Endangered archives blog

06 December 2019

Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques & Approaches - a training workshop offered by Jadavpur University, School for Cultural Texts and Records

A man standing by a blackboard and giving a presentation

We decided to inaugurate the webpage of our project EAP1247 – Songs of the Old Madmen – with a short piece about the first concrete step towards the creation of our digital archive. Our first tangible accomplishment would not have been possible without the support of the EAP1247 grant and our local archival partner at SCTR, Jadavpur University. We are grateful to the entire team, who generously shared their knowledge and expertise during an intensive four-day training workshop. In this piece, we will discuss the structure of the training workshop and some of its outcomes -- hoping to provide some useful information and experiences for future EAP grant holders and workshop organisers.

The poster advertising the workshop

The training workshop ‘Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques& Approaches’ consisted of both theoretical and practical sessions. Eminent speakers presented critical topics of archival ethics and methodologies. Hands-on modules and laboratory group work provided a well-balanced preparation for the future generations of digital humanists. We recommend to future grant holders that they start their project with a training workshop with the local archival partners, to gather the necessary knowledge and familiarize with the international standards of digital archiving processes, but also to make sure that all the team members and collaborating institutions are on the same page!

Our training workshop was open and free for all local students and invited scholars. It offered the opportunity for students and scholars of other departments and institutions within and beyond Kolkata (some participants came all the way from Bangladesh) to partake in the valuable experience and extraordinary expertise of faculty staff and research fellows from the School of Cultural Texts and Records. They have been conducting digitisation projects since 2003 and have completed six projects funded by the Endangered Archives Programme. Jadavpur University has been recognized among the top 10 institutions in the world in the field of digital humanities. We feel fortunate to have worked with such a  fantastic archival partner!

The workshop started with a lecture by Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri (EAP127, EAP261) who introduced us to the past, present, and future of digital humanities at Jadavpur University, an institution that is adamant about protecting academic freedom in these challenging times of bigotry and governmental intrusion in the field of education and research. He showed successful examples (see Bichitra) and ongoing projects that transform disturbingly neglected cultural texts and vernacular manuscripts into binary code, where everything, from words to sounds, is translated, reduced to, and stored as, zeros and ones. What we found particularly inspiring was Prof. Chaudhuri’s reminder that there are no sacrosanct specifications in the realm of digital archives: one can always suggest innovations, if these worked as solutions for a particular kind of endangered material.

A woman presenting at the workshop a slide of a map is in the background

Professor Anuradha Chanda’s lecture focused on the practical challenges, limitations, and problematic issues that emerged during her fieldwork, aimed at collecting Sylheti Nagri manuscripts in Northeast India and Bangladesh (see EAP071 for her EAP project). These manuscripts are kept hidden from orthodox Islamic authorities which contain esoteric and antinomian teachings in a distinctive script of the regional Bengali variant. These little-known texts, were supposed to be written for womenfolk in a simplified alphabet, but Prof. Anuradha Chanda’s research revealed a more complex (hi)story. The historical, literary, and symbolic value that Prof. Chanda and her team attributed to the preservation of these texts triggered a response among the local community, who started a popular movement of revaluation of their cultural heritage. This incident shows that the creation of digital archives does not exist in a vacuum of social power, but rather, it is always entangled with local cultural histories and hierarchies, and it has a direct impact on the field in which it operates. Her fieldwork involved a great deal of grassroots networking, negotiation in the politics of cultural and ethno-linguistic identity in Assam, and delicate navigation through the politics of cultural texts, the local protocols of knowledge accessibility, and the oscillation between pride and stigma associated with a non-official way of being Muslim. These issues are often invisible in the ‘final product’: they are not legible through the digitised images of the preserved texts, nor through the metadata that accompanies them. However, these practical and ethical issues, that require skills to understand the local politics and the power dynamics of cultural representation, form the fundamental backbone of a digital archive of endangered cultural texts. The Sylheti Nagri manuscripts belong to the Indian and Bangladesh cultural zone – extending to the bordering regions of Burma and Southern China. This material reminds us that the circulation of cultural texts does not coincide with the rigid borders of post-colonial nation-states. The flows of cultural texts, especially when linked to folklore and oral transmission, cannot be encapsulated in the nationalist regimes of cultural heritage. This problematic issue resonated particularly well with our own EAP project, since the endangered note-books and manuscripts of old Baul songs that we are aiming to preserve, are distributed in the porous cultural area of Bengal, which is shared between two nations: India and Bangladesh. These archives will hopefully lead international actors and funding entities in the field of cultural heritage to rethink of the unrealistically nation-centric ways in which we are expected to categorize, describe, and protect endangered collections.

Professor Chanda’s interlocutors had stories to tell about each of the text secretively preserved under the thatched roof of their homes. Copying the texts was perceived as a religious action of piety. There were emotions and sentiments related to the texts. These elements of the ethnographic life of a text and its cultural history often do not make it into ancillary metadata. Digital archives and their conventional norms are always the result of difficult selections, filters and omissions. They will not tell us how the Sylheti Nagri texts are chanted, or how they were allowed to be recited only in the night, before the morning call for prayers. Metadata can and should inform us about a cultural ‘item’ – its dimensions, conditions, and the details that we can access only by touching and smelling a text, rather than merely observing it – but it is only useful as long as it is short and concise, and therefore incapable of containing the emotional and performative life of a cultural text as ‘event’.

People sitting in a circle discussing issues

In a roundtable discussion, Professor Samantak Das, Professor Parthasarathi Bhaumik, and myself (Dr. Carola Erika Lorea) discussed archival ethics and the ethics of digital archives.  Who creates digital archives and for whom? Whose knowledge is included and represented? Whose knowledge is excluded? Is everybody equally able to access this mode of knowledge representation In this session we discussed the ethical implications, the power inequalities and the issues of ownership and accessibility involved in the creation of digital archives of vernacular culture in India, a country with 500 million internet users, but with only 3% households enabled to enjoy a computer connected to the internet, and with a massive digital divide in terms of gender and urban-rural gap (I discussed some of these issues in an earlier article for Cafe Dissensus).

Gentleman presenting the slide in the background is on the topic of sound archives

Professor Amlan Das Gupta (EAP132 and EAP274), Biswadeep Chakrabarty, and Pradip Deb conducted the sessions dedicated to the creation of sound archives, the history of sound recording, and the steps in the digitisation of music (SCTR hosts one of the largest digital archives of Indian classical music in the world ). Sound archives follow the conventions outlined in the handbook of the International Association of Sound and Video Archivists (IASA), but in practice, archiving is the art of making things work with the available means (an operation that has vernacular terms like jugaar in Hindi or ‘arrangiarsi’ in Italian) in face of the frequent occurrence of incompatibility and the fast obsolescence of carriers.

Analog mediums such as gramophone records, magnetic tape, wax cylinders, Teficords, and wire recorders are playing their swan song., While digital mediums for sound recording have progressed and changed incredibly fast in the past century; they are ‘philosophically different’ from born-digital material and present a particular set of challenges and problems in the field of preservation and digitisation. Digital storing mediums such as floppy discs, compact discs, mini discs, and  VCDs, are even more prone to vulnerability and instability, especially in relation to obsolescence. What clearly emerged in this session is that digital formats and materials are the most unstable, with an expected longevity of merely five years.

Diversify and update emerged as some fundamental keywords of a responsible project of music digitisation. Diversify storage formats and venues, creating as many copies as possible and storing them in different places, clouds, and hard drives. Updating and shifting the digital archive to newer platforms and formats can be an expensive and technically challenging process: a refreshment policy should be built in all archival projects if we want them to reach the next generations. Archives, as Prof. Amlan Das Gupta reminded us, are for the future; they are producing memories. They are not the heroic deed of an individual, but rather, the result of a collaborative project, involving the skills and labour of several people, institutions, collectors, researchers, and their expected audience of users.

Hands-on and gloves-on sessions: Handling fragile material and simulating remote capture

A long bench with people either side all wearing gloves and working on bound items

Close up of a woman handling a bound volume

Afternoon sessions and the whole fourth day of the training workshop have been  dedicated to practical sessions, aimed to build the required skills to handling fragile material and conduct an EAP project, from shooting high-quality images to creating metadata. What to digitise? How to digitise? The SCTR research fellows Amritesh Biswas, Purbasha Auddy and Moumita Haldar have generously shared their past experience with handling fragile collections and digitising endangered texts in order to prepare us for the upcoming fieldwork trips in rural West Bengal, where we will be digitising old note-books of Baul songs.

Example of a portable digitisation studio with tripod, laptop and lighting

The formation of a digital humanist engaged in preservation projects involves much more than technical skills. It requires a sort of character transformation, and the adoption of a certain set of values. Whereas the collector is moved by desire and personal taste, the archivist is supposed to be neutral: s/he protects the entire collection, without being moved by subjective preference. Even though we have post-editing technologies to make images and music sound ‘better’ or ‘clearer’, none of these modifications are part of an archivist’s work: collections are to be immortalized and faithfully represented for what they are. At the same time, the protocols of digital archives require us to always use the best available technology and the highest precision at our disposal, to record or capture our material. For images of manuscripts, we want to be able to zoom in and visualize every single detail: for scripts like Bengali, Farsi, and Arabic, for example, we should keep in mind that every single dot is important, for a minuscule dot can totally change the meaning of a word. This necessity dictates the rules of photography during remote capture: set your ISO at a maximum of 200, as this reduces noise; ensure that every part of the page including the edges are in focus, and avoid mixing lights to keep color and exposure consistent, more technical details are abundantly discussed in the EAP guidelines for Remote Capture.

Some of the mottoes of digitising projects in rural fieldwork sites, which might  seem obvious,, are often threatened by the temptation to opt for something more convenient in the immediate context of fieldwork. Schedule your digitisation following the norm the worst comes first: give priority to the most endangered and vulnerable items. Start by sorting out the objects: name them, clean them, create a specific folder and the required sub-folders for each. Segregate dangerous documents infested by pests. Think about the best available methods for preventive conservation (for example, wrap your items in acid-free paper or use silica gel bags for de-humidifying). Treat your equipment carefully during remote capture: for example, turn off the Live Mode in your camera utility software, unless you need to check your live image capture, or it will damage the longevity of your DSLR camera. Produce metadata as soon as you have the original item in hand, or you will miss a lot of precious information. Become familiar with your file management and naming practices (keep in mind that the last component of a file name is always numerical). Most importantly, demystify romantic notions about the creation of digital archives!

One of the best lines during the training workshop taught us that archive sounds cool, digitise sounds lovely, but actually it involves a lot of tedious issues and a lot of labour. As a matter of fact, we faced numerous compatibility issues during the post-process, which are a typical and unavoidable struggle. As soon as we brought our new Canon 6D to the School of Cultural Texts and Records to test it during the workshop, we realized that the laptops used at SCTR, which were perfectly fine for the previous EAP projects with their Canon 5D, were not equipped with the softwares or the versions needed to work with a Canon 6D. We needed to update a plethora of things - starting from the Canon EOS Utility -, figure out a different application to open and check the images, and reinstall a new version of Adobe Lightroom CC to process and export the images in TIFF. It is advisable to resolve these issues at the very beginning of the project, instead of finding oneself stuck with serious compatibility issues in a remote countryside!

Thanking once again the Endangered Archives Programme and the School for Cultural Texts and Records for this insightful experience, we encourage the readers to stay tuned for the upcoming posts on the next steps of our project EAP1247 on the Songs of the Old Madmen.  

Jay Guru!

Carola Lorea, National University of Singapore and Siddhartha Gomez (EAP1247)