Essay: Archiving of objects using digital tools

This information was written to assist a family in the recording of their assests for all to use. I thought it may be helpful for a wider audience.

Assess

The first step in this process is to determine the size of the collection and most importantly the sorting out the items that are critical for archiving from those that are not.

Categorise

Group the objects into an order that is logical. During this phase it is sensible to place the items, where possible, into archival bags. We use and recommend Albox archival containers.

Itemise

Number the items in a logical sequence and record a log of the items ideally directly into a database. We use and recommend Filemaker Pro or Bento. Microsoft Access is also a reasonable choice. The reason why it is important to enter the items directly into a database is to avoid double handling and thus potential mistakes.

The database should contain a field for metadata. Metadata is additional information about the item, it should be in the form of simple words that concisely say what you wish to say. Metadata should also be planned to minimise the same tag being written several different ways. For example; Benjamin J Smith being recorded as Ben Smith, BJ Smith, Ben, B. Smith. A metadata tag may be something as simple as a person’s name, a location, a sentimental note, or possibly a longditude-latitude, or all of these.

Barcoding is becoming a useful tool for this process. A barcode is simply a font that a hand held optical device can read, so you would print sticky barcode labels and apply them to the bags, then associate the bag with the database entry.

Digitise

There are four different methods we use:

  1. Low resolution capture just to record item for general identification. This can be done by anyone with a simple digital camera and a moderate amount of light.
  2. Capture or documents that will allow them to be read on screen, or potentially optical character recongnised (OCR), that is convert the image to computer text for searching. We use either a camera or a document scanner.
  3. Capture for closer examination. This should be done with careful lighting and camera control so the object can be reproduced to a reasonable standard. We use a 14 megapixel DSLR with a macro lens with either flash light or electronically ballasted fluros.
  4. Capture for high quality reproduction. This requires special equipment and lighting. It can be used to make a near perfect facimilie of the original, it will also allow for close inspection. We use a Betterlight 200 megapixel 5x4inch camera with eclectronically ballasted fluros.

During the digitisation proces the order that the objects are copied in is critical so the the captures can be synchronised with the item database. In an ideal world, as the items are captured they are saved with the filename that matches the database entry.

Metadata tagging

You may have added these “tags” to the database during the itemise stage, however it is a good practise to tag the image files as they are reviewed, this way the tags remain with the digital images even when separated from the database. I would go so far as to not add the tags during the itemising stage, and add them after the digital images are taken, this way the person making the tags would need only view the pictures, hence the whole process is more portable, and they objects are handled as little as possible.

Metadata tags can be added to digital image files using most popular image editing applications such as Adobe Photoshop, Bridge, Lightroom, and Elements.

Archive digital data

This has two objectives: one to protect the data from being lost, and secondly to allow the data to be updated as family members engage with it. This can be achieved in the following way:

  1. The original work is kept both on hard disks (in two locations), and on an archival CD or DVDs, these will be the masters, the copies will need to be checked periodically that they still can be read.
  2. The database and images are kept at a third party hosting service that allows for web interaction, these services typically keep back ups of their own, however downloading the work to a local machine periodically and then making multiple disk versions as in point 1. will keep the archive version fresh.

Reproducing

While archiving the digital data is essential, one has to be careful that the media it is stored on is legible into the future, we have already seen the rapid rise and fall of several formats, many now are not readable, and some users have experienced the data disappearing. Multiple physical copies of the work is the proven ideal storage method. However I would suggest that it is not essential to print everything, just the items of most interest.

You may like to consider storing a version of the most valued reproductions in museum grade archival conditions together with a digital version. There are services that can store in such a manner, or you can set up a space in a family members’ house to suit.

All prints can be made up to A0 and beyond, books are limited to 12x16inch.

Publishing

Once the “assets” are in order and properly tagged, you will find it very easy to move through the collection, in-fact, anyone will find it easy, and it has been my experience that when you make such a thing easy it is more likely to be utilised.

An author would be able to gather all they needed to illustrate a book, or to gather quotes from typed matter that that been OCRed.

Limited edition print runs could be made from the best digital copies, and with the choice of art papers available, the reproductions would  themselves be fine-art, and possible outlast the originals (200 years archival).

Conclusion

This process can take a long time and consume a lot of resources, however it is worth while because it adds unimaginable value to the collection for future generations. If we all could all embark immediately on recording our own lives (photography, documentation, awards etc) in such a thorough manner it would be a small task!

Paul Atkins