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How do you choose what to archive in our digital age?

Tips on how to manage your organisation’s archive and how to massage it into a workable resource – both online and off.
How do you choose what to archive in our digital age?

Photo State Library of NSW

With cultural institutions come archives. It is not a new realisation, however, the question how museums present this rich resource of material is under scrutiny.

Falling in line with an increased pressure to digitise and ‘share’, many organisations are stalled at a crossroads between the digital and analogue worlds.

Most are encumbered by a lack of funding and staffing resources. Others are hindered by a void in research that offers understanding of online audiences in order to ascertain the right ‘stories’ to invest in for ever-changing and growing audiences.

Leading the way in digitisation is undoubtedly the State Library of NSW, which received $48.6 million from the government to fund its Digital Excellence Program, as part of the ICT investment framework of Australian Government Information Management Office.  

It was the first roll-out of funding aimed to cover the initial five years of a 10-year digitisation program, which is expected to transfer around 20 million collection images and pages online.

The State Library of NSW’s collection ranks as one of the most valuable in the world at $3.15 billion earlier this year. These numbers are a stratosphere apart from smaller organisations such as the Australian Centre of Photography (ACP), which has recently started to evaluate its archival holdings with the organisation’s imminent move from its current venue.

The ACP, in contrast, has one staff member on the job to the library’s IT team of 43, and essentially has a budget of zero for digitising.

Both organisations, however, face the same questions: how do you prioritise the material to be archived and how do you curate those stories online so that they are workable resources for a broad global audience?

Activating material

At last month’s launch of the National Australian Archive (NAA) at the Art Gallery of NSW, arts patron and former Chairman of the Biennale of Sydney Board, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis said: ‘There is no archive without an audience, and we are hoping it will not just be in a bunker.’

It is a very pertinent point. The NAA is open to the public Tuesday to Saturday without appointment.

‘The digitisation we seen not only as a way of extending access, but to add greater awareness of the collection itself,’ said Steven Miller, who was the first professional archivist to be employed by an art museum in Australia and is now guiding the AGNSW through this new era, some twenty years later.

‘Archives are unsettling, and have within them the raw materials that rewrite the accepted narratives of culture; they can turn institutional culture inside out and open it to scrutiny,’ Miller told ArtsHub.

The role then of the archivist is an extremely important one and has been largely undervalued in recent decades. Digitisation and the culture of open access has turned that around.

Photo Antoinette Clements; supplied courtesy ACP

How do you choose what to archive, or not?

Belinda Hungerford, Assistant Curator Exhibitions & Archive Projects at ACP, told ArtsHub that when she was first tasked with the job of “the archive” it consisted of more than 600 archive boxes. 

‘I suspect not a lot of thought always went into what should be archived and what should not!’

It is a problem faced by most organisations, whose archives are typically grown organically. ‘To make the archive more manageable I began with the opposite of archiving and retaining – throwing out!’ said Hungerford.

‘I would say the biggest challenge with ACP’s archive has been that it hasn’t really been consistently thought of as an archive, rather a very big filing cabinet or storage area.’

Hungerford felt that the greatest challenge to any archive – on or off line – was time and space.

‘Space is always at a premium and archiving is a methodical, slow process. Plus, archiving is never-ending! There is always more material being produced.’

‘I remember reading a letter by Bronwyn Thomas (ACP Director 1975-77) describing what was obviously a fairly explicit photograph in a delicate manner because the letter “will become part of the archives”. So there has been a consciousness at times but when I come across a box containing blank printer paper (foolscap size) or 500 of the same pamphlet I sometimes wonder what the thought process was then.

‘Similarly, the inventory that did exist was fairly basic… one box itemised as containing ‘Various Old Documents’, which was true, but very unhelpful,’ Hungerford said.

Her first job was to better itemise that inventory. It was a view echoed by Miller at the AGNSW. He is in the midst of processing 150 boxes of archived material that was recently gifted to the NAA by the Biennale of Sydney.

‘(Many of) these are routine administrative faxes but they show how valuable an archive can be - how art is made, communicated and consumed. The catalogues, press releases and marketing of the time will not give you that insight,’ Miller added.

Hungerford agreed that an archive needs to be layered to tell the full story.

‘I focus on keeping records that explain what ACP is doing; its activities, exhibitions documentation, staffing information, policies and procedures, reports etc. With archiving I try to retain a whole a picture as possible.’

But while such documents construct a fuller picture of our histories, they do not always make for the best stories to be shared. 

National Art Archive and Biennale of Sydney Archive join resources; Photo supplied

Curating our past

Archives have the ability to tell stories. Hungerford said: ‘While I love the textures tactility and sometimes even the smell of the physical items, online can be a better platform to experience the material … the reality is, it’s not always practical to have the physical material available to the public, mainly for preservation reasons.’

She continued: ‘We have letters (at ACP) from Fiona Hall in the early ‘80s in which she talks about her joy in acquiring an 8x10 camera and her addiction to photography. It is a good example of how pieces from the archive can be better viewed digitally. Fiona has distinctive handwriting, beautifully spidery, and she wrote the letter on the back of a print and discusses the image in the letter. If it was to be displayed in a vitrine it would be difficult to display it in such a way that you see both sides clearly.

‘Scan both sides and you can read them side by side online, with all the detail of looking at the original.’

Similarly, Miller said of the AGNSW. ‘In the past our website was very object driven but now you will find we have upgraded it with biographically profiles of artist, letters and a whole web of context for those works. The curators, the web team and the archivers are a fundamental part of that in developing those stories.’

Today in our mobile generation online is the way to share, but also contribute, and building those archival histories has moved beyond the box in a storeroom.

How do you plan for the transition to digital?

When archiving, and then digitising that archive, you need to prepare for the latter while sorting the former. It is very much a two-step process.

Hungerford said that the first step is to ascertain what your holdings are in the archive, before you start “loading up”.

She explained: ‘It is not really practical to digitise items as I randomly come across them. I’ll wait until I have a number of items listed then retrieve them and scan all at the same time. Another issue is that related material can be scattered across several boxes or locations so it can take a while to build up a whole picture for the online archive.’

‘What to digitise is only part of that strategy. I also have to consider how the digitised material can be used and accessed, both within the organisation and externally,’ she added.

‘Some things are obviously more immediately interesting to audiences,’ added Miller.

He explained that they have levels of digitisation at the gallery, from high resolution images of objects and artworks to low resolution records.

‘At a very high resolution level we only have about 2,000 documents available, but we have got other collections scanned to maybe 1 MB and for that level we have about 200,000. It is quite different to the art collection where you are dealing with a unique object. We still have to decide what to do with the more ephemeral things. We are currently having conversation about whether we put that material online as well and see the interest in it, and see what drives more high level digitisation,’ explained Miller.

Robin Phua, who headed up digital library services at the State Library of NSW when its Digital Excellence Program was introduced, told CIO that: ‘The library’s content is being digitised in stages …With an inventory of over 5 million items, the challenge is to digitise valuable collections, manuscripts, maps, archival photographs and images.’

‘Over the past two years, we have worked on 20 different digital projects. The challenge is to deliver value from information, Phua added.

Phua said that such projects of scale need to be project managed and flexible and is best realised through staged rollouts. 

The reality was echoed by Hungerford: ‘Digitisation is a major project and not something you can just dip your toe into, you really have to be strategic … I would say there was more of an expectation to digitise an archive nowadays rather than pressure (to do so).’

You just have to get on with the job.

Not just digitising … think infrastructure

Key to the funding that the State Library of NSW received was not just the digitisation of its collection but a total infrastructure overhaul.

‘The broader roadmap incorporates upgrading the network infrastructure, building on digitised content and sharing knowledge across cities, towns and regional areas,’ said Phua.

The ICT investment has involved spending $10.2 million on digital infrastructure upgrades over the first three years of the program, and includes integrating enterprise-wide email, voice-over-IP, expanding digital storage capacity, improving wireless broadband, and cloud services.

While the State Library’s overhaul sits at the top of the tree, there are other examples that have been extremely successful in making available material on line. Good examples are the Australian Museum DigiVol (ditigal volunteers) Project; ACCA’s 30th Anniversary project; and QAGOMA’s Asia Pacific Triennial archive.

Funding our past / presenting our future

There are grants available for digitising archives and collections. Hungerford pointed out: ‘The National Library of Australia administers a fantastic grants scheme – Community Heritage Grants – funded by the Australian Government through the Ministry of the Arts with the assistance of the National Archives of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Museum of Australia.

‘It is a three-stage grant process with funding available for a Significance Assessment, a Preservation Needs Assessment and Conservation Activities and Collection Management. Funding for digitisation is a part of this scheme.

The trick to any archive project is starting – give it value in your organisation; give it resources and give it a future.

No image supplied

Gina Fairley

Thursday 10 December, 2015

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW.

Twitter: @ginafairley
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