Capturing the Past

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sussex
Department Name: Sch of Media, Arts and Humanities


'Capturing the Past' will turn a bespoke suite of tools created for the 'Small Bills and Petty Finance' project into a robust, re-usable and adaptable environment for the collection and management of historical data. The proposed system comprises four separate components - each of which has been developed to proof of concept. These are: first, an easy to manufacture 'digitisation-stick', built from an inexpensive clamp and a basic selfie-stick. We have manufactured and distributed some 60 'digitisation-sticks' so far. These allow a smart phone to be held still above a document, and for the phone's camera to be operated remotely (via Bluetooth) to avoid 'shake'. Second, we have created a phone app that associates each image with its archival reference, time, date and operator; and which then uploads the image to cloud based storage on the first occasion there is sufficient Wi-Fi for this to be done cheaply. These images are then collected as zip files and exported to a separate cloud-based data store. Third, we have created a data entry portal. This key element of the data capture pipeline starts with the archival catalogue number and allows the user to then both transcribe a historical text in full, and to describe that text using a series of pull-down menus to create regularised data about the content. Additional information might include geolocations, or archival information such as conservation need or palaeographical assistance. This information is then also uploaded to the data store and associated with the correct image via the shared meta-data. The data store then allows a regularised archival entry - and associated image to be exported to the archive's catalogue. This fourth element - the data store, in addition to storage, performs several other tasks including automated regular back-up, stripping of identifiable data to ensure the system is GDPR compliant and regulates the download of all or part of the data.

The 'Small Bills and Petty Finance' project was designed to co-ordinate archival research volunteers to transcribe, categorise and catalogue tens of thousands of 'Overseers vouchers' - the slips of paper passed between suppliers of goods and services and Overseers of the Poor under the Old Poor Law. But, as we got to work - recruiting volunteers, establishing data collection standards, and negotiating with participating archives - it became clear we had a problem. Multiple volunteers, in three different archive services, each with vastly different levels of experience, struggled to create consistent, useable data. Our solution was to create a suite of digital tools that ensured each transcription was associated with a photograph and correct linking data. Our aim was to ensure this was laid out in clear and structured way in order to make the collection of additional information simple. The result was a bespoke Poor Law Data entry tool that built on the affordances of smart phones and the cloud. This follow-on project is designed to take that initial work from a useable prototype, to an adaptable environment that can be re-used by both public history projects, and by individual historians of all stamps.

This programme of work proposed here is designed to take these components and make them fully re-usable in any archive or museum, with any type of historic document. To make them robust and usable; and to develop the documentation that would allow any historian or research volunteer to adapt them for their specific project.


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