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Volunteer voices: Mary Caple on digitising at the Courtauld

Mary Caple: Digitisation Volunteer

Mary Caple: Digitisation Volunteer

My name is Mary Caple. I’m one of the volunteers on the HLF Digitisation Project at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Since we started digitising images in March, I’ve spent nearly thirty hours working on the project with Faye, Tom, Sarah, and and other community members donating their time.

I jumped at the chance to get on board with this initiative. During my undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Montréal, Canada, I took museum studies courses, designed exhibitions, and questioned various approaches to digitisation with my peers. What kinds of possibilities arise when exponentially more data is freely available online? Can digitisation make archives more accessible to a broad array of people within and outside academia? Since university I’ve researched in archives and worked on curatorial projects, but this role brings two firsts. Collections photography and the digitisation process are new to me.

One of the many reasons this project at the Courtauld is special is its approach to volunteer participation. While we are welcome to request a particular task on any given day, by default we rotate through jobs from cataloguing to photography. This way, each person involved digitising the Conway, Kersting, and Laib collections can try something new as well as play to their strengths. Switching around has another benefit. By spending time with distinct parts of the collections and approaching them on Tuesdays as a photographer, Thursdays as an archivist, and Fridays as a geographical sleuth/transcriber, a potentially overwhelming behemoth undertaking instead feels like a treasure trove. The ability to approach our material from these different angles keeps perspective fresh and gives a sense of what lies ahead in the months and years to come as the project progresses.

Here, I’ll take you through each of the three types of tasks each volunteer performs when they come in to the Institute. By starting with the small parts – the daily tasks of the 50+ volunteers involved –  I hope you’ll gain an understanding of what goes into getting a large-scale digitisation initiative like this one off the ground.

Labeling/Sorting

Boxes waiting to be labeled

Boxes waiting to be labeled

The first task on the roster for most volunteers involves sorting and labeling the collections. Over the last month and change we started labeling the Conway collection. Most of these items are printed photographs mounted on card stock, sorted in files, which are housed in boxes found on shelves of the library. As such, they’re also a bit sturdier (less easy to break, tear or maim) than the film and glass negatives of the Kersting and Laib images and a good point of departure for learning how to handle archival objects.

Everything gets a number in our very own Library of Babel. Lots of time is dedicated to going through and numbering each box with sticky labels, and numbering the files and cardstock pages (as well as the occasional news clipping) in each file in pencil by hand. These numbers come in handy later on when we’re taking photos – a number becomes the unique identifier for each image, and what you’ll see eventually when you navigate to the image’s page on the online site. We’re creating a new archival framework that will organize the way the images live in their online home.

While labeling is a great way to get to know the geographical and temporal depth of the Conway images, there are also small surprises. I learned one of my favourite archival lessons from Faye while sorting images. Every file containing architectural images is sorted from distance views to interior details, outside to inside. Keep an eye out if you find yourself flipping through them. 

Transcribing the Kersting Logs

Another task dealing with the words and numbers of images involves “digitising” Anthony Kersting’s photograph ledgers by data entry. Kersting meticulously wrote down the date, place, and distinguishing information about thousands of photos he took all around the world throughout the 20th century. Transcription volunteers go through his logbooks and enter this information into a Google Form Faye has set up. This simplifies the data input procedure, hiding the entire spreadsheet of information each time we sit down to work.

Kersting may have been a globetrotter, but he was also a passionate explorer of his own backyard. A recent newcomer to the UK, I’ve found tracing his travels from Cumbria to Herefordshire and beyond a terrific learning experience. Often some Googling is in order to clear up undecipherable spelling or to clearly pinpoint where his travels had taken him for a given photo.

Tracing his photographic path through 1960s Middle East has been a particularly moving experience. I trawl through Wikipedia sites and old travel guides to find location information for castles and towns Kersting rolled through. Borders have changed. Many of the sites Kersting thought interesting enough to photograph have now been destroyed or badly damaged by the conflict in Syria. 

Taking the Photos

Taking the photos

While boxes are labeled and data is inputted, we’re moving along with photographing the collection. This is a chance for the social volunteers among us to get collaborative – the photo team always consists of two volunteers. One person positions the images under the camera. The other uses the studio computer to edit each for uniformity and add some simple metadata to the files. While we’re welcome to have a look at the images whenever we’re in, this job provides a great chance to have a look at each and every image going up.

You might be wondering why we’re using a camera instead of a scanner to digitise. While a scanner might complete the job more quickly, and many digitisation projects do use scanners to capture images, the use of a camera here serves a particular purpose. As many of the images we’re working with are mounted, an image taken with a camera can capture that extra layer of depth – the sliver of space between board and photograph is given life. We hope to give the computer user a taste of the experience of getting to see these collections in person – the entire boards are treated as archival objects rather than just the photographs mounted to them. Tom Bilson, the Courtauld’s Head of Digital Media, describes this beautifully – ask him if you ever see him in person. 

Spending time on each of these tasks gives volunteers a sense of the larger momentum of the project while they work on smaller tasks. Returning to the same task you worked on a few days, weeks or a month or two previous comes with the surprise of seeing how much the other volunteers and staff have completed in the interim. Something as small as a giant leap in the number of boxes labeled, having moved on to a geographical locale further down the alphabet or thematically different, or seeing a new subject arise (architecture has taken awhile!) is exciting.

Now that the overview is out of the way, I’m looking forward to diving into some specific stories about the collection to share with you in months to come.