The Baring Archive contains material amassed by Baring Brothers over nearly three centuries of trading as a merchant bank. Key objectives of the Baring Archive Trustees are to ensure this global collection is preserved for future generations, promote access and advance education for researchers and the public. To meet these priorities the charitable trust embarked on an ambitious project to digitise parts of the collection.
To address the global scale and sheer volume of the collection, a selection model was developed to investigate the suitability of collections for digitisation. One of the most important considerations when digitising a large collection is deciding which material should be considered high priority. Digitisation Archivist Charlotte Willett took a strategic approach that has resulted in a forward-thinking, sustainable methodology for selecting material that could be applied across archives and heritage institutions.
An initial feasibility study considered the assets of the collection, their condition, past and current users, existing digital preservation and website capabilities. To understand the preferences of current users, an online survey was cascaded. Mindful that digitisation could help develop new audiences, universities were asked to disseminate this among students and social media was used to target other specific groups. Archives with comparable collections were also approached to share the survey with their user groups.
An advisory group of stakeholders, trustees, ING representatives and academics advised on material selection and also supported the archive team in specialist areas such as procurement.
This preparatory work culminated in the development of a selection-based model around six key factors: legality, content, volume and format, item condition, visual appeal and links to external bodies.
Using this model to guide selection, a six-month pilot project followed to digitise House Correspondence from Argentina, alongside maps, bonds and artefacts dating between 1814-1920. The rationale being that:
- these covered key dates for global affairs such as the 1890 liquidity crisis which affected global markets
- the materials were in good condition and included a variety of formats
- they were in high demand
- and importantly there was evidence of a need for improved user access from researchers who didn’t have the resources to travel to London
Facts and figures: The pilot project digitised 88 boxes of material, including 6959 items, which came to 15,810 pages, making 22,494 images, spanning 111 years of Argentinian history.
This involved 44 days of physically numbering items in preparation for digitisation, 7065 minutes at conservation, 28 days being digitised.
- Current users have a tendency to skew their consultation responses towards their own specialist area of interest. The challenge was determining what future users most wanted to access digitally. To help eliminate any research bias, the archive’s database of previous research enquiries was categorised to form meaningful statistical findings, such as the most common enquiry subjects and the background of researchers themselves
- Volume and format are important factors in digitisation, as they have the potential to dictate project scope. The Baring Archive used in-depth box sampling of volume, item sizes and ratios of bound to unbound items, which helped improve the accuracy of project scoping exercises
- Preparatory conservation work also had to be undertaken. Conservators undertook an initial survey of all archive holdings then looked at specific boxes in greater detail. This exercise produced an average cost of conservation per box and enabled an estimate for the pilot project
- To ensure access and discovery of the digital surrogates, it was vital to ingest into a robust system. A system was procured that could meet the needs of the archive and also satisfy the security requirements of The Baring Archive’s host organisation ING. The procurement process highlighted a real need to ensure IT and information security officers are on-side at the outset. As the project progressed champions were cultivated and they now advocate on behalf of the work.
Top tip: Take time with the preparatory work, undertake a benchmarking study of similar projects to learn from best practice, highlight potential pitfalls and avoid any costly mistakes.
The selection model will be used to determine which elements of the collection to prioritise for the next phase of the digitisation project. This will allow easier decision-making around how best to allocate the available budget.
Longer term, digitisation is opening up a whole range of possibilities. For example, if the General Ledgers were digitised, there is the potential to use handwriting recognition software to allow the creation of a historical big data set in a format more easily accessible to economic historians.
The digitisation project has really enhanced archival practice at the Baring Archive. It prompted the archive to procure a new Collections Management System and Digital Preservation System, ensuring the same care that analogue collections receive is extended to digital surrogates. It has also improved our knowledge of the volume and content of the digitised part of the collection, as well as the expectations of our users.
A new digital exhibition template has been adopted for use on our website. It has been designed to appeal to the general public and provides more context and explanation. Future digital exhibitions on digitised material will use this template, where the intention is to focus on a theme or event using visually appealing material and curate a story that can act as a gateway into the wider collection.
The archive is now embarking on a two year project to digitise more of the collection. This will include four six-month mini projects that focus on series or themes to build holistic digitised collections with rich contextual resources.
Contact the project lead:
Charlotte Willett, Digitisation Archivist