Royal Society of Arts


Abby Barletta - Assistant Archivist

Reordering and digitising a physical collection in the middle of lockdown? A tall order it would seem but not for the RSA who have been getting creative in their working practices.

Abby Barletta, Assistant Archivist talks to Max about the practicalities of digitising and preserving a large and eclectic physical collection and about the added potential for outreach and audience engagement a digitised collection offers, particularly during lockdown. She talks additionally about the RSA's current digital projects and plans for the future.




Please Note: This is an automated, machine-generated transcription. We have presented this 'as is' and have not undertaken any editing.

hello and welcome to the max communication podcast where we're celebrating world digital preservation day held on the first thursday of every november this year it falls on the 5th of november which also happens to be the first day of lockdown my name's Faith Williams and i'm joined today by abby barletta assistant archivist for the rsa hi abby would you like to introduce yourself and talk about what your role is at the rsa hi so i'm um i'm abigail barletta and i'm the um archivist assistant or the um assistant archivist at the rsa um my role is to um help the head archivist eve in the day-to-day running of the archive and in the day-to-day uh management of the archive and archival activities such as preservation handling materials and scanning and basically doing what yep so digital preservation physical preservation aiding with research inquiries um tours of the house although obviously we haven't really done that recently because because of covid but we're also doing a lot of work on the digital side of preservation especially with um with the lockdown and working from home so why do you believe that digital preservation is important for your collection so i think that it allows us uh greater outreach and access for the archive a lot of our a lot of our researchers are um international so we have a big global base of researchers um as well as national researchers so making sure that we have a solid digital resource for our collection uh allows us to have greater outreach uh outreach and ease of access for our researchers uh it allows us to share our collection and be open with our collection not only for staff and fellows of the rsa but also the wide variety of researchers we have such as academics students professors phd students who travel from across the world to access our collection and digital is very much the future of archiving as ultimately paper materials won't last forever so being able to preserve um especially the part of the collection that's not online and that's uh paper-based such as letters and rare books will allow us to share this with future generations and preserve the history of the rsa what is your sort of current strategy for digitizing your collection then are you focusing on the sort of smaller items like letters or are you going for the big ticket things that that there are a lot of research into so eventually we will be um digitizing our letters and rare books eventually we will have all the collection scans so that's the long-term goal uh we were also in the middle before the first lockdown we were also in the middle of a archival reconfiguration on both strong rooms which requires us to physically be in the building but we've obviously had to put that on on hold for the moment and we've still got a lot of accessioning and appraisal to do because a lot of our um collection still needs to be uh shelved and um opened up but we will get back to the um the actual reconfigurations of both of the strong rooms when we get back but basically for now we're working on so kind of the main um research um facilities that people use so a lot of people will request for um fellowship applications or membership applications um and last year we scanned over 350 000 microfilm um we digitally scanned that over the process of two months and that was also a volunteer-based project and we're in the process of now renaming all these scans and pushing them into an inventory so um that will make dealing with fellowship requests and membership dates a lot easier because we've digitized um a lot of the microfilm um eventually we'll be scanning and preserving all letters and papers which will be uploaded onto our new catalog platform that we obviously have with with max and i'm currently in the process of uploading all our digital scans of our polite arts images and um images of our uh photographs onto the new catalog platform um and we also have our preservation masters so the original image that was scanned uh plus a backup of that um [Music] obviously making sure that our files backed up in a digital environment and making sure that we have the right systems and programs to run and display digital records it's interesting you mentioned that because you just said earlier that you know paper doesn't last forever but actually digital records don't either you've got to keep up to date with them yeah yeah because you'd be in danger of um if your system becomes obsolete then you can't all the record itself the digital record itself becomes corrupted then it also becomes difficult to um access the record so the challenges of digital preservation are probably just disappointing and are just as challenging as um preserving paper records but it sounds complex it sounds like it would be fair to say that um digitalization could only happen once you have your physical collections in order you know your strong rooms and everything yeah properly yeah so we we're working on the parts of the collection that we can easily have access to especially working from home so we have all our our preservation masters for our polite our images and a lot of our um photographs of um famous fellows so we've got those to work on and also the 350 000 microfilm that we um that we scanned last year before we went into lockdown so we have quite quite a few parts of our uh the main parts of the collection that are already digitized that we can start putting into the catalog as well as your catalog do you have any further projects um penciled in for your digitally preserved catalog do you have any sort of exhibitions or anything like that that you're thinking of um so we have a um rsa heritage app that's going to be a personal project uh probably when we get back into the building but i'm starting to write down ideas um and anyone can download it and it's free to download and it gives you um a history of building of rsa um the architects the archive um what's in the collection the premium rewards scheme and the different categories within that um famous fellows the medals that we give out so um that's quite a big project because that needs a lot of work and it needs to be expanded and have more images and um the text needs to be um updated as well so that's quite a big um project for the future but we also um we went to the national archives conference i think in in birmingham last year and that had a main focus around um digital archiving and uh one of the other projects we thought about is possibly getting together um a software that would or an app that would allow people to um scan a famous painting or scan a famous part of a room or a monument like the clock in the great room for example and be able to see information on that so maybe possibly thinking of an online interactive exhibition but that's that's way into the that's way into the future so that that might be another thing we'll be interested in yeah that sounds like it would work well as multimedia as well sort of audio and visual video things like that yeah i think getting our collections more you know online and obviously accessible is probably the the key to what we're trying to achieve at the moment is especially with the new catalogue so that's very much because we've been working pretty hard on on the catalogue for the last couple of months so that's probably priority one at the moment have you had any feedback about that yet people enjoying it um so i'm not actually 100 sure if our catalog is live yet because we're still in the process of uploading a lot of core images so i think we have a beta version of the catalog at the moment but um i'm not 100 sure of it is live yet but uh i'm sure it will go live soon if it's not what have you learned from this process then because you've been working on it for some time now so i think in terms of the in terms of the actual digital preservation process so i'm i'm a newly qualified archivist so i only qualified um i'd probably say two years ago now um and i'm learning a lot being the assistant archivist at the rsa and i've learned a lot about the process of physical and digital preservation through different software and programs and how to make images look presentable for the catalog and for researchers i've learned how to use cataloging software i've also learned a lot about metadata and how important that is to the core of understanding and preserving a digital record and how the metadata must be preserved uh correctly to preserve the digital copy and to avoid obsolescence in technology and scanning all the microfilm has been a big learning curve for me um as we when we used to view the microfilm on the actual cassettes we used to use we used to view them on a microfilm machine which was quite a clunky and quite i wouldn't say outdated but quite an old piece of equipment and it's quite fiddly to use but now we've scanned all the records and now we've scanned all these membership forms and we've got digital copies of them it's just so much easier to um to access and provide copies of them and um yeah the process of digital preservation has just taught me a lot and i'm really looking forward to the process of um continuing to work with eve and the rsa archive and we still have a lot of a lot of work to do but it will look great once it's all once it's all done and the access will be a lot easier how many items are you planning on digitizing for this phase anyway yes so i can't give an exam an exact number but we're looking i mean the polite arts alone that has over a thousand images and that's just one that's just one particular section so probably looking in the could we have 19 000 records in in total obviously well over 19 000 but not all those records will have um images attached but a lot of them do so i mean i can't give an exact number but um definitely over definitely over two three thousand oh wow and so you're putting metadata for every single one of them so the the metadata goes into the catalog initially but then we can because once the record is uploaded the metadata will go across but we can you know just double check that it's been um headed correctly or we can make some changes because when we upload photos in there they're obviously tiffs so we have to make sure that they say tiff in the metadata and not um and not jpeg because i think some were we're going across as jpegs and we've had to try and um get a process together where obviously max uploads the images to archive matica eve sends them to max to be uploaded and then i upload the images into the catalog so we've got a good system going yeah how how do you see the future what would you hope would you um do you have a particular collection in mind that you want to get up on the website or other or is it this app that you're really keen on pursuing um so the the app would i think allow us to open up our collections more but um also there are several you know um like rare items in the collection that um haven't been shown a lot or have been not hidden away but haven't been used for research in in some time so it would be really good to um bring those to the foreign maybe to put some images onto the catalog page so some and some nice artwork or maybe some of the some of the parrots that's probably one of my favorite um pieces of the collection and we can you know really make the catalog visually appealing for um for researchers but yeah i definitely say the uh the catalog the app and the actual physical um reconfiguration of both store rooms um definitely are our um priority at the moment have you been have you had your own site shut pretty much this year then uh so the rsa was closed during the first lockdown uh there hasn't been an announcement of whether they're closing the building during the second lockdown because i think for some people um working at home isn't an option or not comfortable working from home so the the building might stay open to accommodate people but i'm not i'm not 100 on whether it's going to remain open or not but it would be nice in the future if people you know don't have to travel into london or even the uk yeah i mean the rsa has achieved a lot um working remotely and you know managed to launch a new brand and lots of different projects like bridges to the future and focus on foods you know that was all launched this year um and then in turn that gives us more content that we can um preserve and add to the archive so there's a lot of um the rsa has been very um proactive and uh had great initiative um during this time and launched all these new um initiatives uh especially in education and with the bridges to the future projects so there's been a lot going on that the rsa's really been at the forefront of especially during the pandemic yeah i mean no one could have predicted it obviously but i think digital preservation does really help maintaining accessibility for for populations in any time really yeah and then you know the greater or the our digital resources are and the greater our um our outreaches for our collection you know the more we can still operate as a archive service so you know we don't at the moment have to physically be in building to accommodate researchers because we can answer a lot of requests online and digitally now because we have digital copies of quite a lot of our records that people are interested in so it just allows us to be a more flexible service really especially during this time when we're working from home and the catalog will just be available through your um the normal rsa website yeah so um there will be a link on the website to the catalogue and also to jstor as well because jstor is one of our main uh bases for um a lot of our online records and our journals and a lot of researchers especially international researchers um go to jstor and access our collections from there so there'll be a link to jstor and our lecture series um recorded with the british library so there'll be a lot of different links to different parts of our collection as well as with the catalogue as well but that's kind of that's ongoing because the brand launch is fairly recent so there's still um tweaks to be made but it's it's getting there yeah it does sound like you as an organization have been very proactive and it's paid dividends no the rsa is a great uh great organization to work for and it's just kind of opened my eyes a lot to what's you know going on in the world and how we can you know the main message from the rsa you know is that we're all this um we're this generation of active global problem solvers and you know we need to go out in the world and bring our ideas and our innovation and um really make the world a better place with you know brighter ideas with different intellects with you know different cultures and ethnicity you know we can achieve great things so you know it it's you know it's a really inspiring organization to work for and um you know we're gonna do good things in the future that's fantastic it was great to hear you talk about what what work you're doing it sounds very exciting i can't wait for it all to be available on the website oh no thank you very much for uh inviting me and offering me to to talk it's been good fun thank you and cheers bye bye