– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Posts tagged “digitisation

guest post


Oxford, Balliol College, MS 200 p.1

A guest post to close the research year at St Cross: 

Robert Cowton was an early fourteenth century theologian based in Oxford, and Balliol archives house three manuscripts containing some of his treatises. I spent my week on a “micro-internship”, organised through the careers service, digitising these manuscripts for a group of researchers based in Germany. Making the images available online will hopefully save them, and the planet, a flight over.  The three manuscripts, Balliol MSS 199, 200 and 201, are all executed in the same hand with matching decorations in red and blue ink.

I started off by photographing each of the pages attempting to give a clear and legible picture of the text. Wrinkles, curling pages and minute annotations did not make this an easy task. Handling a manuscript carefully and making the pages sit flat often seem to be diametrically opposed aims. If some of the pages are a little hard to read, this is because I have erred on the side of caution. Despite these challenges  it was a real pleasure to work with the manuscripts; getting to feel the parchment and see at first hand the way the skin has been stretched and tanned to make it fit to write on. The tiny marginalia left by successive readers; from the eighteenth century page numbering (often with corrections) to the little pointed fingers indicating important parts of the text show the continued life of a text in a way that a modern printed edition cannot.

Once I had finished photographing the manuscripts I then jumped to the other end of the temporal spectrum and attempted to upload the images to Flickr. In order to get both Windows Explorer and Flickr to read the right title field data, each file had to be named twice, in two different programs. Once I had got through the renaming and uploading process it was very satisfying to see the whole manuscript online, waiting to be read.

I am very grateful to Anna Sander, the college archivist, for giving me this opportunity and patiently dealing with my questions and problems, as well as to the staff at Balliol library for giving me a desk on Friday afternoon and covering my lunch in college during the week.

– Mary Maschio (Queen’s College)

Anna adds: Some of Mary’s images have already had dozens of views, and I am very grateful for her help furthering the progress of manuscripts digitisation and sharing. I also thank the Oxford University Careers Service for organising the microinternship scheme, and appreciate their consistently excellent pools of applicants for these placements!

Digital images of medieval manuscripts

What an encouraging tweet exchange this morning:

Daniel Wakelin @DanielWakelin1
@balliolarchives Balliol’s energetic use of Flickr was one of our inspirations to experiment with this medium for ‪#‎DIYdigitization‬ @BDLSS.

Balliol Archivist ‏@balliolarchives
@DanielWakelin1 @BDLSS WOW. That has made my day.

Daniel Wakelin ‏@DanielWakelin1
@balliolarchives Truly. Your ‘roll up my sleeves and get on with it’ process of #DIYdigitization. @BDLSS may want to interview you about it.

Balliol Archivist ‏@balliolarchives
@DanielWakelin1 @BDLSS Always happy to talk about opening access to manuscripts 😀

YES. Big grants are great but one person with one camera can get a lot done even in an hour or two here and there (my photography has to fit in along with all the rest of the job) and make a real difference – and, it seems, not just to the individual researchers who request particular images but to institutional policy and approaches to openness of access. Lovely to find my hunch (gut feeling/considered professional opinion) is turning out to be correct. Keep on clicking!


Do you have photos of manuscripts held in Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries? now you can make them available to other researchers via their Special Collections #DIYdigitization‬ group: have a look! https://www.flickr.com/groups/bodspecialcollections

There are instructions for naming/shelfmarking/tagging your uploads so others can find them, and so photos of the same ms from different contributors can find each other.

Balliol researchers are encouraged to do the same https://www.flickr.com/photos/balliolarchivist/collections/72157631849081491/

Opening access to archives and manuscripts, one click at a time…

Q&A: digitisation

Q: Responding to a good query from @ojleaf for the #AskACurator conversation on Twitter: If you are digitising precious documents, does it frustrate you if people still want to handle the original?

A: No.

See previous post about the constant balance between preservation and access.

First, for ‘precious’ read ‘OLD.’  It’s hard to remember that a medieval manuscript in good condition, with its illustrations still bright and its parchment still smooth, is at least FIVE HUNDRED years old and may be much older. Parchment is very tough stuff, and ancient books can be enormous and very heavy. It is hard to remember that such physically formidable objects really are fragile. That doesn’t necessarily mean that pages will tear easily, or even that the books will break into bits if you drop them. They are physically vulnerable, especially the ink/paint and bindings, but less obviously, they are also chemically vulnerable – to our warm breath, to the oils on our hands, to the light we read by.

‘Because I want to feel closer to the past’ is a completely understandable reason for someone to request direct access to, say, a medieval manuscript book, but not a valid one on its own. I sympathise (all very well for me, I have direct contact with these things every day – at least in theory) but in principle, what seems more important to me (and there is always a balance to be struck between the two) is access to information rather than access to objects. HOWEVER!  if a researcher is able to demonstrate that he or she needs information from the original document that is not obtainable from a facsimile, then of course I’ll produce the original. This happens quite often. Using facsimiles, especially good quality digital images, is a great way for most researchers to get most of the information they need without having to expose the original to the wear ( = damage) of repeated handling and changes in light, temperature and humidity.

Eventually a researcher may well have to come and check the original manuscript in person, but advance preparation and familiarity with the contents, layout and visual characteristics of the manuscripts – and potential problems – will make the time spent with the originals that much more productive. Thanks to digital images, that time may be reduced from days or weeks to a matter of hours. In practical terms, having access to decent digital images, preferably in advance of a visit to see the original (but better afterwards than never) will usually mean:

  • ability to
    • view images at much-magnified resolution, i.e. larger than the original
    • manipulate images to improve colour, contrast etc – so many manuscripts are written in brown on brown
    • view pages in any order, any number of times
    • reconstitute original order in cases of misbinding
    • juxtapose images of pages which are not physically facing each other
    • view more than one opening at a time
    • use images in illustrations for discussion, publications presentation, teaching etc
    • sit in comfort at home, at own computer, in own chair, with own mug
  • reduction of
    • number of research trips
    • travel time
    • travel and accommodation costs
    • time spent in archives, where (with the best will in the world) light may be low, temperatures unpleasant, access awkward, chairs uncomfortable, and pens, water, cough sweets and tea not allowed!

We hope that’s an improvement for everyone. And we do have exhibitions of all sorts of items from the special collections – even if visitors are not able to leaf through a 400-year-old Aldine imprint, they can get pretty close to a good number of Exciting Old Things and hopefully find some interesting information about them in the captions or catalogue. Maybe some will be inspired to start their own research projects…

Q&A: digitisation

I was recently asked: ‘I noticed that quite a bit of material from your archives has been digitized, and that you have put it to fine use by widening access to the collection on the website and through online exhibitions.  I wondered how you are going about digitizing the items – are you working in-house, or are you using an external organization to do it, or a mixture of both? Please could you tell me how this is being financed, and if you are aiming to digitize the whole archive or just a part?’ This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked about my digitization programme at Balliol, and it prompted a bit of an essay on how I do things now and how that has changed since I began in October 2010. So here’s is an update to what I was thinking then.

web1Who does the work?

I do the digitising myself – I have an excellent A3 scanner and a serviceable but outdated camera which I’m about to replace. I allocate a few hours a week to scanning & photography so that it progresses regularly, if not quickly, but I am posting about 2000 images a month these days.

The occasional exception is when someone wants to photograph an entire manuscript or series for their own research; in such cases I ask for copies of the images and permission to publish them online and make them freely available to other researchers, with credit to the photographer of course. So far the few people I’ve asked have been very happy to do this, since they have had free access and permission to photograph. (Sometimes their images are not as good as mine, so then I don’t bother!)

There are also numerous documents in the collections that are just too big for me to photograph – eventually, if and when they are asked for, we will have to think about having someone in to photograph them systematically. So far the multiple photos of each that I or the researcher have been able to do has sufficed.

For now at least, I have decided against a systematic digitisation of our microfilms of the medieval manuscripts. This would involve a lot of time and effort to fund and arrange, the images would all be black and white, and of variable quality, and there are knotty questions of copyright as well. Some of the MSS were only partly microfilmed, and none has more than a single full-page perpendicular view for each page – no closeups or angles to get closer to initials, erasures, annotations, marginalia or tight gutters, so there would still be considerable photography to do anyway. Also, see below.

Why don’t you apply for a grant and have a professional photographer do more than you can do yourself?

So far, I’m able to fulfil reprographics orders in a pretty timely manner and to a standard that satisfies enquirers. Aside from cost and time management for individual orders, because I can respond individually and fit them in around my other tasks, the great advantage of doing the digitisation myself is that I am getting to know the collections extremely well. If we had an outside photographer do it, all that direct encounter with each page would go to someone with no real interest in the collections, what a waste. This way,  I’m checking in a lot of detail for physical condition, learning to recognise individuals’ handwriting, discovering/replacing missing or misplaced items, prioritising items that need conservation or repackaging, noticing particularly visually attractive bits for later use in exhibitions and so on, and not least ensuring that items are properly numbered – which many are not!

What is the cost?

???????????????????Because I work reprographics orders into my regular work schedule, there is no extra cost, except the £50 or so fee every 2 years for our unlimited Flickr account.

Do you charge for access?

I always mention that donations are welcome, but in general I do not charge for reprographics. Most of the requests are from within academia, and I think HE institutions have a responsibility to be helpful and cooperative with each other and with the public, particularly when it comes to access to unique items. On the one hand, I know that special collections are extremely expensive to maintain, and often have to sing for their supper, but on the other I know how frustrating it is to be denied the chance to take one’s own photographs and then to be charged the earth for a few images. Institutions like ours, whose own members may need such cooperation from other collections and their curators, should probably err on the side of the angels er scholars! Most of the other requests for images are for private individuals’ family history research purposes, and since many of those enquirers would otherwise have no contact with Balliol or Oxford, I think it’s good for the relationship between college, university and the wider public to be helpful in this way. Family history is usually very meaningful to researchers, and they remember and appreciate prompt and helpful assistance.

Balliol College reserves the right to charge for permission to publish its images, but may waive this for academic publications.

Are you planning to digitise all the collections or just parts? What are your priorities and how do you determine the order of things to be done next?

Most of the series I’ve put online don’t start with no.1. All the reprographics I do now are in response to specific requests from enquirers, and I don’t seriously intend, or at least expect, to digitize All The Things. Although 40,000 images sounds like a lot, and there’s loads to browse online, I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface; most collections aren’t even represented online – yet… This way, everything I post online I know is of immediate interest to at least one real person – if we did everything starting from A.1, probably most of it would sit there untouched. For the efficiency of my work and for preservation of the originals, digital photography is marvellous, enabling me to make every photo count more than once rather than having to photocopy things repeatedly over the years.

On the other hand, if someone asks for images of one text occupying only part of a medieval book, I will normally photograph the whole thing; or if the request is for a few letters from a file, I will scan the whole file. It’s more efficient in the long run, as a whole is more likely to be relevant to other future searchers than a small part.

What about copyright?

web2I probably should mark my own photos of the gardens, but I don’t think anybody will be nicking them for a book and making millions with it. As for the images of archives and manuscripts, of course I am careful to avoid publishing anything whose copyright I know to be owned by another individual or institution, but for older material that belongs to Balliol, I’m with the British Library on this one. I think as much as possible should be as available online as possible, for reasons of both access and preservation.

We do have some collections whose copyright is held by an external person or body, and in some of those cases I am permitted to provide a few images (not whole works) for researchers’ private use, but cannot put images online or permit researchers to take their own photos.

How do you make images available?

Now that other online media are available, I am reducing image use on the archives website,  to use it as a base for highly structured, mostly text-based pages such as collection catalogues, how-tos, research guides etc, as this information needs to be well organised and logically navigable. These days I am using this blog for mini-exhibitions discussing single themes and one image, or a few at a time.

Flickr is a good image repository for reference, not so much for exhibitions – I’ve written about that at https://balliolarchivist.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/thing-17/

I expect I will have rethought the digitisation process again in a couple of years’ time!

Thing 17

Thing 17 for 23Things for Research is Exploring images. Basically, it’s exploring Flickr. Which I use. So that’s handy!

I’ve uploaded about 40,000 images to Flickr by now, and have had more than 106,000 views of individual images. The bulk of the images are of (mostly entire) medieval manuscripts, but I’ve also added old photo albums, medieval title deeds, 19th century sketchbooks, letters, diaries, literary manuscripts, administrative records, transcriptions & finding aids… and my own photos of Balliol’s gardens in all seasons, which have proved surprisingly popular!

Flickr doesn’t fill my criteria for an online exhibition facility, because it’s set up so that photos have to be viewed in a highly structured, linear way. However, it makes a very good repository for zillions of images that do need to be arranged in a highly structured, linear way – e.g. a collection of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts, containing numerous sets, each of those containing images of each page of a manuscript, presented in (usually!) the same order as in the original book. It mirrors the structure of the real collections and their contents, and it’s easy to refer enquirers to freely available, high-resolution sources.

I also refer enquirers to Flickr when they ask for visual information about some building or other physical aspect of Balliol as it is now – because they will find a better pool of those images on Flickr than the college has itself. One good reason to continue to use and to add to it is that Flickr is becoming well known as perhaps the top place to go online to search for images of whatever particular something – much more effective than the image tab on search engines. So if it’s the best, more people will be using it, and it’s worth having a presence there. For instance: wish you’d got up early enough to catch all the merry May Day madness in the streets of central Oxford this morning? For a flavour of the atmosphere, you could do worse than start here.

What do we then do about online exhibitions? For a long time I wanted some kind of image slideshow facility on the college’s website, but now that seems dated and limited, no more interesting than what Flickr can offer (and more expensive!) Instead, I’m inclined to try some of the presentation tools I’ve investigated during 23Things – for instance, Prezi and some of the newspaper/magazine tools such as scoop.it, because they provide ways of presenting images and text in more visually flexible and interesting ways – one item doesn’t simply have to follow another; you can relate several things to each other in different ways. This also takes more planning and therefore time but I think I’ll end up with better presentations in the end. And blog posts are a great way of highlighting a single item, especially isolated ones such as my recent mystery postcard accession.

What about copyright? Well, I probably should mark my own photos of the gardens, but I don’t think anybody will be nicking them for a book and making millions with it. As for the images of archives and manuscripts, of course I am careful to avoid publishing anything whos copyright I know to be owned by another individual or institution, but for older material that belongs to Balliol, I’m with the British Library on this one. I think as much as possible should be as available online as possible, for reasons of both access and preservation.

Flickr has lots more potential than just getting good-quality images from A to B – indeed, I wish it were rather less clicky to get from one original-size image to the next in the set, and that there were a filename-preserving way of allowing viewers to download whole sets. I do use several other Flickr features:

tags: obviously, this is the most efficient way to ensure that your photos are picked up in searches!

descriptions: I use set descriptions to provide basic information about the source material, and to refer the viewer back to our website for more structured in-depth information, catalogues etc. So far I haven’t used individual photo descriptions much, as it would take huge amounts of time and would duplicate information on our website – I don’t really want to add a lot of new information to Flickr, because it’s hard to keep track of. But on the other hand, there is potential here for crowdsourcing/community projects such as mapping and transcription – more investigation and planning needed.

flickandshare: a 3rd-party app that allows you to send, or include in your set description, a link that lets viewers download whole sets of your photos. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to preserve your filenames, so viewers may have to download the images one at a time from a list of filenames, which is tedious but at least less irritating than having to click through to and download each individual original-size image direct from Flickr. Come on app people!

map: when marking up sets that relate to a particular place (especially outside Balliol, such as college livings, formercollege properties or addresses on old letters) I like to pin one or two (more makes it crowded and messy) to Flickr’s map – even though it does then label each mapped photo as taken in that place, which is hardly ever true in our case! This means that users who browse the map for a place that interests them will happen across Balliol’s relevant historic photos during their own search, rather than my waiting for them to make a structured investigation for e.g. documents about that place, which they might never do. And then they might just get interested…

groups: I’ve joined and posted photos to a number of Flickr group pools – these usually have quite narrow remits, and are a way of becoming visible to different and perhaps unexpected potential audience. Here’s my list of groups – some predictable (Archives & archivists on Flickr), others perhaps not quite so much so (Tulips in Bloom) Come and have a look!

  •     Manuscript Journeys (16 members)
  •     Oxfordshire Churches (241 members)
  •     Art of Heraldry (390 members)
  •     Tulips In Bloom (80 members)
  •     Manuscripta mediaevalia (395 members)
  •     archives & archivists on flickr (226 members)
  •     The Great War Archive Flickr Group (540 members)
  •     Oxford Colleges (82 members)
  •     Oxfordshire Gardens (25 members)
  •     Historical Type and Lettering (553 members)
  •     Sealing Wax (95 members)
  •     ArchivesOnFlickr (298 members)
  •     Handwritten Ledgers (19 members)
  •     converted buildings (15 members)
  •     Archivists (23 members)
  •     Old Paper (15 members)
  •     Book Inscriptions (169 members)

Any recommendations of other Flickr functionalities I should explore? suggestions welcome!

To sum up: Flickr has a dual function for my image collections: as a structured ‘digital repository’ – of facsimiles only, I hasten to add! – to refer enquirers to who have already been in touch about something specific; and as an opportunity for serendipitous discoveries that may provoke a view or two, or may lead to more browsing, focussed interest and an enquiry.

horns of the dilemma

Access and preservation – pillars of the profession, or, the archivist’s Scilla and Charybdis

I detest being pushed into the role of curmudgeonly dragon, so I wish people would not request to ‘glance through’ (e.g.) 19th century literary papers because they like the subject’s poetry. This is just not a good enough reason to ask to handle fragile, light-sensitive documents that are 150 years old. Use of archives is normally the final step of primary research on a particular thesis (research question), after thorough investigation of secondary and published sources. And I will say so, because my first duty is to the college and the preservation of its collections – otherwise there will soon be nothing left! But thank goodness for digitisation and the huge increase in access it makes possible. I am as committed to increasing access to the information within the collections as I am to physical preservation of the originals.

While the corollary of  increased access via digitisation is increased preservation of the original, its flip side is decreased access to the original. I do not produce manuscripts that have been digitised except for codicological queries that truly cannot be answered by consulting the facsimile. There is something special about direct contact with an ancient codex, but the fact is that every exposure to light, fluctuations in temperature and humidity and handling, however careful, inevitably causes cumulative and (at least in the case of light) irreversible damage to paper and parchment.

Access and preservation often pull in opposite directions, and the needs of the reader and those of the archives can appear to be in conflict. But archivists have to hold these two poles in some kind of balance, because without preservation there will soon be no access, and without access – and I emphasise that in most cases the important thing is access not necessarily to the physical objects but to the information they contain – preservation would be pointless.