In May 2015 I came to the Royal British Columbia Museum as an auxiliary, hired specifically for the Chinese Legacy Initiatives. My role in this project has been digitization—taking an object and making an electronic version of it; transferring the physical into a digital medium.
In terms of content, I digitize those items within the Royal BC Museum and Archives’ collections that embody and exemplify Chinese Canadian heritage in British Columbia, including a diverse assortment of artifacts, photographic materials, audio recordings and video footage. The vast majority of materials I work with are archival documents—records of business transactions, legislative acts, coroner inquests and court transcripts, local publications and newspaper clippings, provincial correspondence and personal letters.
Lifting and lowering the lid of the Epson 11000XL parked at my desk, carefully preparing, positioning and scanning hundreds of pages a week may seem ‘on paper’ (pun intended) a sedentary, monotonous and mind-numbing exercise. Thousands upon thousands of pages have coasted over the scanner into file format over the past six months, slotted into hundreds of computer folders as tiff’s, jpeg’s and pdf’s. But please understand, describing my day-to-day job does not do it justice. The introduction of new skill sets has been continuous and energizing, while my creativity, adaptability and inventiveness has been called upon regularly.
Determining how best to approach each accession involves taking into consideration volume, dimension, material make-up and physical condition. While scanning comprises a large portion of my weekly activities, digitizing records on a flatbed is often simply not appropriate.
Beyond learning the intricacies of scanning (resolution specifications, colour settings, histogram adjustments, etc.), it has been necessary to become familiar with the fundamentals of object photography. Images of previously microfilmed collections have been captured using digital microfilm readers. Documents too immense for even the largest improvised platform or wide-angle lens have provided opportunities for tutorials on the museum’s studio vacuum board. A collection of delicate glass plate negatives required the use of a lightbox, positioned under a second mount.
Even scanning, a seemingly straightforward task, has frequently called for imagination. Posing old, awkward adhesive jobs or smoothing a word-obscuring, century-old crease under the scanner lid can take a great deal of manoeuvring and multiple attempts.
A combination of techniques and technologies has often been required to complete the digitization of a single collection. I adapt and improvise (with knowledge of care and handling ever-present!) on an almost daily basis in order to meet the practical realities discovered in each archival file.
And the actual digitization of archival records is only half of it. I have also spent a significant portion of my time preparing the digital scans created for the museum’s online descriptive database—converting, resizing and combining individual files into web-ready collections, uploaded for users to leaf through online. From tutorials in Adobe Photoshop to becoming familiar with the inner workings of the museum’s databases, I have been kept on my toes.
Participating in every phase of digitization during the Chinese Legacy Initiatives—from locating and pulling records from the archives’ stacks to ultimately attaching their newly formed digital counterparts online—has demonstrated just how dynamic and active such work can really be and has proven to be exceptionally rewarding.