Managing social history collections in a digital age

Emma Harper, Curator at Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service, shares her experience of accepting the service’s first born digital acquisition and some of the top tips she’s discovered along the way.

Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service is a community museum with social history, photographic and archaeological collections relating to the lives of people living and working in the borough of Welwyn Hatfield. (You can find out more here.)

It’s fair to say that until 2020 our collections – and our collections development policy – focused very much on physical objects with little consideration given to born digital material, with the exception of oral history recordings. Then the events of 2020 happened and it became obvious that it was more urgent and important than ever to think about our social history collections and collecting in a digital way.

In June 2020 we put a call out to the community for material relating to their experiences of lockdown. Shortly afterwards the horrific death of George Floyd in America sparked several Black Lives Matter protests within the borough and we were keen to collect this important part of the community’s history. In both contemporary collecting call-outs, however, our wording was still very much focussed on physical objects. Instead, one of the first offers we had was of some digital photographs taken of the Welwyn Garden City Black Lives Matter protest by a member of the public on her phone.

Black Lives Matter protest in WGC - taken by Siouxsie Helliwell and donated to Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service
A Black Lives Matter protest in Welwyn Garden City, taken in 2020 by Siouxsie Helliwell and donated to Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service.

So what did we need to consider for this born digital acquisition? Spectrum procedures still apply for digital objects and one of the best ways I’ve found of getting my head around digital acquisitions is to remember the mantra that ‘digital isn’t that different.’ You can find information and guidance about all the Spectrum procedures here, but I’m just going to highlight a couple.

Prepare for the arrival of your object

Before a physical object enters our collections, we check its condition, check for pests and, if necessary, quarantine it. In the same way born digital items should be scanned for viruses and malware to make sure there are no unwanted surprises in the collection.

Likewise, just as regular condition checks on your physical objects should be part of your collections management processes, you should also do this with born digital material. This means creating what is called a ‘checksum’. This is a unique software-generated code that you can check at regular intervals. If the code changes then the file has been altered or has degraded in some way. Exactfile was recommended to us as a good piece of software, but there is also a Checksum Calculator available on Windows. We recorded the checksum on our catalogue record for the object and also as part of a metadata document of key information saved with the original file.

Acquisition and accessioning

As with other acquisitions, use those early discussions with donors to gather information about the digital object, preferably including a listing of the file names, their format as well as their content, the provenance and the associated rights management. In the case of our digital photograph this included who took the photograph, when, why and gaining permission to use the photograph for non-commercial purposes with an associated credit line, as here. For a born digital photograph TIFF is the best format, so ask your donor if they have the image in that format or in as high a quality format as possible. In our case this wasn’t possible as the format was JPEG. That doesn’t mean that you can’t accept the acquisition, there are just other considerations to be aware of, specifically that JPEGs can degrade over multiple saves. As with a physical object your born digital item will be allocated an accession number, but this shouldn’t be used as the filename as that should be a different, but also unique, number.

Location and movement control

In terms of storage it’s important that the digital file is not exposed to daily use and not at risk of being deleted, copied, overwritten or modified in any way. It should also be regularly backed up, preferably on a dedicated drive or server. This could even be password-protected, much as you might have a code or a key to get into a physical collections store. Just as with a physical object it’s important to record the location on your catalogue record. We recorded the digital drive pathway and have a process in place for movement control. Again, just as you might make a copy or replica of a physical object for visitors to handle, you should also make an access copy of the original digital file. This copy can then be used to create further copies for exhibitions, learning sessions, publications and so on, retaining the integrity of the original file.

Tips and useful resources

How did I find out all this stuff?! I am by no means a digital preservation expert and am still learning on the job, but here are some tips and useful resources I’ve found helpful along the way.

  • Ask sector colleagues! I am a member of Social History Curators Group, a subject specialist network with a wealth of lovely, knowledgeable people willing to help and share their experiences of dealing with similar situations. They helped suggest some of the resources below. You can find out more about joining the group here.
  • Check out the Digital Preservation Coalition and in particular its Digital Preservation Handbook. This is a great resource, which runs through the different aspects of digital preservation, including a process and decision-making tree. It also has resources specifically aimed at senior management, which can be downloaded and added to a case for support as to why this work is important.
  • The Collections Trust has lots of useful resources, including links to the National Archives guidance and explanations of why digital isn’t different.
  • The London Museum Documentation Network is working on a digital toolkit which will provide a set of tried and tested tools and processes for museum professionals to help manage accessioned digital collections within the context of the 21 Spectrum procedures. Before 30 November 2020 you can sign up to take part in a workshop in spring 2021 to test this toolkit.
  • Myself and colleagues from the Social History Curators Group spoke about managing collections in a digital age at the 2020 Museums Association conference. If you’re a member of the MA you can watch this session here.