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Bridging the Digital Gap with UAL

Bridging the Digital Gap workshop
Bridging the Digital Gap workshop
Co-design workshop at Digerati with UAL Colleges collections staff to generate ideas for the DAC Project user interface.
Written by
Erin Liu
Published date
31 October 2019

I am one of eight trainees in the latest cohort of The UK National Archives’ Bridging the Digital Gap scheme.

Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the scheme seeks to bring new digital skills into the archive sector. Making good use of my background in design and interest in applied arts education, I am seconded to UAL, based in the University’s Archives and Special Collections Centre.

Over the next fifteen months, I will be supporting the UAL Digital Archives & Collections (DAC) Project, a collaborative undertaking between IT Services and collections staff.  The DAC project seeks not only to preserve the University’s expanding digital collections, but also to broaden access and engagement with these growing collections, for staff and students as well as the public.  In support of digital collections management, I will carry out a series of small scale projects that focus on developing my capacities in digital preservation and collections management more broadly.

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Bridging the Digital Gap, digitisation
Digitisation studio at The UK National Archives.

Having started just a few weeks ago, my initial foray into the archives sector so far has shown me that digital presents both as an opportunity and a challenge.  Questions of how digital records (not only material that has been digitised, but also material referred to as  ‘born-digital’ media) might be 'obtained’, stored, managed and preserved, challenge existing traditional paper-based methods, especially when it comes to issues of networked ownership and format durability.

While undoubtedly fresh to this field, things that have struck me in these early days:

  • The range of practices that make archives ‘work’ - preservation, conservation, digitisation, curation, copyright and legal issues to consider, among many more that I am still unfamiliar with
  • Access to archival material depends on multiple factors (e.g. copyright and ownership, organisational aims, operational and staffing resources to facilitate research, whether records are digitised or not etc.)
    • a corporate archive might have little prerogative in making its records accessible beyond the business, focusing instead on its legal and institutional responsibilities
    • the most inaccessible archives tend to be those on private family estates that are otherwise unregistered
    • UAL has a strong focus on access and engagement, and assesses prospective acquisitions in relation to their potential to facilitate teaching, learning and research
  • collections care also involves people skills, like long-term relationship-building with existing or potential donors
  • the potential for digital methods (for example the application of blockchain technology to assess whether a digital record has been modified) to dramatically increase access to archives as well as the way knowledge around archives is produced
Bridging the Digital Gap, conservation
Materials undergoing assessment by conservators prior to digitisation at The UK National Archives.

These are some of the issues I am beginning to grapple with in my traineeship, and I’m looking forward to working through some of these questions over the next fifteen months with my UAL colleagues and fellow trainees.