“The Barbados Mercury”: Thoughts from the digitisation team
In December 2018, we completed the digitisation of The Barbados Mercury Gazette, funded through EAP1086. We have previously written about different stages of the project, such as the start and the digitisation training. In addition, on February 1, 2019, the Barbados Archives held an event to celebrate the launch of the digitised newspaper online. You can see information and images about this event here.
In this post, two members of the digitisation team, Brian Inniss and Lenora Williams, discuss their thoughts about and experience during the digitisation process.
Conserving the Mercury Newspaper at the Barbados Archives
My name is Brian Inniss and I am the Senior Archive Technical Assistant at the Barbados Department of Archives. I am attached to the Conservation Unit which is comprised of myself and two other individuals who handle the care, conservation and preservation of the collections at the archives and the buildings that house them. Our part in the Mercury digitisation project was to prepare the volumes for digitisation. The following are some details on our process.
Brian Inniss, Senior Archives Technical Assistant, preparing the Mercury for digitisation.
An important part of any digitisation project is preparation. The preparation for digitisation meant dis-bounding the bound volumes and doing all that was necessary to stabilise them, making it easier for the digitisation team to handle them. Volumes were carefully collected from storage and transferred to the lab for assessment and disassembly. Disassembling the bound newspaper was a first for the team. Working with these volumes in this way gave us more experience with techniques from the 1800s. It was truly exciting to see original loop and stab stitch that were used for many of these volumes.
The Barbados Mercury Gazette being disbound at the Conservation Department
The project was not without some challenges. All the material in this collection was well over 150 years old, some exceeding 200 years old, and over time, even with the best care at the archives, had become very brittle. Some newspaper issues were made brittle by various derogating factors such as acid-catalysed hydrolysis, oxidation, and insects (bookworms) and humidity. It was this deterioration that first inspired the project. Safely removing the pages, while minimising the damage which could lead to loss of vital information, was labour-intensive and required further research and ingenuity, but we were successful in the end.
After preparation by the conservation unit, these unbound volumes were secured between sheets of blotting paper so they could be transported safely to the digitisation unit to be digitised. After digitisation, these volumes will be bound and safely housed back in the repository for preservation.
This was truly an experience to behold and assisted in the further enhancing of our skills in dealing with paper of different grades and texture. Hopefully the Archives will have more opportunities like this and we will enthusiastically participate as we look toward the future.
Digitising the Mercury newspaper
Lenora Williams, Mercury Digitisation Project Assistant
Working with The Barbados Mercury Gazette as the Project Assistant was a capacity building experience. Of the many experiences, working with photography equipment for digitisation was the most exciting. Having previous experience in photography and a love for landscape photography, it was a chance to focus on another subject – paper.
Jennifer Breedy, Archives Assistant, and Lenora Williams, Mercury Digitisation Project Assistant, working to digitise a fragile page
The day to day requirements of the project required concentration and timing. It also demanded a high level of attention to detail and forethought to see a product that researchers can utilise. The set up was partially comprised of a copy stand and a Nikon D810 DSRL Camera. These technical aspects included creating even lighting, understanding just how subtle changes can impact on the image quality and understanding how the positioning of the subject can be as important in the end of product. This was one of our most challenging parts of the process, but a vital part in meeting the guidelines set out in the grant. Most of what I know about lighting a subject now comes from the intricacies of the FADGI standards.
Lenora Williams, Project Assistant
Timothy Sealy, Archives Technical Assistant, assisting the digitisation team
Over the first few months the daily process became familiar and even welcome. It was then that the team would meet one of our most memorable challenges yet. As an archives user, I know the disappointment of being told a book or pamphlet is closed, but never fully appreciated what that actually means until I handled issues from the 1812 and 1813 of this collection. Careful consideration was placed into transferring the material from the conservation department to the room where the digitisation process was being carried out and the special training and instruction given to the team on handling these delicate issues. Even with careful handling, these pages crumbled. They seemed to dissolve right by merely existing and it was then that the real importance of this project made its impact to all involved.
The more you interact with the material the more one can gain an appreciation of 1700-1800 Barbados. The Mercury Newspaper opens up 18th and 19th century Barbados though the eyes of a select, literate few. The newspaper as a resource sheds light on the way they saw themselves and the ideals they held for country, their businesses and themselves. I began seeing their words and exploring the similarities and differences of Barbados then and now. One great example is the newspaper itself. At present, several media houses publish a daily newspaper that has some 10 pages or more with cleverly merged articles. The Mercury newspaper as evidenced by this collection, was published twice per week usually around 3 or 4 pm.
It was striking to find that Barbadians then were no less materialistic. For example, one feature of the Mercury is the considerable number of advertisements each issue contains; sometimes taking up a large percentage of any given page. Many subscribers through the years give detailed lists of items for sale.
The newspaper will surely be most noted for its information on enslaved persons. Subheadings of “Absconded” or “A reward” preceded such notices which often give an avid description including occupation, location and family connections of enslaved person. Related information includes regular updates of the list of enslaved persons in the cage and owners. Uploading this resource into an open platform with free access to the full content will encourage users to engage with the content at their convenience.
I am thankful for the opportunity to work in this Endangered Archives Programme grant, and I look forward to being involved in other such projects in the future.
To see more images from the conservation and digitisation of the Mercury, please see here.
Written by Lenora Williams, Brian Inniss and Amalia S. Levi
Photos credit: Lenora Williams and Brian Innis.