Archive Project

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.