Digital Collaborations: Taking a Collection Online
This review takes a slightly different angle from some of its predecessors in this section, embarking on a review of one part of the digital domain. The British Library is already famed for its physical collections (some of which have been reviewed before here: http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/3487) but as of April 2013, it is responsible not only for collecting the print published output of the UK but also the UK’s digital publishing, meaning that the horizons of the Library and its collections increasingly open up beyond the reading rooms and into the digital domain (http://pressandpolicy.bl.uk/Press-Releases/Click-to-save-the-nation-s-digital-memory-61b.aspx). The Library is also releasing an increasing amount of out of copyright material online and into the public domain, currently including manuscripts, maps and photographs amongst other materials, originating from around the world. These offer new opportunities to researchers as well as a whole host of other users.
My focus in this review is on one example, the digitisation of a collection of colonial copyright photographs from Canada. Regular readers of Dissertation Reviews might have seen Amelia Bonea’s review (http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/3698) of my PhD thesis, Colonial Copyright and the Photographic Image: Canada in the Frame. Completed back in 2010 and passed in 2011, this thesis considered a collection of Canadian photographs held by the British Library that were collected between 1895 and 1924. In both the PhD and in an article for the Public Domain Review (http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/07/02/canada-through-a-lens) I’ve noted that this collection is, at the same time, quirky and a unique view into the history of Canada, and the role of the camera in this history. This deserves a little elaboration.
Originally these photographs were deposited at the British Museum Library, the holding institution for colonial copyright deposits generated by the British Government’s Colonial Copyright Law. This law was an idiosyncratic piece of imperial paperwork, seeking to expand the domain of British copyright into the Empire and improve the collection of intellectual property published outside of the UK.
Canada was one of the few Dominions and other parts of the Empire that enacted the law. The result of this was a large amount of books, maps, sheet music and photographs being deposited at Canada’s parliamentary library (now held at Library and Archives Canada) and a duplicate being sent to the British Museum Library as well. During the period of Empire there were many who saw the British Museum Library as a beating heart of colonial knowledge, a vast repository of information about Britannia’s lands across the sea, and copyright deposits such as those from Canada were meant to allow the Library to sate the thirst of those who desired insights into the Empire.
However, as noted by scholars such as Thomas Richards (in The Imperial Archive), such a task of oversight was gargantuan and unrealistic, which one could argue is illustrated by the deposition of the Canadian photographs received under the Colonial Copyright Law in a large set of archive boxes with a single title, ‘Canadian Copyright Photographs’. Most collections are, in some form, curated, meaning their development is mediated by an individual or group who work to some sort of collection plan. As a result, they inevitably have an embedded meaning or portray a particular view of the world that is created by the individuals and institution responsible for gathering and caring for them. A copyright collection, as seen above, has the same characteristics of creation, in this case motivated by a desire to perceive the colonial world. At the same time, the contents of a collection such as the Canadian colonial copyright photographs lack the finer-grained curatorial mediation present in most collections.
This means the copyright collection represents a unique thing; a view of Canadian history from the viewpoint of Canadians, the only intervening factor being whether or not a particular photographer believed a particular image was worthy of copyrighting. Therefore, from grassroots to some of the well-known photographers of the time, the photographs held at shelfmark HS85/10 in the British Library are a unique view of Canada at an important point in the nation’s history.
During the collection’s time at the British Museum Library some work was done with it – on the photographs of Canada’s First Nations groups in particular – but largely it went unused until the inception of the British Library in the late twentieth century. The collection was then highlighted in an overview of the Canadian materials that would become part of the new national library. As a result of this process, the collection was more thoroughly analysed and preservation work conducted. This began to generate a sense of the significance of the collection of photographs living at shelfmark HS85/10, ‘Canadian Copyright Photographs’, and this sense of importance has resulted in a PhD on the collection and now its digitisation by the British Library, the Eccles Centre for American Studies and Wikimedia UK.
Given its unique view of Canadian history, the collection’s relatively low level of use in the British Library collections has been less than ideal, and the increasing trend towards online accessibility and use of images suggests that there may be new horizons for the colonial copyright photographs. The increasing online presence of British Library collections has also provided the opportunity for more digital partnerships, hence the collaboration with Wikimedia Commons in this case (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:British_Library).
The digitisation of this collection means that this unique resource is now available for research and use outside of London and within the communities to whom the contents are relevant – not just Vancouver, Toronto and the other major conurbations but also Moose Jaw, Stettler and other lesser-known parts of contemporary Canada. Digitising such a collection and making it available online opens up the potential for use not just by new groups but also for new types of use, re-interpretation and re-use (depending on the licence it is made available under) in the construction of social history, local education, blogs and social media, to name a few examples. Personally, my favourite of the possibilities that have so far occurred to me is the potential use of the many landscape photographs in the collection in re-photography exercises – in particular I would love to see the panoramic photographs of Vancouver and Toronto re-shot in the cities today.
This new digital format raises the question as to what sort of collection such a digitised resource is. It certainly isn’t a replacement for the physical collection and while it may act as a useful research surrogate to those who are not in a position to use the original, the research value of this digitised resource is different from that of the collection of photographs themselves. What it is, I would suggest, is a strongly related but new collection, a selection of research materials that will be used in different ways by different groups and produce a new range of research and creative outputs by virtue of this modified agency.
The collection generated by Picturing Canada is not unique in this respect. Digital collections of institutions across the globe and a new breed of sites (such as Europeana.eu: http://www.europeana-collections-1914-1918.eu) whose aim is to agglomerate the online collections of different institutions are beginning to produce vast digital research resources that include not just photographs but manuscripts, maps, printed books, newspapers, government records, sound recordings and much more (in the context of the British Library, see resource portals such as Digitised Manuscripts (http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts) and British Library Sounds (http://sounds.bl.uk)). These materials can be used, studied, analysed, mashed up and republished in ways previously impossible and in doing so the divergent and distributed agency of these collections, compared to their physical parents, continues to grow.
For more on the Picturing Canada project and the British Library’s collaboration with Wikimedia UK head on over to the Commons website: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:British_Library/Picturing_Canada.
Dr. Philip Hatfield
Curator, Canadian and Caribbean Studies
The British Library
Image: Troops from the 22nd Battalion leaving Quebec for Europe (Albert A Chesterfield, 1915). Wikimedia Commons.
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