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For three months in the middle of this year I had the amazing privilege of looking closer at natural history collections than I had ever looked before. I and my colleagues were able to see mind-expanding detail on the creatures – the hairs on the legs of a fly or the scratches on the exoskeleton of a beetle. Yet nothing quite prepared us for Thembeka Nxele’s excitement at what we were uncovering.

Thembeka Noelle places an earth worm specimen below our Alpa 12 FPS camera so that it can be digitized.

Thembeka Nxele, curator of oligochaeta at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, places an earthworm specimen below our Alpa 12 FPS camera so that it can be captured, as Timothy Zuma, one of Africa Media Online’s digitisation assistants, looks on.

Thembeka is a World authority on African earthworms. She is based at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. We were capturing the internal sexual organs of earthworms, a procedure which involves peeling open the skin of the earthworm and getting a view inside its “head”. Thembeka was looking over my shoulder at our large Eizo monitor. She had asked me to zoom into a particular area of the image. As we zoomed in to the fine detail, suddenly Thembeka became so excited she was dancing on the spot. When she had calmed down a little, she explained what we were looking at. What we were seeing clearly in the image, what looked like tiny little coils attached to the body wall of the specimen, were sexual organs that in all her years of research she had never actually seen with her own eyes. She had only seen them in textbooks and published articles by colleagues from other parts of the World. She went on to explain the significance of this for her work. “Now I can publish the paper I have been preparing, because I have the evidence,” she said, referring to putting forward an article on her research to scientific journals.

Africa Media Online Digitization Assistant, Willem Snodgrass, lining up a mammal skeleton for capture at the Durban Natural Science Museum.

Africa Media Online Digitization Assistant, Willem Snodgrass, lining up a mammal skeleton for capture at the Durban Natural Science Museum.

What Thembeka was benefiting from was the incredible resolving power of the Alpa 12 FPS technical camera fitted with Rodenstock lenses and the power of a Phase One medium format digital sensor. Together this was giving significantly more magnifying power than the microscopes the scientists at the museum had available to them. We were at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum carrying out a pilot project to digitise type specimens in a National Research Foundation (NRF) funded project. A type specimen is the original individual of a species that was used to first describe the species as a whole. At the KwaZulu-Natal Museum we were capturing type specimens of flies, earthworms, snails and even a frog. A couple of weeks earlier we had been at the Durban Natural Science Museum capturing birds, bats, shrews and mammal skeletons.

Dr Igor Muratov looks on as Africa Media Online Digitization Assistant, Timothy Zuma, lines up a mollusk specimen. Dr Muratov gave valuable input in the correct alignment of such specimens.

Dr. Igor Muratov looks on as Africa Media Online Digitization Assistant, Timothy Zuma, lines up a mollusk specimen. Dr. Muratov gave valuable input in the correct alignment of such specimens.

The first use we were able to make of our new Alpa 12 FPS technical camera with Phase One medium format back was at the Durban Natural Science Museum. Ornithologist, David Allen was our guinea pig, offering his collection of carefully stuffed bird skins to the enquiring eye of the camera. One challenge of medium format sensors is the shallow depth of field, particularly when the lens is set to the optimum f-stop of 5.6 or 8. For research purposes the goal is to have the entire specimen in focus so that researchers can see every detail. That, however, cannot be achieved in a single shot. The specimen has to be shot at different focus points and then the various images stacked in focus stacking software to produce a single fully-in-focus image. In the case of David’s bird skins, this was manageable with just 3-4 shots per view (we captured 3 views – top, back and side). When it came to Kirstin William’s far smaller pinned beetles, however, that leaped dramatically to 15 or so shots per view, and by the time we came to fly specimens and Igor Muratov’s tiny shell specimens at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum we were easily doing over 50 shots per specimen times up to five views. It took weeks to do what we had expected would just a few days and the processing work post capture also proved intense.

The image of a small mammal skull appears on our Eizo monitor. Numerous shots were taken of the skull at different focus points and then stacked together to produce one fully-in-focus image.

The image of a small mammal skull appears on our Eizo monitor. Numerous shots were taken of the skull at different focus points and then stacked together to produce one fully-in-focus image.

All that hard work certainly paid off, however, in stunning images of valuable specimens from KwaZulu-Natal’s two foremost scientific collections.

An image to give you a sense of the size of a holotype Neolophonus seymouri species from the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. One of the views after this fly was captured on our Alpa 12 FPS camera using a Rodenstock lens and Phase One back is presented below.

An image to give you a sense of the size of a holotype Neolophonus seymouri species from the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. One of the views after this fly was captured on our Alpa 12 FPS camera using a Rodenstock lens and Phase One back is presented below

An unsharpened image of the side view of a holotype Neolophonus seymouri species from the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. The image is at 5% zoom in Photoshop.

An unsharpened image of the side view of a holotype Neolophonus seymouri species from the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. The image is at 5% zoom in Photoshop.

An unsharpened image of the side view of a holotype Neolophonus seymouri species. The image is at 12.5% zoom in Photoshop.

An unsharpened image of the side view of a holotype Neolophonus seymouri species. The image is at 12.5% zoom in Photoshop.

An unsharpened image of the side view of a holotype Neolophonus seymouri species. The image is at 50% zoom in Photoshop. These images were created from 18 separate images of this view taken at different focus points.

An unsharpened image of the side view of a holotype Neolophonus seymouri species. The image is at 50% zoom in Photoshop. These images were created from 18 separate images of this view taken at different focus points.

An image of the side view of a holotype Neolophonus seymouri species. The image is at 100% zoom in Photoshop. This image has been given minimal sharpening in line with recommendations for heritage collections.

An image of the side view of a holotype Neolophonus seymouri species. The image is at 100% zoom in Photoshop. This image has been given minimal sharpening in line with recommendations for heritage collections.

When we made the decision last year to invest in a medium format camera system we researched the major offerings in the market and settled on Phase One’s XF camera system with what was at the time the medium format digital sensor with the most megapixels in a single-shot system, the IQ3 80 Megapixel back. At the same time, I knew that the kind of work we were doing in digitising a diverse range of collections at the highest level from museums, archives, media organisations and historic schools was going to require a camera with more versatility than the XF could provide. My extensive research convinced me that the XF camera would be the very best in the World in terms of both quality and speed for capturing museum objects and other materials in a studio setup. The IQ380 back, however, opened up to us significant possibilities for high quality and high throughput capture of flat materials from large posters and maps to negative and positive film and glass-plate negatives. Such flat materials ideally require the use of a technical camera. So that began a whole new research venture looking at various technical camera systems that could harness the Phase One IQ380 digital back.

The Alpa 12 FPS in action at the Durban Natural Science Museum. The Phase One digital back is mounted on the back of the camera.

The Alpa 12 FPS in action at the Durban Natural Science Museum. The Phase One digital back is mounted on the back of the camera.

Part of that research was to seek an answer to the question, what are the World’s most precious heritage materials and manuscripts captured on, such as the earliest copies of the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures? One obvious place to go to answer that question is the Dead Sea Scrolls, a project I had heard about from Simon Tanner, founding Director of King’s Digital Consultancy Services (KDCS) at King’s College London. I also happened to be doing some work for the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Razia Saleh from the Foundation told me about a photographer, Ardon Bar-Hama, who Google had employed to capture extensive parts of their collection including a wide variety of materials. Ardon was the photographer who captured the Dead Sea Scrolls. I had heard about him years before and the remarkable quality and throughput he was able to achieve, two elements we were set on achieving. In fact hearing about his work had originally inspired the journey to switch to camera-based systems that were so obviously getting the lions share of research and development in comparison to scanner systems that seemed to be falling by the wayside with many high-end scanner manufacturers ceasing production of what had been the World’s leading scanning systems – Heidelberg, Kodak, Fuji and others.

The Alpa 12 FPS technical camera with a Rodenstock Apo-Rodagon-D lens mounted on the front of a Novoflex Balpro 1 Universal Bellows. This setup allows us to capture very small objects including natural science specimens such as flies or small shells

The Alpa 12 FPS technical camera with a Rodenstock Apo-Rodagon-D lens mounted on the front of a Novoflex Balpro 1 Universal Bellows. This setup allows us to capture very small objects, such as slides and negatives or natural science specimens including flies and tiny shells

Ardon had not only captured the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nelson Mandela collection, but also the Aleppo Codex, the earliest surviving copy of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Codex Vaticanus, the earliest surviving complete copy of the Christian Bible. And he did it on an Alpa camera system. I knew that Alpa had already teamed up with Phase One to produce the A-Series for the highest quality capture in a mirrorless camera system. So I began to interact with Alpa as well as with other manufacturers of various technical camera systems. Alpa took time to listen to what we needed to accomplish with a technical camera system and put forward the Alpa 12 FPS as the solution that would give us the quality we were looking for in a package that would enable us to capture the most diverse materials in a highly productive manner.

In spite of amazing reviews, such decisions are hard to make from afar, which is why my trip to New York last November to attend the Phase One Cultural Heritage Practitioner training was so important. By then we had already placed a Phase One XF camera system on order. I got to look closely at other technical camera systems while I was there and was determined to get to see the Alpa 12 FPS. Alpa put me on to Jeff Hirsch of Foto-Care in New York who supply capture systems to many of the leading heritage institutions in that city, including The Metropolitan Art Museum. Jeff was able to let me handle the Alpa 12 FPS. What finally convinced me that this was the way to go was not only the quality of capture that could be gained from it – all the technical camera systems could do that – but its incredible versatility. There is perhaps no other camera platform that is as diverse, that allows us to put almost any medium format camera back on it, including Phase One, Hasselblad and Sinar and almost any professional camera lens including Canon, Nikon, Zeiss, Leica, Schneider Kreuznach and Rodenstock.

The Alpa 12 FPS attached to our motorized Kaiser copy stand. The copy stand is an essential part of what makes the camera system highly productive providing for precise and predictable placement of the camera

Looking like nothing one has ever seen before, the Alpa 12 FPS attached to our motorized Kaiser copy stand. The copy stand is an essential part of what makes the camera system highly productive, providing for precise and predictable placement of the camera

Having made the decision to go with Alpa, the Alpa team in Switzerland began to put together a specific offering for us that would allow us to capture the range of materials we said we wanted to have the capacity to capture. In the end, that included three Rodenstock lenses, including the leading German lens manufacturer’s sharpest lens, the Rodenstock HR Digaron-S 60 mm f/4, and Novoflex bellows. It was a steep learning curve to get the camera into production. Getting a remote trigger working on the system required some jury rigging to get it going, but the Alpa team was certainly supportive.

So where has all of this got us? Not only do we have the first Alpa camera in Africa, we have a mirrorless technical camera with lenses, the sharpness of which I have never seen before, and an industry leading digital back able to produce digital reproductions at the very highest standard comparable with the very best in use anywhere in the World. This brings to the capture of African cultural and natural heritage collections the quality and productivity we have always dreamed of. That has certainly been wonderfully gratifying and the results just thrilling.

The Heritage Digital Campus 2016 should have been called the Natural Heritage Digital Campus. With 10 participants from the Durban Natural Science Museum and the KwaZulu-Natal Museum, not only did the 5-day programme focused on building a digital collection of natural science specimens, but the event was also held at the Hilton Bush Lodge on the edge of the Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve and the Riets Valley Conservancy.

Participants in Africa Media Online's Heritage Digital Campus 2016

Participants in Africa Media Online’s Heritage Digital Campus 2016

Once again we had digital imaging consultant, Graeme Cookson, out with us from London, bringing with him experience of working with the Science Photo Library and the Royal Botanical Gardens. Graeme’s emphasis was assisting participants to understand the fundamentals of digital imaging and colour. My emphasis was helping all to understand the process of building a digital collection.

 

Oligochaeta (earthworms) expert, Thembeka Nxele, from the KwaZulu-Natal Museum presenting group work during the Digital Campus.

Oligochaeta (earthworms) expert, Thembeka Nxele, from the KwaZulu-Natal Museum presenting group work during the Digital Campus.

We worked hard to make the course as hands-on as possible. With a room full of scientists it helped that we ran the Campus at the Hilton Bush Lodge on the edge of the beautiful Umgeni Valley. We even had a chance to get out and about in the Riets Valley which flows into the Umgeni and a number of participants took the opportunity to collect various specimens for their collections.

 

Zama Mwelase of Durban Natural Science Museum (left) and Chrizelda Stoffels of KwaZulu-Natal Museum (right) exploring the Riets Valley.

Zama Mwelase of Durban Natural Science Museum (left) and Chrizelda Stoffels of KwaZulu-Natal Museum (right) exploring the Riets Valley.

In January 2016 we had the privilege of working with The Brenthurst Library for a week digitizing a rare collection of papers of the last Commander of the Dutch garrison in the Cape, Robert Jacob Gordon. The project was a collaboration between The Brenthurst Library and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Rijksmuseum have Gordon’s paintings and digitization offers the opportunity to bring the whole collection together without having to move the originals.

As Africa Media Online we had just recently invested in a Phase One XF camera with IQ3 digital back (seen here syspended above my colleague Nkanyiso Ngcobo) and Broncolor lighting. The Gordon project was the ideal project to work on as the Rijks Museum required conformance to Metamorfoze standards. Our Broncolor Scoro E power pack with two Pulso G 3200J lamps provided beautifully consistent lighting.

Africa Media Online at the Brenthurst Library digitizing the Gordon papers as part of a collaboration between The Brenthurst and the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. We had just recently invested in a Phase One XF camera with IQ3 digital back (seen here syspended above my colleague Nkanyiso Ngcobo) and Broncolor lighting. The Gordon project was the ideal project to work on as the Rijks Museum required conformance to Metamorfoze standards. Our Broncolor Scoro E power pack with two Pulso G 3200J lamps provided beautifully consistent lighting.

To do this, though, the work needed to be done at the highest standards of color fidelity. The Rijksmuseum are using the new European standard developed by Hans van Dolmoren called Metamorfoze. The Metamorfoze standard sets the minimum parameters for the capture of digital manuscripts where one needs to not only preserve the information contained in the manuscript, but the appearance of the manuscript itself as it was at the point in time it was captured. An essential element in this, apart from creating a custom profile that matches exactly to the capture target used, is bang-on consistent lighting. For some time we have been looking for a lighting system that is geared for the colour consistency needed when digitizing natural and cultural history collections. While in New York last November I had the privilege of interacting with Jeff Hirsch from Fotocare who advises many of the large cultural heritage institutions in New York including The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He pointed me in the direction of Broncolor, the World’s leading lighting system when it comes to colour fidelity. After investigating various systems, we realized that if we are going to be capturing the most significant collections in Africa, we needed to invest in the best when it comes to lighting. So we took the leap and invested in the Broncolor Scoro E 3200 RFS power pack with two Pulso G 3200J lamps.

One of our two Broncolor Pulso G 3200J lamps. Swiss company Broncolor is the World's leading lighting company when it comes to consistent colour temperature, which is why many heritage institutions have invested in their system.

One of our two Broncolor Pulso G 3200J lamps. Swiss company Broncolor is the World’s leading lighting company when it comes to consistent colour temperature, which is why many heritage institutions have invested in their system.

Broncolor uses a unique patented technology called Enhanced Colour Temperature Control (ECTC) that ensures the constant color temperature so critical in capturing cultural history collections like that of the Brenthurst Library. It certainly did not disappoint in the Gordon project, producing beautifully consistent lighting right across the entire collection.

The staff at the Brenthurst Library certainly expressed delight at the results. Apart from being pleased with the quality and consistency of the results, Jennifer Kimble, the Brenthurst Library’s point person on the project spoke of Africa Media Online’s involvement in the project saying: “They worked quickly and efficiently with good results. I liked their work methodology, they handled the manuscripts with the care they required and met the standards as requested. I was very impressed with the overall service and will recommend them to similar institutions.”

I had the privilege of being in New York in November 2015. I was there to attend a course being run by New York based company, Digital Transitions, in collaboration with Phase One. Phase One teamed up with Digital Transitions to take their exceptional quality camera technology available to the capture of heritage collections. In many respects Phase One are the current leaders in medium format digital camera technology and are well known for creating systems for aerial photo cartography as well as for high end fashion, landscape and documentary photography.

In class at Digital Transitions, New York in the Phase One Digital Heritage Practitioner course together with practitioners from museums and heritage institutions across the US.

In class at Digital Transitions, New York in the Phase One Digital Heritage Practitioner course together with practitioners from museums and heritage institutions across the US.

Their open system, that allows their systems to interface with other technology providers, has meant they have been able to create some innovative partnerships. Their partnership with Digital Transitions for systems applicable to the heritage sector has been one of those. This partnership has led to some wonderful innovations specific to the digitization of heritage collections from digitization rigs and lenses to a cultural heritage version of Phase One’s award winning software, Capture One that includes such innovations as linear scientific colour profiles that ensure exact color fidelity, auto-cropping that ensures high productivity, and the ability to determine the exact dots per inch of the camera setup.

Nice to see a familiar face! Trevor Noah was plastered on bus stops and at tube stations - clearly a hit in the US.

Africans telling Africa’s story! Trevor Noah was plastered on bus stops and at tube stations – a humorous African perspective on the World is clearly a hit in the US.

While in New York I was able to do research on systems being utilized by a number of the leading heritage institutions and by the end of the trip, as Africa Media Online we took the decision to invest in a XF Camera body, IQ3 Digital Back, Schneider Kreutzach lens and Capture One CH software all from Phase One and Golden Thread colour targets. Added to that I qualified as the first Phase One Cultural Heritage Practitioner on the African continent. That qualifies me to capture at Metamorfoze and FADGI 4-Star standards.

I also got to spend some time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and took in three significant African exhibitions, Kongo: Power and Majesty on art from the Kongo Kingdom; In and Out of the Studio, photographic portraits from West Africa and and exhibition by fellow South African Jo Ratcliffe, The Aftermath of Conflict, images from Angola and South Africa – a real privilege!

Kongo: Power and Majesty, a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, November 2015. Crucifixes from the Kongo Kingdom, evidence of Christian influence in the Kingdom. These figures are from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

Kongo: Power and Majesty, a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, November 2015.
Crucifixes from the Kongo Kingdom, evidence of Christian influence in the Kingdom. These figures are from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, November 2015.

In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, November 2015.

The Aftermath of Conflict, exhibition by South African photographer Jo Ractliffe - pictures from Angola and South Africa at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, November 2015.

The Aftermath of Conflict, exhibition by South African photographer Jo Ractliffe – pictures from Angola and South Africa at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, November 2015.

 

Toward the end of last year we were excited to take delivery of a brand new Phase One XF camera with an 80-Megapixel CCD digital back. For some years now we have been looking to a more versatile high end medium format camera technology to our existing scanner technology . Camera technology generally has been receiving far more of the research and development dollars in the industry as a whole than scanning technology and so we were on the hunt for a system that could take our digital capture to a new level.

Right out of the box - our new Phase One XF camera with an 80 megapixel back and Schneider Kreuznach 80 mm lens

Right out of the box – our new Phase One XF camera with an 80 megapixel back and Schneider Kreuznach 80 mm lens

We looked at systems from the World’s best medium format camera manufacturers. Finally we settled on Phase One as the system that could both deliver very high quality 16-bit per colour channel digital images with the high throughput of a single shot system ensuring we can deliver the best images in a cost effective way.

Our first project on the new system was the digitisation of maps and posters at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. We had developed a custom rig to hold the camera in place and were able to set it in a position that produced an image of any item on the surface of the copy table at exactly 300 dpi. We were amazed at the colour fidelity and sharpness of the final images, noticeably sharper than what we have been able to produce on scanner systems in the past. The blue ring Leaf Shutter lenses produced by Schneider Kreuznach of Germany are a brand new innovation and certainly live up to the hype with resolving capacity of over 100 megapixels.

The AMO team working on digitising maps and posters at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. The Phase One XF can be seen at the top of the picture suspended above Nkanyiso Ngcobo's head.

The AMO team working on digitising maps and posters at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. The Phase One XF can be seen at the top of the picture suspended above Nkanyiso Ngcobo’s head.

While setting up the rig correctly takes many hours, once it is in place our productivity was significantly higher than comparative scanning systems. The KwaZulu-Natal Museum project showed us that we can now confidently bring to the heritage sector here in Africa the best of the best in terms of digital imaging on a par with the best in the World.

We are excited to announce that during the course of 2015, 51% of the ownership of Africa Media Online passed into the hands of Not-for-Profit trusts set up for the benefit of formerly disadvantaged communities, which is very much in line with our overall vision to enable “Africans to tell Africa’s story.”

Generation of Leaders Discovered seeks to empower youth, particularly in South Africa's townships, to make the choices that can lead to a bright future.

Generation of Leaders Discovered seeks to empower youth, particularly in South Africa’s townships, to make the choices that can lead to a bright future.

A 26% stake is now owned by Kabusha Youth Development NPC. The Trust has two beneficiaries.

  • GOLD is an organisation which has a vision to see a generation of young African leaders confronting the root issues of both HIV and youth risk behaviour, through uplifting their communities and imparting vision and purpose to present and future generations. The organization is led by a personal friend of ours, Susannah Farr.
  • St John’s College in Mthatha, the 135 year old high school that has produced many of South Africa’s leaders including former President Thabo Mbeki.

A 25% stake is now owned by the Africa Leadership School Trust set up to train emerging leaders in rural and periurban areas in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and further afield.

When we started Africa Media Online in 2000 we started a business… a business with social impact at its heart. We set it up as a business because we believed we could create something that could be self sustaining and not always require hand outs from others. At the same time, though, profit was not our primary objective. At the heart of the organisation was a desire to have a social impact. Enabling African’s to tell Africa’s story was our primary goal. We were wanting to be a part of changing the discourse about Africa by enabling African voices to be heard on a global stage. But further than that, we wanted to create jobs and nurture home grown experts here in Africa by being on the cutting edge of the digital revolution.

While we recognise we have a long way to go, this step, of having Not-for-Profits as majority shareholders in the company is a thrilling development. These are all organisations we have had relationship with as part of our personal involvement over the years in rural and peri-urban communities. Having them as partners helps to keep the social element at the heart of Africa Media Online in the midst of serving paying markets as any business must do. Practically it means more than 50% of any profits in Africa Media Online are given to benefit disadvantaged communities!

Michaelhouse’s innovative Archivist, Robyn Gruijters, showcased how she uses her digital archive and the benefit it has had for the wider Michaelhouse community. She was speaking at a conference at the ICC in Durban hosted by the KwaZulu-Natal Archives and Records service. If you can put up with the partially hand held recording I did on a cell phone, for anyone running an archive that is serving a community, this is well worth listening to.

Robyn Gruijters at KZN Archives Conference from Africa Media Online on Vimeo.

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The Forum for School Museums and Archives is having a conference in Pietermaritzburg on Saturday February 28, 2015 at St Nicholas Diocesan School under the theme “Collections Make Connections.” For curators of museums and archivists as well as senior management in historic schools it is a wonderful opportunity to interact with colleagues from other institutions as well as gain input from leaders in the field covering topics such as the formulation of archives policy, caring for archival materials, the importance of oral histories to running a museum on a small budget. I will be giving input on “Initiating the Digital Process” – how to go about building a digital archive from scratch that will last for generations to come. I do believe it is an opportunity not to be missed. Below are links to the conference programme and the registration form that you need to send through to Renee Alcock at Epworth Independent School. I encourage you to sign up now!

Final FSMA Conference Programme 2015

FSMA Conference Registration_2015

 

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This is the fourth post in a series that looks at steps toward building a digital archive. After an introduction to building a digital archive we looked at the Scoping process that aligns your goal of building a digital archive with the vision, mission and strategic objectives of your organisation, and the Screening process that asks probing questions about your collections to establish which collections should be prioritised for digitisation, or digital processing, for incorporation into the digital archive. Once you have established which collections should have priority, the Selecting process then forces you to engage closely with the collection and actually select which items in your analogue collection should be digitised and incorporated into your digital archive or which born digital files should be selected out, processed and ingested into the digital archive.

A Museum exhibit at the Maritzburg College Museum in Pietermaritzburg is an example of careful selection of objects to tell the story of the school.

A Museum exhibit at the Maritzburg College Museum in Pietermaritzburg is an example of careful selection of objects to tell the story of the school.

Selecting is a controversial activity. The argument is often made, if we select what is to be digitised and what is not, then we are distorting access to our full collection. That is true and a point well made. The point, however, fails to take into account the fact that your very analogue collection is not a collection of everything. In itself it is a selection from all that possibly could have been collected. You did not have the space, time or resources to collect everything, so you collected what had meaning for the body of work as a whole, to take on a weight of meaning and perspective that is important to communicate with your audience. Likewise the same is true about a born digital collection. Take a digital photographic collection, for instance. The photographer did not take a picture of everything. The photographer made decisions about what to capture and what not to capture. Those are selection decisions. There is not the time or resource to capture every moment.

So too, in building a digital archive, you do not have the time and resources (and digital space) to digitise or digitally process everything. You need to identify what carries a weight of meaning in terms of your whole collection and what doesn’t. Professional photographers do this all the time. So do newspaper editors. And so too, do you and I in everyday life.

The Pulitzer Prize gallery at the Newseum in Washington DC showcases winning images from decades past. The quality of the images is a direct outcome of a careful selection process drawn from a large pool of images appearing in the press.

The Pulitzer Prize gallery at the Newseum in Washington DC showcases winning images from decades past. The quality of the images is a direct outcome of a careful selection process drawn from a large pool of images appearing in the press.

Selection is, in fact, an important activity fundamental to the way in which we make sense of the World. Good historians and bad historians alike select from all the facts of history certain facts and moments in order to draw out meaning and conclusions. What separates a good historian from a bad one is not the fact of selection, but the openness, honesty and integrity with which the decisions are made.

Does that open us to the accusation of presenting a partisan view? Absolutely. We can do no other. We are all a product of history, of a particular time and cultural milieu, and to claim to be uninfluenced by our presuppositions and the emphases of our times would be dishonest. Getting back to openness, honesty and integrity, then, it is important that when embarking on the tough process of selecting we make our presuppositions known in the process. That will assist future generations understand our methodology and hopefully they won’t judge us too harshly for it.

One of the toughest aspects of selecting I find is scope creep. Not sticking to the absolute boundaries of what one has decided to select. One always wants to include more. It is not the items that should obviously be included or obviously be excluded that present the problem, it is the borderline items that one potentially agonises over. So a useful exercise, I find, is to firm up the boundaries by using what I call the Selection Funnel.

A gallery of memories at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Every one of these photographs was selected out to take its place in the exhibit. A careful selection process is part of good curation of a physical exhibit, this is no less the case for building a digital archive.

A gallery of memories at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Every one of these photographs was selected out to take its place in the exhibit. A careful selection process is part of good curation of a physical exhibit, this is no less the case for building a digital archive.

Let’s say, for example, that my institution is set up to showcase the best of South African English literature and the Scoping process has identified that as an institution we need to emphasise struggle literature in the 1960s to tie in with a significant anniversary in our nation’s history. And perhaps in the screening exercise you identified that there was a particular need to support the school curricula with poetry in English relating to the struggle. One might therefore create a number of positive statements of what you want selected such as:

  • Select works from our collection published by South African authors
  • Select works from our collection published in English
  • Select works from our collection published in the 1960s
  • Select works from our collection that are directly related to the Struggle
  • Select works from our collection that are poetry

One would want to then create the opposite statement to reinforce the statement in the mind of the selector.

  • Do not select works from our collection not published by South African authors
  • Do not select works from our collection not published in English
  • Do not select works from our collection not published in the 1960s
  • Do not select works from our collection that are not directly related to the Struggle
  • Do not select works from our collection that are not poetry

Then one creates a joint statement

  • Select works from our collection published by South African authors, Do not select works from our collection not published by South African authors
  • Select works from our collection published in English; Do not select works from our collection not published in English
  • Select works from our collection published in the 1960s; Do not select works from our collection not published in the 1960s
  • Select works from our collection that are directly related to the Struggle; Do not select works from our collection that are not directly related to the Struggle
  • Select works from our collection that are poetry; Do not select works from our collection that are not poetry

Now you have a bunch of statements that may seem to be all over the place. What you want is to arrange them in order from broadest to narrowest statement, creating a funnel that makes it more and more difficult for any piece of literature to qualify in terms of all the statements as one proceeds down the funnel.

Members of the Associação Moçambicana de Fotografia in Maputo Mozambique make a selection of photographs for an exhibition on election violence to coincide with the display of the World Press Photo Exhibition in the city. Quality curation always involves a determined and ruthless selection process. In a context like this, where many are involved in the selection process, it can create vigorous debate.

Members of the Associação Moçambicana de Fotografia in Maputo Mozambique make a selection of photographs for an exhibition on election violence to coincide with the display of the World Press Photo Exhibition in the city. Quality curation always involves a determined and ruthless selection process. In a context like this, where many are involved in the selection process, it can create vigorous debate.

The order I place these statements is also going to be influence by the arrangement of my collection. So if my collection is arranged at the broadest level into poetry, novels etc. then that is going to be at the top of my selection funnel. If however, at the broadest level my collection was arranged by language, then that would be at the top of the funnel. Assuming the former scenario I might arrange the statements like this:

  • Select works from our collection that are poetry, Do not select works from our collection that are not poetry
  • Select works from our collection published in English, Do not select works from our collection not published in English
  • Select works from our collection published by South African authors, Do not select works from our collection not published by South African authors
  • Select works from our collection published in the 1960s, Do not select works from our collection not published in the 1960s
  • Select works from our collection that are directly related to the Struggle, Do not select works from our collection that are not directly related to the Struggle
The World Press Photo exhibit in Die Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, is an annual exhibition showcasing the best of photojournalism around the World. The several hundred winning pictures are selected from over 100,000 images submitted by professional photographers all over the planet. The quality of the exhibition is determined by the quality of the selection which is performed by an independent selection panel made up of photo editors from some of the World's leading publications and photo agencies

The World Press Photo exhibit in Die Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, is an annual exhibition showcasing the best of photojournalism around the World. The several hundred winning pictures are selected from over 100,000 images submitted by professional photographers all over the planet. The quality of the exhibition is determined by the quality of the selection which is performed by an independent selection panel made up of photo editors from some of the World’s leading publications and photo agencies

So one can see that the exercise of creating a Selection Funnel both helps to firm up decision making about what is in and what is out of our selection, but it is also helpful in documenting our approach to selecting so that future users may understand the method in our madness!

 

 

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