Investigating Digitisation Dilemmas in Community Archives

Recipients: Dr Joanne Evans, Dr Steve Wright and Dr Graham Willett.

Project summary

Investigating Digitisation Dilemmas in Community Archives

Community archives play a vital role in social sustainability, helping communities to document their past, capture present activities, engage with others, and help secure their future. Many community archives want to utilise digital and networking technologies to make archival material accessible online,  but  are  currently daunted by the plethora of digitisation options available. While online accessibility promises to raise the public profile, relevance and reach of a community archive, it also demands considerable commitments in terms of time, skills and resources; all at a premium in a sector dependent  upon  voluntary  labour, supplemented sporadically by small grants and fund-raising. This action research project will investigate the development of a digitisation strategy with the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA), as a pilot framework for informed decision making about digitisation and online  accessibility  for  community archives. It will use a series of brainstorming workshops to iteratively develop and refine the strategy, with journaling techniques for reflection on and evaluation of actions. Making a community archive digitally accessible is more complex than simply 'scan and upload',  so  we  will be paying special attention to resources and skills that allow archival materials to be effectively interpreted, identifying ethical and legal issues, and sustaining access beyond the lifespan of current information systems. By identifying what can be learned from the experience of ALGA, our  research  strives  to provide a framework for community archives to better assess the pros and cons of digitisation projects in terms of their own goals, aspirations and capabilities.

Project outcomes

The purpose of this action research project has been to investigate the development of a digitisation strategy with the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA), as a pilot framework for informed decision making about digitisation and online accessibility for community archives. To that end, ten workshops were organized between early 2015 and mid-2016, involving ALGA staff, volunteers and Faculty of IT researchers. Given the emphasis in the project upon process and participation, the outline of a digitization strategy appropriate to ALGA’s goals and needs was developed very much as a work in progress. While the initial focus was upon a two pronged approach, involving parallel (and partly overlapping) working groups addressing a) the development of a pilot online exhibitions showcasing archival holdings and b) an online, publicly accessible version of the archives’ catalogue, ALGA itself had decided by the second half of 2015 that it wished to prioritise the latter. To that end, attention then centred upon the technical, political, ethical and sustainability questions bound up with how the archives’ current, in-house catalogue might be made publicly accessible in a manner that can also more systematic and user-friendly from an administrator point of view.

As outlined in the original submission, there have been two kinds of deliverables generated by this project:

  • a detailed report to the ALGA management committee, making a case for the redevelopment of the organisation’s computerized catalogue of holdings, including recommendations aimed at addressing both the opportunities and challenges likely to arise in making that catalogue available online to a wider audience;
  • a number of conference papers and publications:

Ruge, C., Denison, T., Wright, S., Willett, G. and Evans, J., (forthcoming) Custodianship and online sharing in Australian community archives. In H. Rouette-Cunliffe and A. Copeland (eds) Participatory Heritage. Facet: London.

Ruge, C., Wright, S., Evans, J., Willett, G. and Jaynes, G. (2016, February, 9-11) Digital Dilemmas: a participatory investigation into developing a digital strategy for a community archives. Paper presented at VALA2016 18th Biennial Conference and Exhibition: Libraries, Technology, and the Future.

Willett, G. (2016, June, 22-24) Border-crossing: Big organisations and small, and how they can work together. Paper presented at Without Borders: Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections (ALMS), an International LGBTQ+ Conference hosted by the City of London through London Metropolitan Archives in partnership with Bishopsgate Institute and the University of Westminster.

Keeble, R., Willett, G. and Wright, S. (2016, September, 26) Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives
– Project Monte. Paper presented at the Victorian Omeka Symposium, hosted by VicNode and SCIP, The Virtual Experiences Laboratory, RMIT.

As a result of the work supported by the Jean Whyte fund, and the decision of the ALGA management committee to accept the recommendations outlined in the report, participants have decided to continue working together, and to look for research funding opportunities associated with the next stage of ALGA’s digitization strategy. The project has also informed discussions with Tom Denison as to a future research project concerning radical community archives, a topic which will be a theme at the upcoming CIRN conference to be held at the Monash Prato Centre in November 2016.