Uploading the past

A new archive digitisation deal could change the way researchers and students work and learn

The Breakdown

  • When asked what resources best support their learning, students are more likely to say YouTube, Google Scholar, Quizlet and OneNote, than the library
  • Archives that are not digitised risk falling through the cracks as the world moves online
  • However, the digitising of resources is far too costly for universities to undertake on their own
  • Hence, a group of trailblazing universities have launched a project – supported by Jisc – to create a shared digital archive that will eventually comprise one million pages

From the beginning of the pandemic, the higher education sector has rushed – or pivoted (depending on your perspective and institution) – to deliver online teaching. Digital learning is not a homogenous experience: evidently, the 2019/20 university cohort comprised three- and four-year undergraduates; transnational education students; students on micro-credential courses and accelerated degree programmes, not to mention the array of research and taught postgraduates. Within those areas, there are subject-specific concerns and individual learner preferences to consider.

Where does archival material fit in this complex ecosystem of online learning materials?

The resources that undergraduate students turn to are far more diverse than they once were, evidenced by the 2020 student digital experience insights survey: asked about what resources support their learning best, students were more likely to say YouTube, Google Scholar, Quizlet and OneNote, than the library. As such, archives that remain ‘undigitised’ could become sidelined as students’ attentions move online.

“We also negotiated, and this is quite innovative, that after 10 years, when the licences to the digital exclusivity licences expire, the history of science digital collection will be openly available globally” – Paula Marchionni

‘A treasure trove of materials’

Archives may not be the natural place for many students to turn to – and one might suppose that they are reserved for history students. Archives store more than just government and ministerial papers: costumes, films, footage, letters, manuscripts, scores, artefacts, ornaments, diaries and notebooks, to name just a few. Any student of literature, film, theatre, anthropology, archaeology, classics, politics, music, education, art, design and architecture could find a treasure trove of materials to enrich their subject study. Properly signposted and exploited, these resources can elevate learning and academic integrity – not just for postgraduates, but also undergraduates seeking to demonstrate intellectual individualism. As universities seek to dissuade academics from unnecessary travel in a bid to reduce costs and carbon emissions, online archives could be a crucial component of flexible working; not to mention that academics are under pressure – and any labour-saving innovations can only improve their working lives.

Digitising these sorts of unique and irregular items, however, is an expensive undertaking, and one that few universities can afford to shoulder alone. One source told Education Technology (ET) that digitising an archive can cost anywhere between £10,000 and £80,000 – but figures can be higher. Library budgets – like those of universities as a whole – have been hit by the financial implications of the pandemic. A joint letter from the Universities UK-Jisc content negotiation strategy group sent to publishers of academic journals on 17 June warned that university library budgets “are already seeing cuts of up to 40% at some universities”.

“In the new normal that has yet to emerge, libraries will be forced to prioritise their spending,” says Stella Butler, a librarian at the University of Leeds and keeper of the Brotherton collection.

Pioneering archival digitisation

Against this backdrop, a group of universities – with support from Jisc – have announced an archival digitisation project that will eventually comprise one million pages. The COVID-19 pandemic precluded the archival work, so the project is running slightly behind deadline with around 75% of expected documents scanned and stored. However, once complete, the history of science digital collection will contain copies of precious original material submitted from the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) and complementary materials from the universities of Glasgow, Leicester, Oxford, Leeds and Liverpool, University College London, King’s College London, the University of London, and the Mathematical Association.

Sir Oliver Lodge worked near King’s College London and wrote many of his early theses on disused envelopes. Source: King’s College London

The deal is a pioneer – and a massive one at that. Jisc struck with publisher Wiley an agreement for archival digitisation that manages to balance competing interests and actors in the sector. Digitisation projects in the past have often relied upon grant funding from the Heritage Lottery, private trusts and foundations, or research councils. Another model has relied on publishers initiating bespoke deals with depositories to digitise collections, then leasing access to the materials back to the owner. In a bid to devise an alternative, Jisc attempted a crowdfunding solution, which came to nothing.

The organisation – which acted as a funding body until 2012 when it became an independent not-for-profit charity – then pitched a co-funded model to a leading international academic publisher; Jisc capital secured Wiley’s participation and ensured a stake for the charity in the profits of the project.

Paola Marchionni, head of digital resources for teaching, learning and research at Jisc was behind the deal. “The crucial thing was negotiating the terms of access to the content. We said we want this collection to be free to all Jisc members in the UK.

I took it as broadly as I could: all universities and colleges, but also all the affiliates members, like, for example, the Francis Crick Institute, research councils and museums and museum libraries.

“We also negotiated, and this is quite innovative, that after 10 years, when the licences to the digital exclusivity licences expire, the history of science digital collection will be openly available globally.”

In these sorts of deals, 10 years is equivalent to a blink of an eye. In the meantime, Wiley will charge overseas researchers and institutions to access the database – and Jisc will derive proceeds, possibly to reinvest in similar projects. Marchionni tells ET that financial forecasting is difficult; it’s a long game, but Jisc hopes to recoup costs in year three or four.

Jisc has pursued digital archiving assiduously. In 2017, it agreed on a group purchasing pilot with Adam Matthew, with the principle of “the more products bought collectively, the greater the saving”. This latest deal shows the level of participation in these sector-wide schemes: Marchionni says around 80 universities have expressed interest.

Home-grown content

At present, Marchionni says, most digitised archives are American. Opening access to UK primary material could, quite literally, alter the debate in history and science. Digitised UK material tends to come from the National Archives, the British Library or the Bodleian, Marchionni explains. “It is costly for a publisher to have many different content providers – it is easier if they just work with one or two,” she says, which often means omitting smaller collections. The Jisc investment means that contributors of all sizes can be incorporated, including those with only a few thousand items to submit.

“Researchers might indeed express a desire for certain content if it is very crucial to them to be digitised,” Marchionni explains. “But ultimately, a lot of research is done with what is available, so it becomes self-fulfilling; if you make more content available in the way that researchers need it, then there is more chance that they will discover it. That, in turn, opens new lines of enquiry and debate.”
According to the National Archives, there are 287 ‘undigitised’ archives within higher education institutions.

“I think universities have not prioritised humanities research as much as the sciences and we are hoping this project will help balance things out. The important thing is to link these papers with similar collections elsewhere so whole new subject areas can open up” – Geoffrey Browell

Pedagogical impact

Jisc has undertaken case study research to demonstrate the impact using primary sources has on pedagogy. In September 2018, it published the findings of Professor Keir Waddington, a history lecturer from Cardiff University, who worked with Jisc to incorporate digital history methods into his second-year social history of medicine module. The ambition is that digital archives transform learning because they allow students to engage with primary sources much earlier, and in greater depth than was previously possible.

“The act of working with primary sources helps develop students’ abilities as active researchers rather than consumers of information,” Prof Waddington said. “Students have a range of resources, so they can work at the level at which they are comfortable while still being able to achieve worthwhile results. The digital skills required are taught without any assumption of prior knowledge – acknowledging that not all students are digitally fluent and that many who are fluent in social media and web browsing need help in transferring digital proficiency to the academic context.”

“The new collection is important because these resources are not very accessible in the analogue form. And traditionally, it’s mainly, therefore, postgraduate and researchers who access this material. Once you digitise it, you open up a treasure chest to undergraduates. There is a lot of benefit to bringing archival material within the whole content ecosystem, together with journals and books.”

Sir Charles Wheatstone was a 19th-century pioneering scientist, whose records and notes are kept at the University of Liverpool. Source: University of Liverpool

One of the smallest collections in the new history of science digital archive is the Sir Oliver Lodge Collection, which is held by the University of Liverpool. Jenny Higham is head of special collections and archives at Liverpool.

“Sir Oliver Lodge was one of the leading scientists of the 19th and early 20th century, a pioneering physicist whose work on the transmission of electrical waves laid the foundation for the discovery of wireless telegraphy. He was also a popular public lecturer, who believed passionately in democratising scientific knowledge, so I imagine he would approve of this project,” says Higham.

The collection includes 30 of Lodge’s research notebooks, which illustrate the development of his work. Sir Oliver left Liverpool for the University of Birmingham in 1900; the digitisation of archives like this one enable researchers to access the full range of resources related to a figure throughout their lifetime without the need for travel.

“We could not undertake any large-scale digitisation projects ourselves,” Higham continues. “It is strategically important for Special Collections and Archives to have our collections recognised as a high-quality research resource by a panel of history of science scholars, and so worthy of funding for this project.”

The work of another 19th-century scientist, Charles Wheatstone, is included in this new archive. Geoffrey Browell, head of archive services at King’s College London, says: “Wheatstone is one of the most important scientists of the 19th century. He was one of the key inventors of the telegraph, and he invented stereo photography, so that is the birth of 3D.”

The Charles Wheatstone Collection includes notes and drawings on the back of advertisements and household bills, which provides a window on his life and working style. “It gives insight into life at the time, how scientific enquiry works and how connections and networks operated in the area around King’s and The Strand, which was a hub of scientific enquiry and the home of the Royal Society, Royal Academy and others,” Browell continues.

Browell says neither he nor his team has enough expertise in digitisation and “so having that done for you is very, very important”.

Balancing science and the humanities

King’s College is also home to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office collection, which quite literally describes the making of the modern world at the hands of the Victorian British Empire. “It’s not that easy to get clearance for digitisation and publication of collections, so this project offers protection and assurance of due diligence,” Browell explains.

“I think universities have not prioritised humanities research as much as the sciences and we are hoping this project will help balance things out. The important thing is to link these papers with similar collections elsewhere so whole new subject areas can open up,” he says.
“This is only possible when collections are digitised and can be compared side by side. This project is about enabling people to build stories and we’re hoping it will renew interest in Wheatstone as a man and as a scientist.”

Jisc awaits the results of the investment. Marchionni discloses to ET her hopes for the project. “I would eventually like to set up a publishing programme over several years, with several publishers. Because there is now so much demand for content to support the blended learning in teaching and learning, it is difficult for libraries to pay for digitisation on their own. Who knows, maybe we could do a greater number of smaller programmes over the years. That is my hope.”


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