The Endangered Archives Programme and the Challenges of Being a ‘Digital Archivist’

By Toni Hardy, Endangered Archives Programme Cataloguer

“Documentary heritage reflects the diversity of languages, peoples and cultures. It is the mirror of the world and its memory. But this memory is fragile. Every day, irreplaceable parts of this memory disappear for ever.” – UNESCO Memory of the World Programme

The Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), administered by The British Library, recognises the need to preserve archival material that is in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration. Created in 2004 and funded by Arcadia, the EAP offers grants on an annual basis to researchers world-wide to identify and preserve culturally important archives. To date the EAP has awarded over 90 grants amounting to approximately £2.5 million. The result is a contribution to safeguarding the world’s heritage in regions of the world where collections may be more at risk and where resources may be limited.

The Programme is entirely reactive and dependent upon researchers, archivists and librarians to identify collections that may be endangered. When material has been identified, and the feasibility of its preservation has been assessed, at least two surrogate sets of the original material are created through digitisation or microfilming. One copy is deposited with The British Library while the other remains locally. Original material is not moved outside its country of origin and the copies maintained by The British Library are not the master archival copies. Nevertheless, they are the only copy in the Library’s holdings and have to be of a high archival standard to facilitate scholarship and research and to ensure their permanent accessibility.

Presidential Archives basement room in the Executive Mansion in Liberia (copyright of K.A. MacDonald)

Presidential Archives basement room in the Executive Mansion in Liberia (copyright of K.A. MacDonald)

The EAP provides Listing and Copying Guidelines based on international standards and in-house requirements. These help ensure the quality of the copies being created and that essential metadata is being recorded. When projects finish, the descriptive and contextual information they provide forms the basis of our catalogues. By this stage, traditional ‘core’ archival activities such as appraisal, selection, arrangement and copying, have already taken place. We can now focus on access and preservation tasks. This includes creating fuller catalogues to meet the needs of both future researchers and of The British Library’s digital preservation programme.

When I began as the EAP Cataloguer in October 2008 I was unsure what to expect. Material submitted under the Programme is predominantly in digital form which essentially means that whilst I am a cataloguer I am also what some might call a ‘digital archivist’. I do not work with physical archives, I do not see or touch the original document(s), and in most cases I cannot read or understand the material because of the wide variety of languages and scripts represented in the collections. Thus the digital nature of the collections and the international scope of the Programme make cataloguing EAP material a challenging and interesting task.

One challenge relates to the physicality of the material itself. I am currently cataloguing the results of a project to preserve rare periodical publications in Mongolia. The periodicals (mostly newspapers) are in Mongolian, using Cyrillic script and comprise approximately 2400 CDs. The digital copies are made up of digital images/files and folders. Each newspaper page is a separate digital image, removed from its original physical context. It is difficult to determine, from the digital copy alone, how closely the images match the appearance of the original. For example, if the first page of a newspaper states that it belongs to Issue 1 dated 01-01-1990 but the second page gives a different date, how can I tell if the second image has been misfiled or if the conflicting dates are merely a printing error? Unfortunately I cannot travel to Mongolia to compare the copy with the original.

Manuscript form EAP051 in the Bamum script of the Cameroon Grassfields held in Bamum Royal Palace Archives in Western Cameroon

Manuscript form EAP051 in the Bamum script of the Cameroon Grassfields held in Bamum Royal Palace Archives in Western Cameroon

Another challenge relates to the intellectual structure of the catalogue. Using ISAD(G), the hard-copy of a newspaper can be described at either ‘file’ or ‘item’ level. Its digital equivalent is slightly different. We must decide what constitutes our ‘digital object’. This may or may not equate to an ISAD(G) ‘file’ or ‘item’ and new levels may need to be considered. A better example of this complex issue is the photograph. Consider a photograph which has information on verso and recto. The original is one physical object, but the digital copy is two digital images which can be retrieved separately. In a digital collection, a group of photographs could be described at ‘file’ level with each digital image (whether verso recto) treated as separate ‘items’. Or, each individual photograph could be a ‘file’ consisting of two ‘items’, an ‘item’ divided into two ‘sub-items’, or an ‘item’ comprising two images.

The Endangered Archives Programme highlights the challenges we face in cataloguing and preserving material that is a surrogate by definition yet born-digital by circumstance. Being the EAP Cataloguer means finding the balance between traditional description and one that embodies the needs of digital material. It offers an intellectual challenge as well as the opportunity to ensure that endangered material from across the world remains available into the future.

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