Archive Project

A Blockchain For Archives: Trust Through Technology

At a time when the fragility and vulnerability of digital records are increasingly evident, maintaining the trustworthiness of public archives is more important than ever.

Video and sound recordings can be manipulated to put words into mouths of people who never said them, photographs can be doctored, content added to or removed from videos and recently, AI technology has “written” news articles that can mimic any writer’s style. All of these media and many other “born-digital” formats will come to form the public record. If archives are to remain an essential resource for democracy, able to hold governments to account, the records they hold must be considered trustworthy.

But is this really a problem for archives?

Until recently, this has not been a concern for archives. People trust archives, especially public archives. We are seen as experts, preserving and providing access to our holdings freely and over a lengthy period (since 1838 in the case of The National Archives in the UK). We could rest on our laurels. But the challenges to our practice brought by digital technologies have to lead us to question whether this institutional or inherited trust is enough when faced with the forces of fakery that have emerged in the 21st century.

In 2017, The National Archives of the UK, partnered with the Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing (CVSSP) at the University of Surrey and Tim Berners-Lee’s non-profit Open Data Institute, started to research how a new technology could be harnessed to serve on the side of archives. The ARCHANGEL project is investigating how blockchain can provide a genuine guarantee of the authenticity of the digital records held in archives. A way of publicly demonstrating our trustworthiness by proving that the digital records held in archives are authentic and unchanged.

Often considered synonymous with Bitcoin, blockchain is the technology that underpins a number of digital currencies but it has the potential for far wider application. At root, it is the digital equivalent of a ledger, like a database but with two features that set it apart from standard databases. Firstly, the blockchain is append only, meaning that data cannot be overwritten, amended or deleted; it can only be added. Secondly, it is distributed. No central authority or organisation has sole possession of the data. Instead, a copy of the whole database is held by each member of the blockchain and they collaborate to validate each new block before it is written to the ledger. As a result, there is no centralised authority in control of the data and each participant has an equal status in the network: equal responsibility, equal rights and an equal stake.

As with any new technology, there are issues to be researched and resolved. The most common criticism is that 51% of the participants could collude to change the data written on the blockchain. This is less likely in the case of ARCHANGEL because it is a permissioned blockchain. This means that every member has been invited and their identity is known, unlike bitcoin networks where many of the members are anonymous.

A more practical issue that arose early on was around what information could be shared on an immutable database that would be available to the public, to prove that they were unchanged from the point of receipt by the archives. Every public archive holds records closed due to their sensitive content. This sensitivity sometimes extends to their filenames or descriptions so adding these metadata fields to the blockchain would not be appropriate. We settled on a selection of fields that included an archival reference and the checksum, a unique alphanumeric string generated by a mathematical algorithm that changes completely if even one byte is altered in the file. In this way, a researcher can compare the checksum of the record they download against the checksum on the blockchain (written when the record was first received, potentially many years previously) and see for themselves that the checksums match. As archives sometimes convert formats in order to preserve or present records to the public, the project has also developed a way of generating a checksum based on the content of a video file rather than its bytes. This enables the user to check that the video has not been altered for unethical reasons while in the archive’s custody.

So, the ARCHANGEL blockchain enables an archive to upload metadata that uniquely identifies specific records, have that data sealed into a “block” that cannot be altered or deleted without detection, and share a copy of the data with each of the other trusted members of the network for as long as the archives (some of the oldest organisations in the world) maintain it.

In the prototype testing, we found that the key to engaging other archives is in emphasising the shared nature of the network. Only by collaborating with partners can the benefits of an archival blockchain be realised by any of us. It is blockchain’s distributed nature that underpins the trustworthiness of the system; that enables it to be more reliable, more transparent and more secure, and therefore effective in providing a barrier against the onslaught of synthetic content.

At the same time, the effort of the organisations to make the prototype work demonstrates their trustworthiness: in wanting to share the responsibility for proving the authenticity of the records they hold, they demonstrate their expertise and honesty.

The arms race with the forces of fakery that archives find themselves in is the reason why The National Archives is thinking about trust. We do not want people to trust archives only because of their longevity and expertise. Instead, we want to demonstrate their trustworthiness. We want to provide what Baroness Onora O’Neill said was needed in the BBC Reith Lectures in 2002:

“In judging whether to place our trust in others” words or undertakings, or to refuse that trust, we need information and we need the means to judge the information.” O’Neill, A Question of Trust

This is what we think blockchain gives us as a profession: by being part of a network of trusted organisations which assure the authenticity of each other’s records, we demonstrate the trustworthiness of all of our records.

 

Acknowledgements

The ARCHANGEL Project would like to acknowledge the funding received from the ESPRC Grant Ref EP/P03151X/1.

Copyright

Header image: ‘Crown copyright 2019 courtesy of The National Archives’

Further details:

The project website is here: https://www.archangel.ac.uk/

For a more detailed paper about the project see: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1804.08342.pdf

Akkasah: Preserving Photographic Heritage in the Middle East and North Africa

Akkasah (an old word for camera in the Khaliji dialect), the Center for Photography at New York University Abu Dhabi, is home to an archive of the photographic heritage of the Middle East and North Africa.

Founded in 2014 by New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Professor Shamoon Zamir, the Center is dedicated to documenting and preserving the diverse histories and practices of photography from the region, and its growing archive contains at present over 65,000 images, both digital and analogue, including albumen prints, gelatin silver prints and negatives. Akkasah acquires collections of prints, negatives and digital photographs, and it also creates digital versions of collections that remain with individuals and institutions seeking to preserve and share their collections.

The Middle East and North Africa have rich traditions of documentary, vernacular, and art photography and these traditions have yet to receive the full critical attention they deserve. Akkasah’s primary aim is to establish a major hub for scholarly research on photography in the region. Akkasah is a scholarly enterprise and does not seek any commercial rights over the materials it holds. The archive is open to scholars, students and the general public by appointment. The Center is keen to work in collaboration with other institutions and individuals with a similar commitment to photography and scholarship from the Middle East and other parts of the world. Along with the creation of an archive, the Center’s activities include developing an ongoing program of conferences and colloquia on various topics related to archives, history of photography and contemporary issues in photography, producing a series of publications, as well as establishing a special collection of rare photobooks from around the world.

The Archive

In the core of Akkasah’s activities lies the archive, which includes a wide range of photographs from vernacular photography to contemporary documentary projects. The archive has published over 9500 images online via akkasah.org, including two major vernacular photography collections from Egypt (the Yasser Alwan Collection) and Turkey (the Turkey Collection). Another collection from Egypt, the Samir Farid Collection consists of over 3000 negatives of 265 old Egyptian movies from the 1930s through the 1980s. The Akkasah archive also features photographs that date back to the early days of photography in the Middle East (the Engin Ozendes & Hisham Khatib collections) taken by some of the most prominent photographers from the late Ottoman era like the Abdullah Freres or Sebah & Joaillier. Akkasah also buys historical albums from across the region with the intention to digitize, catalogue and make them available online.

Akkasah’s mission is to maintain the highest standards for photographic preservation and guarantee the preservation of photographs in perpetuity. The Center catalogues each image on the item level with an extensive set of keywords attached to each entry. Akkasah’s intends to store and preserve as much physical material as possible in-house. Along with Akkasah’s Director Shamoon Zamir, the current team members include Özge Calafato, Project Manager of the Center, and archivists Jasmine Soliman and Jonathan Burr.

Given the current state of instability and upheaval in the region, it seems imperative to increase efforts to safeguard photographic collections, but current social and political circumstances also make it difficult to pursue without encountering obstacles. Across the Middle East and North Africa, there are various private photography collections, yet it is hard to know where they are and what kind of photographs these collections include. Even collections that are part of public institutions face the same issues due to poor cataloguing or lack of access. The inability to ensure proper climate control remains a concern for most photographic archives in the region. In this regard, Akkasah is committed to both transparency and open access, with the goal to make its entire archive available online for researchers and the general public.

A custodial model for archiving

Social and political instability poses a major challenge for the preservation of photographic heritage in the region. There is little governmental support for the preservation of photographic heritage. Many of the institutions and individuals who own the collections under threat are rightly reluctant to have them alienated from their and national and cultural homes, even as they seek to have them safeguarded.

Accordingly, Akkasah has developed a custodial model in order to address this issue. In the custodial model Akkasah either digitizes a collection in situ or assists in removing a collection, or part of a collection, to NYUAD, in order for it to be digitized catalogued, and returned to the donor at any time at no cost. This model was first implemented for the Hisham Khatib Collection in Jordan. The Hisham Khatib Collection includes over 2000 historical photographs from the Middle East, with a focus on Palestine and Jordan. For this collection, Akkasah worked with Darat Al Funun, a major cultural centre in Amman, digitizing the entire collection in situ in 2017.

Another major project that used the custodial model includes the archive of College de la Sainte Famille, a Jesuit high school from Helwan in Egypt, for which over 2000 prints from the late 19th century through the 1990s were digitized in Abu Dhabi and returned to the school afterwards.

Traditionally a Eurocentric field, Akkasah aims to shift the centre of gravity in the history of photography eastwards and beyond and focus on global photographic centres, which so far have been on the periphery of the history of photography. Building and maintaining a photographic archive in a region where a lot of archives are at the risk of being disrupted, stolen or lost comes with a number of challenges. In the region, issues related to archives and archival practices are still not fully discussed. Through its archival practices and scholarly activities, Akkasah’s hope is to generate research that contributes to the development of alternative social and cultural histories of the region. Through full open access, Akkasah aims to change the prevalent culture pertinent to archives in the region, and encourage a more participatory approach with regard to preserving and sharing cultural heritage.

Keep updated with the latest additions to the Akkasah Center on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Image Banner: A group of men and women standing on the stairs of a building, Late Ottoman era. Photographer unknown. Turkey Collection, AD_MC_007_ref287 . Visit here. Copyright ©Akkasah Center for Photography, NYU Abu Dhabi. 

The journey from a records management system to a digital preservation system

“People have had a lot of trouble getting stuff out of RecordPoint.”

This sentence was a little worrying to hear. It was 2015, and our archive was contemplating digital preservation for the first time. We didn’t really know what it was, or how it worked. Neither did anyone else: the idea of having a “digital preservation system” received blank stares around the office. “Is it like a database? Why not use one of our CMS’s instead? Why do we need this?”

And so it was that I realised I was in over my head and needed outside help. I looked up state records offices to find out what they were doing, and realised there is such a thing as the job title “Digital Preservation Officer”. I contacted one of these “Digital Preservation Officers” to get on the right path.

The Digital Preservation Officer’s knowledge in that early conversation was invaluable, and helped us get over those early hurdles. She explained the basics: why digital preservation is important for an archive. How to get started. Breaking down jargon. Convincing non-archivists that yes, it is necessary. And – the importance of figuring out what you want to preserve.

“We will need to preserve digital donations,” I listed, “and digitizations of our physical inventory. Plus, I manage our digital records management system, RecordPoint – if we’re serious about our permanent records we will need to preserve those as well.” (The international digital records management system standard, ISO 16175 Part 2, says that “long-term preservation of digital records… should be addressed separately within a dedicated framework for digital preservation or ‘digital archiving’”.)

It was at this point that the Digital Preservation Officer replied with the quote that began this article.

I don’t think she was quite right – getting digital objects and metadata out of RecordPoint was quite easy. The challenge, it turned out, would be getting the exported digital objects into our digital preservation system, Archivematica.

In the image shown below, the folders on the left represent the top level of a RecordPoint export of two digital objects. The folders on the right are what Archivematica expects in a transfer package.

In the example above, there are three folders for ‘binaries’ (digital objects) and two folders for ‘records’ (metadata). Immediately something doesn’t make sense – why are there three binary folders for two objects?

The reason is that the export includes not only the final version of the digital object but also all previous drafts. In my example there is only a single draft, but if a digital object had 100 drafts, they would all be included here. This is great for compliance, but not so great for digital preservation where careful appraisal is necessary. The priority when doing an ‘extract, transform, load’ (ETL) from RecordPoint to Archivematica would be to ensure that the final version of each binary made it across to the ‘objects’ folder on the right.

An Archivematica transfer package should not only consist of digital objects themselves, of course – you are not truly preserving digital objects unless you also preserve their descriptive metadata. This is why the ‘metadata’ folder on the right exists: you can optionally create a single CSV file, ‘metadata.csv’, which contains the metadata for every digital object in the submission as a separate line. Archivematica uses this CSV file as part of its metadata preservation process.

In contrast, RecordPoint creates a metadata file for every one of the digital objects it exports. If you wanted to pull metadata across into the metadata CSV file for the Archivematica submission, you would need to go through every single metadata XML in the export and copy and paste each individual metadata element. Based on a test, sorting the final record from the drafts and preparing its metadata for Archivematica might take two to four minutes per record. Assuming we have 70,000 records requiring preservation, the entire process of transforming these records manually would take over 6,000 hours. Although technically possible, this is too much work to be achievable, and there would be a high likelihood of errors due to the tedious, detail-oriented work.

Fortunately, I knew the R programming language. R is used by statisticians to solve data transformation problems – and this was a data transformation problem! I created an application using a tool called R Shiny, providing a graphical interface that sits on the Archivematica server. I creatively called it RecordPoint Export to Archivematica Transfer (RPEAT). After running a RecordPoint export, you select the export to be transformed from a drop-down list in RPEAT and select the metadata to be included from a checklist. RPEAT then copies the final version of each digital object from the export into an ‘objects’ folder and trawls through each XML file to extract the required metadata. Finally, RPEAT creates a CSV file that contains all of the required metadata, and moves it into the ‘metadata’ folder. Everything is then ready for transfer into Archivematica.

Pushing 212 records exported from RecordPoint through RPEAT, selecting the correct metadata from the checklist, and doing some quick human quality assurance took 7 minutes. Scaled up, transforming all 70,000 records this way would take fewer than 39 hours. RPEAT reduces the time taken to prepare records for Archivematica by over 99% compared to manual processes.

The advice that the Digital Preservation Officer provided all those years ago was invaluable, and I think in particular the warning on “getting stuff out of RecordPoint” was pertinent – but I wish to expand on her point. The challenge is not unique to RecordPoint – the challenge is ETL in general. At a meeting of Australia and New Zealand’s digital preservation community of practice, Australasia Preserves, in early 2019, other archivists shared their struggle to do ETL from records management systems into their digital archive. This ability is an important addition to the growing suite of technical skills valuable to us digital preservation practitioners.

References

International Organisation for Standardisation. (2011). Information and documentation —

Principles and functional requirements for records in electronic office environments — Part 2:  Guidelines and functional requirements for digital records management systems  (ISO 16175-2). Retrieved from https://www.saiglobal.com/.

Header image

Artem Sapegin on Unsplash

The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 700–1200

In November 2018, the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France launched two new websites that offer access to digitised copies of medieval manuscripts. The two libraries worked together to digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts from the period 700–1200, sharing them online for the first time.

The project focused on manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel over half a millennium of close cultural and political interaction. These 800 manuscripts were selected to build on existing digitised manuscript collections, based on their artistic merit, research value and wider public interest. The project manuscripts comprise a wide range of texts, including liturgical, biblical and theological works, and legal and scientific treatises that reflect the interest of monks, abbots and clerics, who were responsible for much of book production in the period before 1200.

The project drew upon the expertise of curators, cataloguers, conservators and imaging specialists from both institutions, who have learned from one another through a programme of knowledge exchange and reciprocal visits. Each manuscript was checked by a conservator before it was filmed, and any necessary preservation work was performed, to ensure that all manuscripts could be digitised safely. All the manuscripts have been newly catalogued to include up-to-date bibliography, the identification of texts and descriptions of the artwork. These descriptions can be viewed on Explore our Archives and Manuscripts for British Library manuscripts; and on Archives et manuscrits for Bibliothèque Nationale de France manuscripts.

British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v

Two websites

In November, the libraries launched two innovative websites that complement each other. Using the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France hosts a site, France et Angleterre: manuscripts médiévaux entre 700 et 1200, that allows side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection. This new website will enable users to search the manuscripts in English, French and Italian, and to annotate and download images.

The second website, hosted by the British Library is a bilingual online resource, Medieval England and France, 700–1200, that presents a curated view to the project manuscripts in English and French. The site features over 140 manuscript highlights from some of the most important of these manuscripts. It includes 30 articles on a wide range of themes, including medieval science, manuscript illumination and the development of vernacular languages; as well as discussions of prominent figures from the period, such as Thomas Becket, Hrabanus Maurus and Anselm of Canterbury. The site also features a series of videos, narrated by Patricia Lovett MBE, detailing the stages of making a medieval manuscript; two interviews with Professors Julia Crick (King’s College London) and  Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) about manuscript production during the period; and an animation inspired by a medieval bestiary (British Library, Harley MS 4751).

Highlights now available online include the lavishly illuminated Winchester Benedictional, created around the year 1000, as well as the 12th-century collection of St Thomas Becket’s letters, including the earliest depiction of Becket’s martyrdom. There are exquisite Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from the centuries before the Norman Conquest of 1066 that include Psalters, saints’ lives and Gospel-books, and spectacular manuscripts in the Romanesque style, including the giant two-volume Chartres Bible (12th century). The magnificent Canterbury Psalter (12th century), with a tri-lingual translation of the Psalms in Latin, French and English, was made in Canterbury. The book is sometimes known as the Anglo-Catalan Psalter because some of its illustrations were left unfinished and were completed several centuries later in Catalonia
This exciting project was made possible by a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation. Dr Leonard Polonsky commented that:

“This project brings together riches of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the British Library and makes them available to researchers and the broader public in innovative and attractive ways. Our Foundation is privileged to support this collaboration, which continues the cultural exchange and profound mutual influence that characterises the history of these two nations over many centuries.”

The Polonsky Foundation is a UK-registered charity that supports cultural heritage, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and innovation in higher education and the arts.

Follow new discoveries and featured content on Medieval Manuscripts blog and Twitter.

Cover photo: British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A VII/1, f. 6v

ACOR Photo Archive, Amman, Jordan

The American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) Photo Archive has recently digitized and made available six collections of photographs spanning diverse subjects in archaeology, social history, anthropology, art and architectural history from 1944 to 2008 from across the Middle East and North Africa.

The ACOR Photo Archive is open-access and all of the 15,000 photos online are available to download for free.  The vast majority of these photos were not previously catalogued, known about, or accessible to the public. Two years in to the four-year digitization project, the ACOR Photo Archive is now accessed from countries all around the world, with most of its users split between Jordan and the U.S. The ACOR Photo Archive Project is funded by a Title VI (2016) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The ACOR Photo Archive Project was initiated to digitize images mostly from Jordan, including donated collections and those of former research center directors. Inspiration for this project came from a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of cultural heritage in the region in the context of the wars in Syria and Yemen, amongst the loss of human life. The Photo Archive Project sought to resist this destruction by turning attention to the resources in ACOR’s basement – the photographic record of now-infamous places such as Palmyra/Tadmur in Syria, as well as less well-known feats of ancient engineering like Marib Dam, Yemen, pictured before they were damaged in the conflict.

The Triumphal Arch of the Great Colonnade, with the Arab castle visible in the background. Palmyra/Tadmur, Syria, 1955. George Bass collection at ACOR.

South sluice, Marib Dam, Yemen, 1995. Jane Taylor collection at ACOR.

From the outset, as ACOR is based in Jordan, quieter forms of destruction – through development pursued without care for the urban environment in its entirety or through the prioritization of some histories over others – were also a factor in the desire to digitize the archives. Comparing the two images below of the Oval Piazza at the Roman and Islamic archaeological site in Jerash, Jordan gives an insight into both the rate of development, and the prioritization of certain historical remains over others.

Oval Piazza, Jerash, 1955. George Bass collection at ACOR.

Oval Piazza, Jerash, 1998. Jane Taylor collection at ACOR.

An unexpected highlight of embarking on the ACOR Photo Archive Project was the enthusiasm with which other institutions in Jordan received ACOR’s heritage digitization efforts. In 2017, ACOR hosted a workshop for fellow heritage and library professionals creating a forum to share and address specific challenges relating to digitizing heritage of Jordan and the wider region. Challenges included how best to describe archival material so that researchers, students and the general public would be able to find it easily, no matter their educational background. When you are handling representations of sites typically inhabited by at least two civilizations with vastly different names for their settlements as well as the variations found when one script is transliterated into another – Arabic to Latin in this case – things quickly become complicated. Some places, such as the Islamic Umayyad (7th-8th century) lodge and bathhouse, Qasr ‘Amrah, in Jordan’s Eastern Desert are also known by a second name in Arabic, Qusayr Amra. This complexity makes it essential to collate extensive metadata (information about data, such as photos) covering all scholarly traditions that discuss the subject matter of the photo, in order to render images findable through simple keyword search. This process transforms individual image collections into a visual bibliography of the region.

Technical training in digitization, particularly slide, print and negative photo scanning, is in demand in Jordan, where archival sciences programs equivalent to those elsewhere are not yet available in the otherwise sophisticated cultural heritage management sector. As a result, in 2018, the ACOR Photo Archive team led in-depth training designed to turn scanning novices into digitization professionals working according to the best-practice recommendations of the U.S. Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines (2016).

As the Photo Archive team began adding layers of descriptive metadata to each image, they realized that they wielded control over how the images would be received and interpreted by archive users. The information presented alongside the images would frame how these were to be interpreted by researchers, school students, and even perhaps future generations. In the postcolonial context of overseas research centers in Jordan, this is a significant responsibility. The initial plan for the ACOR Photo Archive did not include metadata in Arabic. However, the Photo Archive team quickly realized that this had the potential to prevent Arabic-speaking researchers and students from benefitting from the newly available material. Instead, the team insisted upon Arabic-script functionality when commissioning a Content Management Platform – ‘Starchive’ by Digital ReLab – to host the ACOR Photo Archive online.

As the Photo Archive developed into tens of thousands of images presented online, Samya Kafafi, Project Coordinator for Metadata, added descriptions and references for further reading from publications in Arabic – serving as a platform in which the work of Jordanian and international scholars are presented with equal weight. Presenting images of cultural heritage from across the region alongside the premier academic scholarship on its topic became a priority for the team, and is something we are continuing to develop today, as the ACOR Photo Archive grows. Although the archive is run by one of the premier research libraries in Jordan, its potential to serve younger learners was highlighted at the Jordan School Librarians’ Conference (November 2018), which inspired teachers to incorporate the ACOR Photo Archive as a key resource for school projects.

Looking ahead to the next two years of the project, ACOR’s goals are to continue to make more images accessible – a target of 30,000 by late 2020 – as well as to hold photo exhibitions both online and in Amman, to foster further exchanges with experts on subjects included in the archive, and to continue to train young Jordanians in the practices of archiving and digitization.

Keep updated with the latest additions to the ACOR Photo Archive on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme

In October 2014, the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership launched the Qatar Digital Library (QDL), an online bilingual portal that provides free access to material from the British Library’s collections.

The portal displays content related to the history and culture of the Gulf and its surroundings, as well as the Library’s Arabic Scientific Manuscripts. Among the collections that we are working on are: the India Office Records on Gulf History (Agencies and Residencies), personal papers, maps, photographs, and manuscripts. The portal is fully bilingual, supporting study in both Arabic and English. At the moment, there are almost one and a half million images of British Library material on the portal, comprising over 14,000 records and over 136 manuscripts, with more content being uploaded every week. In addition, the Digital Library hosts articles from our experts, developed by the British Library team to help contextualise the collections. There are currently over 140 published articles, with more to come.

Digitising and publishing the documents on the QDL requires the work of a wide range of specialists. We are an interdisciplinary team, made up of more than forty professionals, including computer scientists, photographers, conservators, curators, archivists, administrators, translators, and specialist historians. Together we are working to give users of the portal a comparable experience to seeing the original documents in person.

The most obvious and important benefit of digitisation is the increased visibility and access to the collections. Users no longer have to be physically present in the Library’s reading rooms in London, but can now view these records from any corner of the globe, on a number of different devices. Since the portal has been active, users have been accessing the site from all around the world, with the top five countries being the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and the United Kingdom.

Alongside the digital images, each file is published with a short descriptive catalogue record, created by our team of experts. Cataloguing of this kind allows the Library to better understand and document the nature of the collections themselves, improving its own records and highlighting the importance of the material.

When providing free open access to information online, issues surrounding copyright and data protection must be considered.  On the programme we have a dedicated Rights Clearance team, and the programme works with the Library’s Information Compliance Officer to ensure that we are compliant with current legislation and British Library policy. By firstly determining whether the catalogued material is still within copyright or not, our Rights Clearance team then conduct copyright ownership research into the collection items selected for digitisation, tracing and contacting Rights Holders where possible, such as individuals, companies, publishers, estates and other relevant bodies, working to ensure the correct usage terms are displayed on the portal.

Moreover, there are further challenges on a digitisation project such as this. There can be challenges in scoping the material: its condition, size, the style of handwriting, and the languages in which it is written may all make a given file difficult to read. These issues can in turn have knock-on effects on the time needed for conservation, cataloguing, and digitisation. Assessing the time needed for an item to makes its way from the BL’s secure storage onto the portal is no easy task, and requires clear coordination across all teams. To facilitate this, a workflow with three separate streams has been developed, and is now managed through the use of Microsoft SharePoint. Each team also maintains thorough documentation and guidelines to help ensure the consistency of its work.

We are highly aware of the importance of communicating our work to make sure it reaches new audiences. Among our outreach activities, we promote the portal online through social media and in person through talks and tours of the programme. Many of our specialists also offer presentations at academic and archival conferences, participate in seminars, and write articles and blogs for wider publication. The response of users of the portal is overwhelmingly positive: many researchers and students are using this resource, not only in the UK, but also in the United States and across the Gulf region, and the increased access to this material is allowing for studies of a broader and more comprehensive nature than was previously possible.

Thanks to this project, important historical material from the BL’s collections, some of which had not previously been fully catalogued or studied in depth, is now being disseminated and made available to the general public. The Partnership has just agreed a further three years for this project, until the end of 2021, during which time we plan to make even more material available. We hope our efforts will prove useful to all who access the portal.

For more information please visit Qatar Digital Library and our web in British Library.

This article was originally published in ARC Magazine, a publication of the Archive & Records Association of the UK & Ireland, no. 349, September 2018.

Image: Kitāb na‘t al-ḥayawān كتاب نعت الحيوان [‎208v] (427/534), British Library: Oriental Manuscripts, Or 2784

Reflexivity and Archiving: Reflections on the High Court of Uganda’s Archive

At the end of May 2018, a team assembled in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, in order to appraise, organize, and catalogue the High Court of Uganda’s archive. Over a period of three months, the team of 15+ archivists, academics, and High Court staff members catalogued what is believed to be the largest legal archive in sub-Saharan Africa.

Initiated by Sauda Nabukenya, Ph.D. student in the History Department of the University of Michigan, and Dr. Derek Peterson, professor of history and African studies at the same university, the project’s aim was to “organize and make accessible the very considerable archives of the High Court.” Over the course of the first two months, the team transported over 800 boxes of materials from the High Court’s basement to an offsite location that provided adequate space for sorting. Once there, the team sorted and catalogued over 450 boxes, totaling 45,000 files. Finally, the Judiciary granted a project extension for August 2018 so that the remaining boxes could also be catalogued.

The sheer scale of this project and the rate at which it was completed is impressive and warrants reflection. However, the project provoked several considerations for me, a professionally-trained archivist interested in the politics of archival use and control in the aftermath of colonialism.

Neutrality of the Archive

Neutrality has been a central pillar in the ideals/mythologies of archives. The archivist, armed with their catalogue, is expected to assist a user in navigating a collection by organizing and describing materials much like a GPS would any other terrain – accurately, objectively, and usefully. Though the concept of neutrality has been contested within the archival profession and likewise by researchers, other ideals have not been as discussed. Below, I raise collaboration and reflexivity as useful alternatives.

Useful Imperfection and Collaborative Cataloguing

Working on this project, I was aware of several systematic violations of neutrality. I wish to explore them here with ambivalence. I would argue that some of the conditions of our work (time pressure, resource limitations, asymmetrical archiving skills and knowledge of the material, etc.) are characteristic of archival projects more generally and influenced our cataloguing. For example, we devised a categorizing schema such that records were tagged at the item level based on the nature of the case in the file (i.e. Civil Suit – Labour – Unlawful suspension). These categories depended on our cursory reading of each file to identify the cause of the case and despite our aspirations for uniformity and because of our diverse expertise and time restrictions, our classification undoubtedly varied. Instead, our goal was to operate with useful imperfection: choosing consistency and transparency over objective accuracy so that a researcher could understand how and why we catalogued things as we did.

Our team, stationed in a single workspace, worked collaboratively in cataloguing. Pairs of cataloguers worked together to quickly identify the key descriptors for every file and made joint decisions on classification. The results of this cooperation not only included quicker, more accurate work but provided social contact around each file which, especially in my case, often helped bring to life the significance of the materials. For example, alone, I would not have known that business transfer cases in the 1970s were often consequences of the Asian expulsion process under Idi Amin.

Reflexive not Neutral

Other of our working conditions were more unique. I was the technical lead on this project, and for much of the project’s duration, the only non-Ugandan. On the one hand, I had experience in similar projects in years prior (at the Kabale and Jinja District Administrative Archives) in addition to working as an archivist in the U.S. and U.K. and was professionally trained.  On the other hand, I was the least qualified on the team to understand the contents of the materials, their significance, and the contemporary political situation in which they sit. Geopolitics was at the fore of the very structure of our project’s hierarchy.

Some in the archival profession argue that content-knowledge is unnecessary for an archivist to adequately perform their job. I disagree. The High Court’s archive is a rich resource on many fronts. Historically, it helps in understanding changing notions of crime, punishment, and power. It offers insight into the socio-legal history during the rapid successions of post-colonial governments. Contemporarily, it holds legal records belonging to individuals and families that are necessary to pursue due process. My ignorance as an outsider/non-specialist was challenged and remedied by the expertise of my colleagues – Ugandan academics and citizens. The dangers of empowering ignorance are not as simple as wrongfully describing a file but misunderstanding the file’s power. For example, the international crisis of land grabbing – or contentious land acquisition – is a huge problem in Uganda. The High Court archive contains land deeds and titles which, if recklessly treated, have the potential to accelerate that crisis.

Reflexivity in the archival profession isn’t supported by project-oriented funding structures and the daunting stress of backlogs. In fact, I had to leave my job working as an archivist in order to think more deeply about archival work. However, the stakes are too high not to. The High Court’s archive is a gift to scholars, but it is a right for the people of Uganda. The archive, and those who tend it, are far from neutral – on the contrary, the archive is an intervention. Better to understand this intervention rather than deny it. I am hopeful and enthusiastic to track the future and progress of the High Court’s archive, left in the very capable hands of our 2018 team members.

For more information about the High Court archiving project please see: The Judiciary Web and the article A MacArthur “Genius” Works to Preserve Uganda’s History” by Leslie Station.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

In July 2017 Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH), a major Heritage Lottery funded five year partnership led by the British Library was launched. The project, which forms part of the British Library’s Save Our Sounds programme, aims to preserve and provide access to as much as possible of the nation’s rare and unique sound recordings. It will be delivered by working closely with ten organisational partners across the UK who will digitise their own collections and selected content contributors. Over the five-years we hope to make 100,000 of these half a million digitised recordings (which range from oral history, wildlife sounds, popular and world and traditional music, radio, language and dialect) available through a freely accessible, purpose-built media player and website hosted by the British Library. In addition to innovative exhibitions and engagement activities in support of this.

One of a number of legal challenges to these aims is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which came into effect on 25 May 2018. In the UK this lead to the implementation of the 2018 Data Protection Act; the biggest change in privacy laws since 1998. These developments are not only a reflection of technological advancements in the last twenty years but also changing expectations around the protection of privacy.

The GDPR applies to all personal data which can identify a living person. This is referred to as personal and special category data and it can be anything from name and address, all the way through to political and religious beliefs. In order to comply institutions must adhere to the six principles of the GDPR which include: lawfulness, fairness and transparency in their processing of personal data. They must also identify if there is a legal basis for their processing of personal data and special category data. Processing in this context is an operation or set of operations performed on personal data, or sets of personal data which may include collection, recording, dissemination or retrieval.

For personal data three of the six lawful basis options are available to this project: consent, legitimate interests and performance of a task in the public interest. Each processing activity only needs one and there is no option to change the lawful basis further down the line. Some organisations like national libraries, museums, galleries and universities can rely on the performance of a task in the public interest as its lawful basis for processing personal data. The British Library is governed by the British Library Act 1972 and therefore meets this requirement, so for activities which are defined in the Act or the British Library’s Public Task Statement we rely on this exclusively. However for some of the UOSH partner hubs this is not available because they do not need to process personal data either in the exercise of ‘official authority’, or to perform a specific task in the public interest that is set out in law. An alternative legal basis for these institutions therefore is legitimate interest and as ever documenting why this basis has been selected is key.

Another type of legal basis available to the project is consent; however it is the most problematic since understanding of the term often blurs the lines between intellectual property, ethical practices of informed consent in oral history and data protection. To un-blur them we must differentiate between permission to record an individual and the rights needed to make a recording publically available from the consent of a data subject to process their personal data. The main concern is that consent would be required not only from the person speaking but the people they are speaking about. In a practical sense it would be impossible to achieve this and if withdrawn, consent could not be substituted for another legal basis.

Special category data requires a different lawful basis to those mentioned above, this is because the type of personal data it covers such as political beliefs, religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, or sexuality are considered more sensitive than ‘regular’ personal data, such as name, address or data of birth . Article 9 outlines special category data under GDPR and prohibits its processing unless one of the listed provisos apply, for both the British Library and the UOSH partner hubs on this project that is ‘Archiving in the Public Interest’.

For all of our processing of personal and special category data we will rely on the exemptions in Article 89 of GDPR which confusingly is also referred to as ‘Archiving in the Public Interest’. This allows for processing if appropriate safeguards are in place and exempts us from various data subject rights such as erasure or restriction of processing. However for it to apply the safeguards must be designed to prevent causing substantial damage or distress to a living individual.

Understanding and defining what we as an institution mean by substantial damage or distress is an essential focus of our work on the UOSH project. Legal definitions of these terms are difficult to find which leaves them open to interpretation. We can broadly say that damage is financial, physical or reputational in nature and can look to existing law such as defamation, contract and tort for guidance. However distress is far more subjective, based on previous case law we know it can mean embarrassment, anxiety, disappointment, loss of expectation, upset and stress, but that must go beyond annoyance or irritation, strong dislike or a feeling that the processing is morally wrong. One option is the construction of a two stage process, stage one we consider what the individual with the complaint says and stage 2 we examine what the ‘ordinary’ person might say. How as an institution we determine what this means and how it works in practice; and how we ensure it represents this ‘average’ view, is still in progress.

Objective and consistent decision making of which recordings are more or less likely to cause a living individual distress if placed online is and will continue to be a challenge. Those of us making these judgements must be aware of our inherent biases and ensure a wide range of opinions and guidance is sought. The process will always be subject to change in terms of our interpretations, the interpretations of others and following the outcome of case law and regulatory guidance. As ever good documentation of these decisions are key.

The GDPR brought about essential changes to privacy law in the EU and through the UK’s new Data Protection Act (2018) it will continue to impact a project such as this after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. Like any digitisation project seeking to place large amounts of content online, how to comply with data protection law requires considerable attention. However, unlike many online access initiatives a high proportion of the content we wish to make available contains the personal information of identifiable living individuals and the assessment of which requires hours of listening time. As we embark on this relatively unchartered territory we have the opportunity to develop new and innovative processes and assessment methods in this area of audio heritage, data protection and online access. We are excited about the work we are doing and hope by the end of the project we will have a number of tried and tested methods which will help future endeavours in this area.

With thanks to: James Courthold (Information Compliance Manager, British Library) and Sue Davies (Project Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, British Library).

For more information on UOSH please visit https://www.bl.uk/projects/unlocking-our-sound-heritage and follow us on Twitter @BLSoundHeritage.