the draft and asking questions that will shape the story. Some stories have taken more than two months to materialise.

>> proceed to part II of the interview

Further information:

Twitter: @qisetna


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.



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


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

Further details:

The project website is here:

For a more detailed paper about the project see:

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, 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. 

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

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.


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:

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



The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 700–1200

In November 2018, the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France launched two new websites that offer access to digitised copies of medieval manuscripts. The two libraries worked together to digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts from the period 700–1200, sharing them online for the first time.

The project focused on manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel over half a millennium of close cultural and political interaction. These 800 manuscripts were selected to build on existing digitised manuscript collections, based on their artistic merit, research value and wider public interest. The project manuscripts comprise a wide range of texts, including liturgical, biblical and theological works, and legal and scientific treatises that reflect the interest of monks, abbots and clerics, who were responsible for much of book production in the period before 1200.

The project drew upon the expertise of curators, cataloguers, conservators and imaging specialists from both institutions, who have learned from one another through a programme of knowledge exchange and reciprocal visits. Each manuscript was checked by a conservator before it was filmed, and any necessary preservation work was performed, to ensure that all manuscripts could be digitised safely. All the manuscripts have been newly catalogued to include up-to-date bibliography, the identification of texts and descriptions of the artwork. These descriptions can be viewed on Explore our Archives and Manuscripts for British Library manuscripts; and on Archives et manuscrits for Bibliothèque Nationale de France manuscripts.

British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v

Two websites

In November, the libraries launched two innovative websites that complement each other. Using the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France hosts a site, France et Angleterre: manuscripts médiévaux entre 700 et 1200, that allows side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection. This new website will enable users to search the manuscripts in English, French and Italian, and to annotate and download images.

The second website, hosted by the British Library is a bilingual online resource, Medieval England and France, 700–1200, that presents a curated view to the project manuscripts in English and French. The site features over 140 manuscript highlights from some of the most important of these manuscripts. It includes 30 articles on a wide range of themes, including medieval science, manuscript illumination and the development of vernacular languages; as well as discussions of prominent figures from the period, such as Thomas Becket, Hrabanus Maurus and Anselm of Canterbury. The site also features a series of videos, narrated by Patricia Lovett MBE, detailing the stages of making a medieval manuscript; two interviews with Professors Julia Crick (King’s College London) and  Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) about manuscript production during the period; and an animation inspired by a medieval bestiary (British Library, Harley MS 4751).

Highlights now available online include the lavishly illuminated Winchester Benedictional, created around the year 1000, as well as the 12th-century collection of St Thomas Becket’s letters, including the earliest depiction of Becket’s martyrdom. There are exquisite Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from the centuries before the Norman Conquest of 1066 that include Psalters, saints’ lives and Gospel-books, and spectacular manuscripts in the Romanesque style, including the giant two-volume Chartres Bible (12th century). The magnificent Canterbury Psalter (12th century), with a tri-lingual translation of the Psalms in Latin, French and English, was made in Canterbury. The book is sometimes known as the Anglo-Catalan Psalter because some of its illustrations were left unfinished and were completed several centuries later in Catalonia
This exciting project was made possible by a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation. Dr Leonard Polonsky commented that:

“This project brings together riches of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the British Library and makes them available to researchers and the broader public in innovative and attractive ways. Our Foundation is privileged to support this collaboration, which continues the cultural exchange and profound mutual influence that characterises the history of these two nations over many centuries.”

The Polonsky Foundation is a UK-registered charity that supports cultural heritage, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and innovation in higher education and the arts.

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Cover photo: British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v

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.

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.