How do you digitise an archive?
In essence, digitisation is a method of documentation. It usually consists of photographing or scanning a collection item, uploading the image to an institutional website or online catalogue, together with a physical description and any other relevant historical or contextual information. Motivations for digitisation include access – making things that are not on public display available online, or enabling remote audiences to engage with a collection without having to travel – and preservation – creating copies or records of items for posterity.
In the SPL’s case the motivation for digitising a selection of innovative poetic items was to provide our website visitors with a glimpse into our wonderful archive collection; to illustrate the range of material forms which poetry can take; and to highlight the distinctive contribution which the Scottish avant-garde and concrete poetry movements have made to contemporary practice.
A unifying quality of this kind of innovative poetry is the importance of the material form to our understanding. We must take the time to handle an object, perhaps manipulating it in some way or navigating a text in an unusual order, taking time to contemplate how our bodies respond or how the work relates to its environment. This is one of the things which makes this work special, and worth digitising.
However, it’s also what makes this work hard to digitise. Objects like box works can’t be scanned, for example. And often a simple photograph will fail to capture the different aspects of a three-dimensional or performative work. These are challenges which the digitisation initiative at the SPL has sought to address. Using simple web features, we have attempted to give a sense of how these objects create their meaning through particular kinds of interaction.
Testing different methods
The journey to our first digital collection involved a process of research and experimentation. For example, one of the questions we asked was whether 3D scanning could help digitise box works like Thomas A. Clark’s yellowhammer (Moschatel Press, 2017). What do you think?
In some cases the weather presented an unexpected challenge. To illustrate the reference to real landscape features in Julie Johnstone’s point of view (Essence Press, 2012), we took it to Portobello beach for filming – but strong winds shook the camera and caused difficulties handling, as shown below!
And finally there were technical challenges to overcome – like creating the right studio environment with lighting and equipment, and working out the best way to show off complex and delicate works like Heather H. Yeung’s hand-written and illustrated codex, Ashberys (2016-17).
As these examples show, digitisation at the SPL is an exciting work in progress, with plenty of inspiring and challenging material in the archive to get to grips with.