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Volunteering in the Digital Archives – Guest post from Julia Konig

Uncatalogued and unappraised box of 3.5" floppies

Uncatalogued and unappraised box of 3.5″ floppies

I started volunteering at the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) a couple of months ago, on the 22nd March 2017. My task has been to audit digital media from various collections, including the Edinburgh College of Art and Moray House School of Education, since these archival materials became part of the CRC following a merger with the University of Edinburgh.

My interest in volunteering for the CRC, and specifically in the field of digital media, was mostly motivated by the fact that I am passionate about digital humanities and digitisation efforts, specifically of historical materials and archives. As a postgraduate student in Intellectual History, I have come across my fair share of online databases that are sadly mismanaged, and have therefore often lamented the fact that very little attention seems to be paid to making these systems user-friendly for researchers.

100mb Zip Disc: Lots of obscure and obsolete types of media

100mb Zip Disc: Lots of obscure and obsolete types of media

During my time at the CRC, I mostly came into contact with floppy discs — naturally, that took some getting used to! While I started out not knowing much about this positively ancient (from my perspective) medium, I can now proudly say that I am able to tell apart High Density and Double Density floppy discs. I also came across some Zip Discs, which I had never even heard of before I started volunteering. However, there were also plenty of CDs and DVDs to be listed.

A typical shift spent volunteering would usually start by either picking up a new box of materials, or continuing with a box I hadn’t been able to finish the week before. Since handling the materials carefully is of the utmost importance, I would always be wearing gloves. From the lovely 6th floor reading room, I would then begin to audit the materials, which meant transcribing the metadata found on the objects, before checking their condition to make sure they were still intact. I was surprised by the fact that most of the materials I handled were still in very good condition, although there was the odd CD with deep scratches on the back — I think everyone has a few of those lying around somewhere. Over the course of several weeks I became almost intimately acquainted with a whole host of names of the people that used to work in these institutions, as well as all the different types of handwriting. I must say, this volunteering project has made me rethink the way I store and archive my own files. It has also prompted me to work on the legibility of my handwriting, so as to make it more easily legible to anyone who may come across my writing o

Careful handling of vulnerable media with nitrile gloves

Careful handling of vulnerable media with nitrile gloves

ne day. Most importantly though, the placement has opened my eyes to the amount of work that goes into managing these physical collections. Not only do all the objects have to be meticulously catalogued, they also have to be read by someone who has the arduous task of going through every single floppy disc and CD to see if the files are intact. Many things that may have been important at the time, such as budgets for the year 1989, do not seem quite as pressing today. That is, until you consider that each and every one of the materials paint a picture of life at the University, of which budgets and timetables are a large part.

I especially enjoyed working on the ECA collections, since those included quite a few showreels of the work that had been produced by students. While I didn’t get to actually look at the showreels, the imaginatively designed CD and DVD covers made the task of cataloguing them quite interesting. I’ll also miss working with floppy discs — though that was the last thing I expected when I first got into contact with them!

All in all, my experience in volunteering with the CRC has been fantastic. Not only are the CRC staff incredibly kind and accommodating, I also got a rare insight into the workings of an institution I did not know all that much about before I started, due to only being at the University of Edinburgh for one year in total. I hope to work in a similar field later on after I graduate, and have a newfound appreciation for the curation of digital collections.

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