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Extending the Suffrage:
The Digitisation of The Women's Library Suffrage Banners


Like many political movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Suffragettes and Suffragists made great use of colourful banners in their marches and parades. The illustration below, celebrating the achievements of Florence Nightingale, features one of the banners, probably used in a march of 1908 and organised by the peaceable National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.

Figure 1 - A Suffragette Banner celebrating Florence Nightingale

Figure 1 - A Suffragette Banner celebrating Florence Nightingale

The banners were an important element in the parades the suffrage groups organised. Not only did the banners proclaim a need for change in society's treatment of women, but they also helped distinguish the various splinter groups within the suffrage movement. The banners of the militant Women's Social and Political Union, for instance, had imagery and slogans different from the banners of the non-militant Women's Freedom League.

Unfortunately, many of these banners, woven from a variety of materials - cotton and velvet for instance, often with appliqué lettering - are now in a fragile state. Fifty-one of them found refuge at The Women's Library, London Guildhall University. Their delicate condition meant that the Library had to place these precious documents of woman's political emancipation in storage, away from public view.

The Librarian of The Women's Library, Christine Wise, saw the application of digital technology as a means of solving this problem of access. Creating digital copies of the banners would allow the Library to store and conserve the originals, while presenting, via either the Internet or CD-ROM, digital versions to a wide constituency of interested users. A successful bid to be part of the JISC Image Digitisation Initiative (JIDI) gave the project momentum, providing both the financial assistance and technical advice needed for a digitisation programme such as this. The JIDI project, digitising a number of very different visual collections, was a test project designed to uncover the various difficulties in digitisation.

This case study takes the reader through this process of creating the Suffrage Banners in digital form. In particular, it looks at the work of the project's manager, Ms. Wise, in liasing with the Higher Education Digitisation Service (HEDS). HEDS executed the task of converting the photographs to digital format, a stage in the project that demanded close collaboration between the digitising service and its client, and a stage that provides a good example of the responsibilities that others considering digitisation will have to assume.

Selecting the Material

While there are normally good aesthetic or intellectual reasons for digitising historical material, more practical considerations also affect which objects librarians choose to digitise. In the case of The Women's Library, a previous project (executed in the summer of 1992) had already made a photographic record of all of the banners, and the Library was therefore in possession of 6cm by 6cm colour transparencies on which the digitisation could be based. Thus there was no need to expose the banners to the risky process of being photographed, where bright lighting and handling could have caused further damage. Documentation accompanying the original photographs also promised to lighten the Library's task in terms of cataloguing.

The breadth of the Library's collection meant there was plenty of contextual material that could also be digitised. Documents relating to the suffrage marches were selected for digitisation so to position the banners in an historical context. Additionally, an album of watercolour sketches for the banners, by Mary Lowdnes, was to be digitised. The Women's Library had the advantage that its parent university, the London Guildhall University, already owned the copyright of much of the material to be digitised. Organising copyright is usually one of the most frustrating and lengthy aspects of such a project, but in this case it was dealt with reasonably quickly. Where there was any ambiguity over the rights to publish, as with a small number of images in the Mary Lowndes album, the Library decided to withdraw them from the project.

The Process of Digitisation

Once the material to be digitised had been selected, The Women's Library could begin working with HEDS, the Higher Education Digitisation Service. By providing the service of converting data to electronic form, HEDS aims to relieve project managers from dealing with the complex technical details of digitisation. However, the project manager is still very much involved in the process. There were a number of procedures that required the input of Ms. Wise, from the delivery of the objects to validating the digitised versions. The important steps in this process are detailed below.

1) Taking Samples and Choosing Formats

Services such as HEDS can only perform digitisation with knowledge of how the client wants the end-product to appear, e.g. what types of formats are needed, where the images will be disseminated (on the web or on CD-ROMs, for example) and what resolution is required. For The Women's Library, this issue was partially simplified by standards arranged for the JIDI projects as a whole. These standards were decided after an initial sampling project, which included an examination of nine of the three hundred photographs that the library wanted to be digitised. Variables agreed upon included filesizes, filename conventions, colour depth, handling requirements, and resolution. The master images were to be of a very high resolution (2400 dots per inch - 600 dots per inch is usually considered a high enough resolution for a quality printout) and produced in the tagged image file format, or TIFF, the industry standard for most types of master images. Besides these, HEDS was to deliver to The Women's Library:

2) Agreeing Contracts

It is normal for HEDS to offer its clients numerous estimates, all dependent on the quality (in terms of colours, resolution etc.) at which the material will be digitised. However, as mentioned above, much of this was already determined by standards adopted for the entire JIDI initiative. Agreeing a contract between HEDS and The Women's Library was therefore a more routine process than other projects can be. Nevertheless, it was still essential to have a detailed contract, accompanied by service level agreements. The standards agreed upon in the sampling process are an integral part of this, and provide the client with the reference point for the final set of checks. It was also agreed (as an integral part of the JIDI philosophy) that HEDS would not alter the digitised data in any fashion. For other clients, HEDS can manipulate the digital version to provide images that are clearer than the original, but for the JIDI project it was decided to maintain the integrity of the source material. The contract also included more familiar aspects of a business deal - the cost, the timescale, and The Women's Library assuming all responsibility should any unforeseen copyright problems arise.

3) Inventories and Transportation

For any digitisation project, it is vital that HEDS has a detailed inventory of the objects they are receiving, as this will be the basis of the file-naming conventions they use, as well as providing a checklist of the objects being sent. So before The Women's Library delivered the watercolours and surrogate photographs, Christine Wise had to formulate an inventory and label each of the objects. Carefully packing the material was also part of this process. For delivering the photographs of the banners, the Fawcett Library simply used registered mail. In the case of more fragile material, HEDS recommends using its own door-to-door courier service, although for some original documentary material Ms Wise preferred to bring and return them in person.

4) Quality Assessment

Although HEDS deploys considerable expertise in the digitisation process, the client must nevertheless acquire a reasonable level of technical know-how so she can conduct her own independent quality assessment. For the client, this happens at the start of the project, during the initial sampling, and at the end, when the final digitised images are presented. In the case of The Women's Library, its participation in the JIDI initiative meant that the Library could rely on an expert appointed for that task. However, training offered within the JIDI scheme gave Christine Wise the skills to conduct much of the quality assessment herself. This involved comparing the digitised copies of the banners to the originals in terms of colour, orientation, and resolution. Testing was complemented by checks on other aspects of the digitised data - that the data was fully readable, that the filenames were all following the specified conventions and that all the technical specifications were correct.

The Women's Library suffered from one particular problem while executing this task. While Ms. Wise had learnt the appropriate techniques for judging the finished digital data, the Library lacked the immediate availability of the hardware needed to examine the images. Because the size of each master image was so large (the 298 images arrived on roughly 50 CD-ROMs), they required advanced technology to be loaded up and checked, which lengthened the quality assessment process. One should point out, however, that this problem only related to the TIFF versions; the web images (in the JPEG format) are very much smaller, and easier to analyse and deliver quickly over the web.

5) Documentation and Metadata

When an object is digitised it requires the addition of both documentation and metadata. Metadata allows users to search for and locate the precise images they want. Documentation provides additional information which notifies the user how exactly the process of digitisation was carried out, plus any other miscellaneous details relevant to the object. Technical documentation should always be provided by the experts that performed the digitisation; in this case, the documentation was supplied by HEDS. Metadata should be supplied by those knowledgeable about the actual objects themselves, in this case Christine Wise, and her colleagues Penny Martin, Curator of Special Collections, and Afsaneh Noorparvar, former Library Assistant at The Women's Library. Metadata is basically electronic cataloguing; without sufficient metadata users will be unable to find the images they are interested in. A database was therefore developed from the previous inventory, with fields detailing, for example, the title, date, creator and material of each banner. The table of metadata below refers to the Florence Nightingale banner pictured earlier:

Figure 2 - Metadata for the Florence Nightingale banner

Figure 2 - Metadata for the Florence Nightingale banner

6) Other Responsibilities

Issues specific to the Suffrage Banners had to be discussed. In order to reduce file size, HEDS suggested cropping the images by removing some of the blank space around the banner, and thus shortening the pole that held the banner in place. Ms. Wise, wanting to retain the integrity of the original photograph and the dimensions, "look and feel" of the original object, decided against this. While the digitisation of the Suffrage Banners was part of the JIDI scheme, the final responsibility for the project rested with Christine Wise, and it was, and is, HEDS policy to respect such curatorial decisions.

Delivering the Images

The Women's Library hopes to see the digitised Suffrage Banners on the website of VADS in the latter stages of 2001. Discussions with VADS are predominantly centred on the extent of public access to the digitised banners. The Women's Library is keen to permit academic study of the banners, and will consider unrestricted public viewing access in the future. VADS and the Fawcett Library are therefore discussing the best method for organising this form of delivery. Each of the images on the VADS sites will be accompanied by the metadata created by Christine Wise, Penny Martin and Afsaneh Noorparvar.

However, the Library does have other strategies for providing public access. The new Women's Library building, set to open in autumn 2001, will have a purpose-designed case to display fourteen suffrage banners from the collection at any one time. This will be accompanied by a database for visitors to explore the entire collection of Suffrage Banners - those on display, those being conserved, those still waiting for conservation work - developed using the images created by HEDS. The Library is also considering plans to publish a CD-ROM containing the images of the banners and related information - eventually, The Women's Library banners will be available in at least three different formats, via the Internet, the exhibition space and CD-ROM. Digitisation may not quite be the force of democracy that the Suffragettes were, but in its ability to extend access to a larger audience there are echoes of the aims of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst and their sisters.



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