Nell Widger is currently undertaking a National Productivity Investment Fund Innovation Placement at the Scottish Poetry Library, where she is researching and piloting digitization methods for the special collections. The placement is supported by the University of Dundee and the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities.
Last year I completed a PhD which focussed on an anthology of linguistically innovative poetry. Looking for my next challenge I decided to get to grips with poems that took different material forms, sometimes coming off the page entirely as various kinds of ‘poem-objects’. This led me to the Edwin Morgan Archive at the Scottish Poetry Library, a rich repository of just such works, which has grown since Morgan’s bequest to include collections by notable Scottish poets, Thomas A. Clark, Julie Johnstone and Heather H. Yeung. Along with delicate handbound volumes and beautifully designed poem-cards, the archive shelves hold fascinating intermedial works in papyrus and birch bark, intriguing box-works containing lemon-scented soap and salvaged string, texts on bookmarks, pin-badges, a handmirror, and even a pillowcase, which offer to fill our everyday world with poetry, and lead us to reflect on the forms that poems can take.
Over the next few months I will be photographing, filming and scanning a small selection of these works for display on the Library’s relaunched website, giving users a taster of the breadth and complexity of these special collections.
It’s a privilege to get to work with these objects, but not without its challenges. Not all can be flattened for scanning, and in many cases a single photographic image would fail to give a sense of their multiple material and poetic dimensions. Some works require a particular type of handling to reveal their meaning, which standard digitization methods may not be able to capture. A key aim of the project, therefore, is to find a way – albeit with limited time and resources – to overcome these difficulties in order to open up the special collections to website visitors. Staff at universities, libraries and galleries in Edinburgh and Dundee have been generous with their time in helping me identify potential solutions, and I’ve been lucky enough to get a sneak peek at the digitization process at some of these institutions.
Another challenge has been defining a selection strategy. Without the resources to digitize all the works, an important question is which ones to choose – different selections will have different implications for user experience, giving quite different windows onto the Library’s archive.
Finally, my own experience poses a challenge – with an academic background in literary criticism, I’m having to adopt a new approach to poetry, and get my head around technical considerations. But I can now say with confidence that metadata isn’t as scary as it sounds.
Follow my progress and get tasters of some of the works on SPL social media, and look out for the digitized items on the SPL website towards the end of Spring 2019. And do get in touch if you’re working on something similar.
Finally, this is a great opportunity to extend my thanks to staff at the SPL and the University of Dundee, and of course to the poets, for all their help and support so far.