Tag Archives: archives

Photography at the DH Lab

Here at the Digital Humanities Lab, we are called upon to photograph a wide range of objects, which means we often have to come up with creative ways to position them our lab copystands. I have recently been working on digitising a set of bound letters, for which I am using the 150MP camera in Lab 1. However, it took me while to work what the best way of setting up the volumes would be, as it became clear that the glass platform we usually use for keeping books flat for photography was not the most appropriate option in this case. For one thing, as each letter in the volumes was written separately, and later brought together into one book, any given double page spread was likely to cover two letters, rather than one. As I wanted to have each page of the letters as separate images, this made things tricky, and if I’d carried on I would have had to crop each image twice and export it twice as well. This also made the metadata that I created for this first dozen test images difficult to write as well, because almost every image contained a page each of two letters, meaning I was writing two rows of metadata for one image on CaptureOne. Another issue with the glass platform is that once I got more than a few pages in on the first volume, it started to squash the pages on the left-hand side of the book in such a way that they covered the first two or three letters of each word on the right-hand side. After all this, I decided that I needed to come up with a better way of doing things, and started again from the first page.  

Manuscript book being digitised

I knew that the pages of the book were too tightly bound to be able to lie flat unaided, so when I put them on top of the copystand, rather than under the glass platform, I tried holding down each page using a system of bone folders and weights to hold them up and in place. This works for pages made of quite thick paper and are naturally heavy, as I had found when I digitised a photo album from the university’s archive earlier in the year, but for the lightweight springy paper of the bound letters, this wasn’t as effective. As I was now moving the book for each photograph, so that only one page was in view of the camera, this method involved a lot of adjustment, and the bone folders always ended up in shot because they had to be a certain way onto the page to hold it down properly. The next method I came up with, after I had taken perhaps a hundred or so photos in this manner, was using strips of polypropylene cut from a roll. This material is normally used in museum displays for holding down pages of a book on a particular page, so I thought that it might work here. I cut two strips, one for each side of the book, put them round the page and cover vertically, and secured them at the back using paperclips so that they were taught. This was a much better solution than the bone folders, as it held the pages down almost completely flat, and all that was needed was a weight underneath the higher side of the book, which could be taken out once the pages levelled out. The downside of this method was that, like the bone folders, the polypropylene stood out in the photographs compared to the paper of the letters. Although all the writing underneath the area was perfectly readable, it was very obvious, and inconsistent with the standard methods for digitising letters. However, I was unable to come up with a different solution at that stage, so I completed the first and second volumes using this process; adjusting the length of polypropylene around each side of the book as the pages built up or decreased.  

It was once I was about 20 or so pages into digitising the third volume that I stumbled across the approach that I am currently using. I was watching a recorded AHFAP (Association for Fine Art and Historical Photography) online event from 2020, which featured a talk from Jo Castle from the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester. She was speaking about the library’s project to digitise the archive of Heinrich Simon, namely the eight books known as The Simon Papers. As these books were made up of pages and scraps of paper of all different sizes, with many flaps and pages glued in, the digitisation team came up with the idea of using nylon monofilament secured between leather weights to hold down the pages as they were photographed. This was especially good for holding down the smaller pages in the middle of larger ones. Having watched this talk and seen how effective a method it was, I was able to acquire some finishing line from our Lab Manager Gemma.  

Digitising a book of bound letters

As you can see from the pictures, this has proved a success, and in the final exported images, the fishing line is barely visible, especially compared to the bone folders and polypropylene. We have already utilised this method for another project in the lab, and I hope it will continue to be a viable option for digitising tricky material in the Digital Humanities Lab.  

What difference does digital make? The present (and future) of Digital Humanities in the UK

Recently we welcomed a distinguished guest speaker to the DH Lab, Professor Jane Winters of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, to give a seminar on the current landscape of Digital Humanities (DH) in the UK.  Prof. Winters discussed the results of a major new survey, commissioned by the School of Advanced Study, the British Academy, the British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, into DH research, teaching and practice in universities, GLAM institutions (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) and the creative industries. The aims of the report were to document the current landscape of DH research, teaching and practice; identify what kind of support this needs; and explore possible demand for a UK-based DH network or association and the nature of the role that such an organisation could play.

Interpreting the statistics of the report for a highly engaged audience, Winters drew out from the facts and figures a picture of a diverse DH landscape, in which respondents identified themselves as belonging to almost forty different research areas.  More than three quarters also had extensive involvement in teaching, either in their subject area or in DH.  Winters noted that not all digital research and digital scholarship is described by its practitioners as ‘Digital Humanities’, even when it is firmly rooted in the study of Humanities sources and their related areas of specialisation.  As researchers within universities, we therefore need to ensure that when we collaborate with creative partners or GLAM institutions, we try to use a common language to describe what we do: this will help not only in the project itself, but also in how we communicate what we do to those outside our particular areas of expertise.

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#DCDC17: The cultural value of collections & the creative economy

Last year’s #DCDC17 conference, hosted by The National Archives and Research Libraries UK (RLUK), was an opportunity to analyse how we assess the value of our collections and partnerships, whilst advancing our digital technologies to enable engagement by communities, researchers and academics.

Professor Geoffrey Crossick (RLUK) gave the opening keynote, suggesting that the cultural value of collections lies in engagement, and that our cultural institutions play an important role in enabling individuals to become reflective and engaged citizens.

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First impressions: light, sound and a new vision

New team member Emma Sherriff, outside the DH Lab

A warm hello to our blog readers, my name is Emma Sherriff and I am the newest addition to the Digital Humanities (DH) team. I am embarking on my DH journey at the beginning of an exciting new era of digital research, collaboration, and preservation for the College of Humanities; and ahead of the official opening of the Digital Humanities Lab on 23rd October by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Steve Smith.

My experience at the University of Exeter to date has involved supporting the work of Postgraduate researchers, as a member of the Doctoral College. My former role led me to discussions with the DH team around how the Lab can offer specialist expertise alongside cutting edge equipment, creating an opportunity to engage with, and connect an existing body of researchers across disciplines and themes. I am pleased to be involved in shaping the planning and delivery of training, digital projects and technical support in my new role.

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