Friday, 26 August 2016

From Plans to Digital Content: Dave’s Year of Transforming Archives

From Plans to Digital Content: Dave’s Year of Transforming Archives

It has been a while since I have written one of these, mostly because these last few months have been so busy and jam-packed I’ve barely had a chance to. But now that I am reaching the end of my traineeship I just want to take a moment to reflect on my year at Hull History Centre on the Transforming Archives Traineeship. I thought that as a final blog post I would quickly go over some of the projects I have been working on and assisting with.

When I think back to how overwhelmed I was initially, and the sheer variety of projects I have worked on since starting, I can clearly see how much I have developed over a year.


U LIB/10

Probably the biggest cataloguing project I have worked on is the 900 plans of the original University of Hull Library. The plans document the construction of the original library building (which was later referred to as the East Building), refurbishments, and construction of the West Building creating the library that is easily recognisable today. Cataloguing these was an interesting experience since trying to pick out relevant information from an architectural plan was not something I had attempted before.

U LIB/10/2/670 - One of the Library Plans, not actually digitised by me for once!
I have also been able to assist Alex, the current Project Archivist, with cataloguing some of the files within the ACPO collection. This gave me a very different experience of cataloguing to the plans, as the files were mostly made up of correspondence and minute extracts. Working on this collection has also been interesting as it allowed me to see how even basic conservation practices can be difficult - the amount of sticky tape I have removed could probably fill a wheelie bin! You can read more about this from Project Archivist Alex’s perspective here: Problems with Preservation (or ‘Why I hate sticky tape’).

Beyond this I was also given the opportunity to experience box listing and cataloguing digital content. This experience covered how to deal with born-digital material and the sorts of issues that can arise. I was very surprised to find out just how many questions I ended up with once I actually starting having a go and trying to use born-digital content in this way.


U DFJ/628/1 - Garden Bar Southlands Hotel, Scarborough
The largest digitisation project I worked on was definitely the Francis Johnson plans, which required me to digitise over 1800 architectural plans. Eventually, they will be used for outreach and accessibility work on a project using the ArcGIS software. As well as being the longest project, this was also one of the most difficult digitisation projects I undertook. Because of the nature of the plans themselves (architectural reprographies, made using a process called diazotype reprography), the camera used to scan the documents often produced results with completely the wrong colours. It took a lot of practise and experience in order to get accurate and useful results.

U PHO - Oversized Photo Album
I was also able to digitise an oversized University of Hull photograph album. Many of the photographs were subsequently used for a World War II exhibition and source guide. This was an interesting project because it required me to scan close-ups of individual photographs, as well as entire pages, so that the original layout was also recorded. So, even though the album was 73 pages long, I actually digitised 364 different items.

I also had an opportunity undertake some Audio Visual digitisation. This was very interesting and provided me with new challenges. Each AV medium required a completely separate digitisation peripheral. At Hull History Centre we had access to VHS, Cassette and Vinyl digitisation, and the use of the actual devices was thankfully very easy. However, I did find that VHS digitisation process results were sometimes unsatisfactory. With some research, I managed to determine what the issue was and how to circumvent the quality problems I was having. In this case I found that by first copying from VHS to DVD and then ripping the DVD copy to PC I had much better results. With this there is an element of compression that is unavoidable, which problem led me to research into Codecs, containers and the effects of compression on video files. All in all, I managed to produce some appropriate access copies of the files that I was looking to digitise, and to remove all of the poor syncing that was causing so many problems.


Over the year I have assisted in almost every ‘History Makers’ sessions at Hull History Centre. These are outreach events aimed at families and young children. To help them engage with archives in a different way, the sessions involve crafting and Lego activites that relate to archival holdings. The sessions usually ran on a Saturday morning, although we had additional sessions at half term and summer. I came to enjoy these a lot, although I definitely won’t miss breaking up all the Lego and separating it into colour co-ordinated containers after the events!

Dressed up for the Rationing and Regeneration event
A ‘Rationing and Regeneration’ event in summer 2016 was the culmination of a lot of work at Hull History Centre. On the day there was an exhibition, traditional stalls, lindy hop dancers, live singers and a ‘History Makers’ session for the younger kids. We all got dressed up and had a ton of fun.

A large part of my time has been spent dealing with the social media output of Hull History Centre. Any Twitter or Facebook posts have been primarily co-ordinated by my, and I have learnt a lot about how to use social media to raise engagement and get audiences’ attention. I am happy to say that both platforms have continued to grow and I hope that people have had as much fun reading my posts as I have had writing them.   

Digital Preservation

DROID & PRONOM - Signature files (.fdr)

Towards the end of my traineeship, I assisted in developing a signature file for DROID. Specifically, I was looking into the Final Draft version 7 .fdr file type found in one of the born-digital collections held at Hull History Centre. It is currently unidentified when using DROID, so I followed the guidance set out by the PRONOM team in the ‘How to research and develop signature for file format identification’ and ‘Digital Preservation Technical Paper: Automatic Format Identification Using PRONOM and DROID’ documents as well as referring to Jenny Mitcham’s recent blog post ‘My first file format signature’. By using these, I managed to work out that I needed to open the file in a hex editor (for this I used HxD and FlexHEX) which allows us to look at the actual byte stream of a file. From there, we could start to look at common sequences. I had a selection of Final Draft files to experiment with and I quickly found what I felt was a common sequence between them. At the start of every file it always began with:

FD FD FD FD 00 then three random bytes followed by FF until the bytes corresponding to the ASCI for ‘2 Final Draft, Inc. Final Draft’ in hex.

00 00 00 32 00 00 00 11 46 69 6E 61 6C 20 44 72
61 66 74 2C 20 49 6E 63 2E 00 00 00 0B 46 69 6E
61 6C 20 44 72 61 66 74 00 00 00 00 00 01 00 00

With this I had thought I had cracked it, so I put this information into the PRONOM: Signature Development Utility and generated a signature file. I then installed this into DROID and ran my first test. It failed completely. The files I was testing on were not correctly identified as Final Draft file types. After speaking to the PRONOM team via email, who were incredibly helpful and quick to respond, they managed to help me to write a more accurate signature file. Together we also found more examples of .fdr files to test against the signature. The eventual signature was FDFDFDFD{12-64}46696E616C2044726166742C20496E63.

After finally getting the signature correct and being able to install it into DROID, we had success in identifying the file type. I sent off the signature to the PRONOM team and it will hopefully be added to the next update. There is more than enough for me to write a separate blog post on this, detailing the issues that I encountered during the process, but I shall have to leave it there for now!

Concluding Thoughts

Overall I have had a fantastic time. This traineeship has encouraged me to look into working with archives in the future, and I am leaving this placement for another archives position elsewhere. When I first applied for this job I must confess I had no idea what to expect, but over the last year I have become well and truly enamoured with archives. The digital side of things is still definitely where I want to focus in the future and I intend to develop this experience further. I am definitely sad to go and I wish my colleagues the best of luck to the future. I hope that Cohort 3 come away with as positive an experience as I have had!

David Heelas, Transforming Archives Trainee

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