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On Friday 26 June I attended ‘Turning digital: delights, dangers and drama’ a digitisation seminar for the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) sector at the State Library of NSW.

The featured speaker was Rachel Frick from the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Her presentation started with her upbringing in Nitro, West Virginia, and referenced something I have heard many times in recent years – how people from every kind of background have had formative experiences in free public libraries that were accessible by public transport. Although her talk was mostly about metadata (a topic that can cause even librarians’ eyes to glaze over) she held the audience spellbound with stories of making library, museum, gallery and even government agencies’ collections accessible to the world through a single searchable metadata store.

The DPLA is a network and a platform – a way of aggregating information about the digital resources of libraries, archives, government agencies, museums and more across the USA. Metadata about items digitised is fed into the platform, and the aggregated data can be downloaded and manipulated using an Application Program Interface (API). This allows members, or in fact anyone, to analyse the digital collections. Rachel showed examples of data visualisations that had been done using the API – the scope of material about ‘western Pennsylvania’, images using the colour ‘navy’, and an interesting one which showed the variety of permission statements used. This led to a wider discussion about the need for greater understanding of the rights inherent in digital copies of collection materials, particularly for those where the original item is in the public domain (out of copyright).

The second part of the morning was a panel discussion moderated by Kate Evans from Radio National, and included Rachel Frick, Timothy Hart from Museums Victoria, Shaun Rohrlach from the National Archives of Australia and Kirsten Thorpe from the State Library of NSW. They each talked about projects and priorities for their organisations. One example was ‘time-based media’, where items like film reels, vinyl records or audio tapes, have a time window beyond which the content will no longer be accessible. The SLNSW is working to digitise as much as possible of its oral history before the tapes degrade. Another issue was crowd sourcing and volunteers – a SLNSW project is transcribing diaries and other material that include Indigenous languages to recover words and meanings while there are still a few speakers of the language available to check and confirm.

There was an interesting discussion about the role of the original materials once digitised – although digitisation allows much wider access to collections, some aspects of the original item can’t be conveyed in digital form. Old diaries, that still smell faintly of the campfire where they were written was one evocative example.

I would encourage you all to look at some of the amazing materials that have been digitised by libraries and museums in Australia. The most recent projects from the SLNSW are particularly interesting – the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt’s papers, subdivision plans of Sydney and beyond, and WWI diaries.


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