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Building a Special Collections Resource: A Few Reflections

2013 October 2
by lucinda matthews-jones

The Punch and the Victorian Periodical Press Resource at Liverpool John Moores University was first established in 2008 by Dr Clare Horrocks (Senior Lecturer in Media, Culture, Communication) to provide a repository for the research she conducted on Punch and its contributors for a Curran Fellowship from the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals (RSVP). The Resource not only includes a physical collection of the magazine Punch but also samples of many other popular Victorian periodicals and magazines.  Perhaps the most significant contribution of the Resource though, is The Punch Contributor Ledgers Digital Project curated by Dr Clare Horrocks.

In this blog Dr Clare Horrocks and her colleague from Special Collections, Val Stevenson, will reflect on the processes involved in establishing a Special Collections Resource.

What was the starting point for the project?

CLARE: I first began to research periodicals and their representation of public health debates as part of my PhD. The cartoons and satire of Punch magazine, also known as The London Charivari, are widely known symbols of the Victorian era, making Punch a particularly rich source for studying mid-Victorian life and urban change. In the process of my research I discovered the Punch Library, at the time held at the Harrods offices.  There was such a wealth of source material on the magazine that on the advice of my supervisor and colleague Dr Helen Rogers I chose to focus specifically on this publication.  However, I realised that there was too much material to work within the confines of a PhD and RSVP’s Curran Fellowship enabled me to develop a post-doctoral project identifying the Contributors to the anonymously published magazine. Acknowledging digital advancements that have been made in the Humanities, I was keen that this resource would be fully searchable and accessible outside the confines of LJMU.  This was where my negotiations with Val began. Luckily for me she already had an awareness of my work and so was enthusiastic to support the project.

VAL: I first heard Clare talking about Punch at an LJMU Teaching and Learning Conference. Like most non-specialists I had a general awareness of the content in Punch but had not realised what an important historical resource it is. At that talk, a member of LJMU staff from Midwifery expressed interest in using the archive with her students for the history of public health, and I realised that Punch could appeal to a much wider readership than researchers in English and History. When Clare came to us to explain the first iteration of a project bid using the contributor ledgers, I could visualise immediately what an online resource might look like, but knew it might take quite a lot of hard work and perseverance to realise that vision.

What were the benefits of running the Pilot project first?

CLARE: In December 1842 Bradbury and Evans became sole owners of the magazine, introducing the Contributor Ledgers in 1843 which started to detail who were regular contributors on the salaried staff, the title and length of their work for each week. Given the anonymous authorship characteristic of much of the periodical writing of the Victorian period, this project, in identifying these contributors, will, for the first time, provide crucial data for understanding not only the character of the magazine but also the social network of writers and illustrators who worked in the literary marketplace of the nineteenth century. However, I needed to be able to convey this to potential funders and capture the contribution that the project has to offer. There have actually been three versions of the pilot as we have gone for funding and in the process of being rejected received excellent feedback to enhance the site. As a result of an Early Career Fellowship from LJMU I was able to develop the work we began for the Curran Fellowship and we have over five years of contributor ledgers digitised and transcribed. We are now on the threshold of receiving the final funding we need to transcribe the ledgers through to 1919. Given that the Punch Archive is held in London (now at the British Library, with which this project is partnered) the Punch Contributor Ledgers Project provides a crucial resource for international scholars who are geographically removed from the physical archive itself.

VAL: The pilot project allowed us to experiment with the best formats for images, metadata and web pages. Our Metadata Officer, Sheila Welsh, was able to advise on the best way to note transcriptions from the registers in an Excel spreadsheet that can easily be uploaded to Digitool, the proprietary software we use in the library. We were also able to test the search facilities and refine the metadata to ensure the entries were coherent and easy for a non-specialist to use.

How did you decide on Digitool as your choice of repository?

VAL: Digitool is part of our library management system at Liverpool John Moores University. Its primary function is to store fairly stable collections of digital images and it has a number of features built in, such as searching by specific field or keyword, flexibility in the use of different metadata fields for different collections, and a very good image viewer. It does have its limitations but a key advantage is preservation: data is stored and backed up on the university servers and we will be able to migrate the data to new versions of the software or new systems as appropriate. In any technology-based project there are choices to make between different software packages, where to host the project and the costs, both explicit and hidden, of maintaining the project site. We considered several options but issues such as longevity and data security were very important for this project which made it more suitable for a corporate system supported by the university IT services.

CLARE: Certainly Digitool has presented us with many challenges, but being the repository of choice for LJMU libraries, it came with the support of a wonderful team of metadata officers.  When I first started this project I was not at all familiar with the mechanics of bringing a digital project such as this to fruition, however the patience and enthusiasm of the Library team has been crucial in keeping me sane through the different iterations of the pilot project as a result of funding calls.  My advice to anyone is to make the best of your University’s resources, they may not be ideal or the repository software of choice but having an expert technical team behind you is vital to the success of any project.  It is also good to have people who can be objective about the site and enable you to focus on issues such as access and usability more.

Why did you build an accompanying resource site for the project?

VAL: As a librarian, the dissemination of information to the widest possible audience has always been very important. The information contained in the Punch contributor ledgers is extremely valuable but difficult to understand out of context unless you know the topic well. We felt it was essential to provide background and contextual information that would enable anyone who is interested to use the site and learn more about Punch.

CLARE: The Resource site that accompanies the digital project evolved once the physical database and mechanics were established. I was keen to start using Punch more in my teaching but realised that the students needed more information if they were going to get the most out of the information. A JISC funding bid focusing on OER and supporting provision for digital projects gave us the motivations to get the site built and off the ground.  Sadly we did not receive the funding on that occasion, but it certainly stood us in good stead for pitching to our current potential funder.

Why is Teaching and Learning one of your main focuses for what seems like quite a scholarly resource?

VAL: LJMU is a civic university in a city with an enormous appetite for culture and learning. We are keen to reach out to everyone who might be interested in Punch, not just scholars who have privileged access to excellent resources as part of their work. It was important to us that the site would be useful to both specialists in the field and to general users who would like to learn more.

CLARE: In the course of my own research I came to realise what a wealth of material we held in the LJMU Special Collections.  From the Liddell Hart Costume Archive to the Jon Savage Punk Collection, there was so much that could be used on the new Research Methods course I was building. Too often Special Collections and Archives can become relegated to the dusty corners of a library because they are only used by a select few.  Using the material in my teaching was an excellent way to raise the profile of our library at the same time as engaging and inspiring students in ways more difficult to achieve from dry textbooks.  Subsequently I have been looking at the possibility of using students’ work with the archive and digital collection as part of the resources on the accompanying project site. We are even liaising with our History department this year to appoint work-based learning students to work on the project.  In this way research can be seen as a transferrable skill that enhances the student experience.

How do you envisage the project developing?

VAL: In the library, we hope to continue working on the digital files and the metadata to build up the content, and to maintain free access to the data. We are very interested to see what use is made of the data and to learn from this so that we can continue to provide added value to it. I would personally like to be able to host some seminars or workshops aimed at general users locally, to showcase the work that goes on in LJMU and raise awareness of the information available to them.

CLARE: Indeed, we are currently in negotiations with Professor Brian Maidment (LJMU, English) to curate an exhibition and symposium on Punch and its predecessors for Autumn 2013 – watch this space! We have now digitised volume one of the ledgers, through to 1848.  LJMU have funded the scanning of volume two of the ledgers, 1848 – 1855, so I will be working on transcribing this while we await the outcome of our recent funding application.  If that is successful, well the sky is the limit really – again, watch this space! I am determined to get funding to bring this project to fruition so I guess only time will tell.  The main thing is raising the profile of the project and getting feedback so that we can continue to improve the interface and contextual resource site.

Is there anything that you would do differently if you were starting the project again? What advice would you give to people looking to create their own digital projects and archives?

VAL: I am a bit of an anorak about this, but careful and detailed project planning is essential. Even at the early stages of the pilot project, we aimed to be realistic about what we could achieve with the resources (both money and time) available. My advice to anyone is to have a clear, well-articulated vision of what you want to achieve, do your best to ensure you have planned in the resources you require to achieve it, and not to give up when there are early setbacks if you really believe in what you are doing!

CLARE: Val isn’t an anorak at all! She has been a tower of strength over the past five years and I certainly couldn’t have managed to get as far as I have without the support she and Shelia Welsh (metadata officer) have offered.  I can’t believe that after all this time we are on the verge of actually getting a full collection launched.  But even if this next funding bid doesn’t come together, we have achieved so much already.  So I guess my final word to any creatively ambitious digital Victorianists out there would be – TENACITY!!

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