Volunteer voices: Carol Budd on visiting the British Library’s imaging studios

My name is Carol Budd, I am one of 60 volunteers working on the Courtauld Connects digitisation project at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Since I joined the project I have enjoyed learning about the whole process of archiving, particularly as I was somewhat of an ingénue to this field. I was interested in photography, knew something about IT and cameras and was keen to develop skills with photographic software. Having recently retired from a career in IT, technology was nothing new, but the idea that the fusty, dusty world of archiving might engage me and make me think of a second career never occurred to me when I decided to apply.

To provide more context to what we do, the team organise some visits to other institutions’ digitisation studios, so when we were offered a visit to the British Library, I jumped at the chance.

We were given a tour of the imaging studios, and were shown the different cameras, scanners, stands and technology available to meet any number of different requirements. Alongside in-house digitisations, the BL have a commercial arm to accommodate people and companies’ needs to digitise on demand parts of the collection.

Fiona Clancy, Studio Manager, giving a tour of the Qatar Imaging Studio.

The scale of the British Library collections is huge, if you stop and think about the size of it even a goal of 1-2% requires massive digital resources. Every item ordered needs to be registered and its whereabouts must be known at any time. The value and age of some of the books in the British Library mean that before they can be sent for digitisation, the conservation team need to ensure that the item is fit to be handled. Some items are just too fragile for the rigours of digitisation.

Following the tour, we were given presentations by members of the Digital Research team on what to do with all the digital images and metadata once they are created, and how to let the public know that they are available. The most engaging story was that following an aborted commercial project the Library was able to release over a million pictures into the public domain. The response to this has been varied and imaginative. Artists have used the images to create new art works, designers have used them to create a backdrop for the London Fashion Week, and an enterprising individual used them in jewellery, available to buy at Badgical Kingdom. Other exciting ideas to do with images are Poetic Places, an app for encountering culture in London, and Off the Map, a project challenging students to use images from the British Library to create new animation works and games. This has now become an annual competition and the winning teams include Pudding Lane Productions from De Montfort University, Leicester, who created an interpretation of 17th Century London and Gothulus Rift, University of South Wales, who created a Fonthill Abbey inspired game. Images from Shakespeare Folios were used to create Team Quattro’s The Tempest, and Tom Battey’s Shakespearience. The British Library is keen to see more ideas to do with data take shape, so it’s making copies of some of its datasets available for research and creative purposes.

Stella Wisdom and Rossitza Atanassova, Digital Curators, explaining the benefits of digitisation.

But digitisation can also mean preserving images for posterity – after the official Canadian Archive suffered a fire, the digitised Canadian photographic collection is now even more precious and unique. The list of different digitised material goes on, the British Library is digitising its vast Sound Archive with funding from the HLF, and even the whole UK web is being archived. Why, I wondered, would you want to archive old web pages? A few days later I read of a court case where archived web pages were used to gain a successful prosecution.

I left the visit excited to be inspired to take new ideas out into my own world, and with a fuller understanding of the aims and importance of digitisation, and of our contribution to this project as volunteers. If only there were more hours in the day!

Volunteers exploring the British Library.