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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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October 2005 Volume 3 (5)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ICT: library studies

Future librarians digitising the past

Library studies students at the University of Strathclyde are working alongside public library services on digitisation projects. Paul F. Burton and David McMenemy describe how these ‘real-world’ practical ICT projects are incorporated into the curriculum, and how they are working successfully.

The MSc/Postgraduate Diploma in Information and Library Studies at the University of Strathclyde is in its twentieth year. In that time almost 1,000 students have passed through and moved on to work in the profession. One of the continuous hallmarks of the course has been its state-of-the-art focus on information and communications technologies (ICTs) in libraries, and an illustration of this is the module Digital Archiving and Preservation (DAP).

DAP is an elective module, taken by students in the second semester, and focused on imparting the knowledge and skills to undertake digitisation projects within a library environment. The module is taught over an eight-week period between February and April each year, and is built around imparting both theoretical understanding and practical skills in digitisation. One of the main goals of the lecturing staff when the module was originally developed was to have students involved in digitisation on behalf of a local public library service. East Renfrewshire libraries were subsequently approached to become involved and their enthusiasm and commitment enabled the module to be followed for the first time in academic year 2004/05.

The project
Initial meetings were held between the lecturers responsible for the module and representatives of East Renfrewshire libraries. The track record of East Renfrewshire in service development using ICT was second to none in Scottish terms. Their innovation saw developments like Barrhead.Com, one of the first community portals developed in the UK. The proposed work the students would undertake would be an extension of such projects, offering the creation of digital resources that would enhance the local community.

Agreement was reached to allow the students to digitise 350 local history images from the collections in East Renfrewshire libraries, with the images being lent to the university for the duration of the scanning period. It was decided to concentrate these images around seven local areas, representing community libraries in the authority, namely: Barrhead; Busby; Clarkston; Eaglesham; Giffnock and Thornliebank; Newton Mearns; and Neilston.

The selection of these areas allowed the student projects to grow from merely digitising the images into creating a website that could operate as a local history site for the chosen areas. Thus the goal of the project could encompass both conservation and content creation. To facilitate this, seven student groups were formed, with between four to six students per group. Given the volume of work involved in creation of the digitised content it was felt a team approach was the way forward. However, all groups were given a high degree of autonomy to decide on how the work should be divided.

The groups were all tasked to provide a sensible structure to their site which allowed retrieval of the material, plus catalogue entries for the resources (including authority list of subject headings) and links to related resources. Guidance on web design had already been given in the first semester of the course, so that all students were assumed to be already up to speed on HTML.

Teaching on the module consisted of two streams, lectures and laboratory sessions. The lectures focused on the technical, organisational, and social contexts of digitisation, while the laboratories focused exclusively on the technical skills involved; this involved not merely scanning, but managing the digital images, file compression, and batch processing. Although the groups were free to divide the workload amongst the team members as they saw fit, the lecturing staff encouraged all students to be involved in all stages of the digitisation of the images. As well as the final websites the students were creating, the plan was to hand back to East Renfrewshire full publication-quality digital images that could be used as a master copy.

Managing access to the images
There was understandable concern among all involved in the project that the images lent by East Renfrewshire would be properly taken care of while stored at the university for the project duration. The images were collected by a member of the university staff and safely stored in a locked metal cabinet when not in use. Students were only allowed access to the images during two specific one hour laboratory sessions each week, with the two members of academic staff delivering the module present at all times. Although this made the timetable much tighter for the students, it was felt that this was the safest way to accommodate the concerns over the safety of the images.

The laboratory used by students was situated in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, and consisted of 60 computers, with 10 scanners. The scanning took place over a period of four weeks. It was observed during the sessions that most groups favoured a system whereby one or two students would scan an image, save the file to a central server, after which another member of the group working on a different computer would download the image and create web quality versions of the images for their website. The original scans were all created in full publication quality, and saved in TIF (Tagged Image File) file format; all web quality versions were created from this master file and saved in JPG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) format.

Part of the challenge for the student groups was to decide how their site would work from the standpoint of presenting the images to the viewer. In the lectures for the module several examples of best practice were demonstrated to the students, such as American Memory, the digitisation site housed by the Library of Congress. This site is an exemplar for how libraries can present their content digitally; the site contains not merely textual and image material, but also multimedia content, such as film and audio. Lecturing staff offered students support from the point of view of technical advice, but site design and editorial decisions related to content were left up to each group to decide on individually. The lecturers concerned felt this to be extremely important, as it would be unfortunate if each group presented a final site that was identical to each of the others. The decision did seem to be justified, as there was a high degree of creativity, and major stylistic differences evident in the final seven sites.

The final sites
A preliminary date was agreed in the sixth week of the module where students would present their works in progress to both the lecturing staff and staff members from East Renfrewshire Libraries. This was deemed a great success, with a range of site designs of high quality presented by the students. The hard work put into the project by the students was evident to all, and the staff from East Renfrewshire seemed impressed by the quality of work undertaken in the time period.

The final projects and master copies of the digital images were handed over to East Renfrewshire in July. Overall the project was a great success; all material was delivered in a timely manner, to a high standard. Given this was the first year the project had been in operation, the staff were greatly encouraged by the enthusiasm of both the students and the local authority involved. Student commitment was vital to the smooth running of the project, but most crucial was a committed, willing and positive local authority partner.

One encouraging factor was the subsequent choice of one student who had undertaken the module to pursue her Masters dissertation by digitising a collection of family papers and images that dated back to the Napoleonic War. The module gave her both the confidence and skills to build a major resource for her own family’s history.

Plans for the future
It is hoped the partnership between the university and East Renfrewshire can be continued into the next academic year. Initial plans for future digitisation projects that could be undertaken include themed sites such as ‘Childhood in East Renfrewshire’, or ‘Work and Leisure’.

It was felt that an area that could be improved for the future was the metadata created for the images. While the project requested students undertake cataloguing of all images, this was done via creation of an Access database by each group. Rather than using existing authority terms, most students developed their own taxonomy. While this was useful practice for the students from the point of view of indexing, it was felt that a more professional approach be taken, and that in the future a specific standard should be adopted.

One potential solution would be to tie in the DAP module with a module titled Organisation of Knowledge (OK) that aims to teach cataloguing skills. It is felt that if part of the assessment for OK was based around creation of catalogue records for the DAP project, that the students could afford to spend far longer on this vital aspect of the sites. Rather than devoting a large amount of time to one module at the expense of others, they could be devoting time to two modules, but still only be creating one website (and appreciating the transferability of information handling skills).
The module has given the academic staff in the department great enthusiasm for involving further real-world practical projects within the curriculum. One specific area of interest would be materials students could catalogue while studying the OK module. As well as cataloguing of digital materials, it would be immensely useful if students had access to a range of books and other physical material to catalogue.

Work with tomorrow’s librarians
Any libraries with potential projects are encouraged to get in touch to discuss the possibility of incorporating them into the Information and Library Studies curriculum at Strathclyde.
Paul F Burton is a Senior Lecturer and David McMenemy a Lecturer, both in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.


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Information Scotland Vol. 3 (5) October 2005

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Last updated: 09-Dec-2005