Digitisation Pilot

To inform our preparation for the digitisation of some SJAC holdings, in January we spent two weeks working on a small-scale pilot project.   Selected professional and personal papers of leading luminary of the Edinburgh Jewish Community in the early twentieth century, Rabbi Dr. Salis Daiches were scoped, catalogued, scanned and the accompanying metadata created.   Daiches was Minister of the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation from 1919 until his death in 1945. He played a leading role in a variety of Jewish religious, Zionist, charitable, cultural and social organisations, and was instrumental in improving Jewish-Christian relations, explaining and defending Jewish belief and custom.   Documents therefore reflect the prolific spectrum of his commitments.

The main purpose, however, was to identify and resolve any potential challenges, to provide insight into process and workflow, inform equipment and software selection, and to ensure our output conforms with interoperable standards.   The pilot was a highly collaborative endeavour: first the box of historical sources was worked up by an enthusiastic and incredibly able postgraduate student of Archives Studies; the National Library of Scotland were involved in advising on technical settings and metadata formats, and optimising the online discoverability of uploaded images.  New College Library, University of Edinburgh, kindly permitted us use of their sophisticated Book Scanner, and extended me a very warm welcome during my fortnight’s presence in their offices.

The pilot certainly flagged up many unforeseen challenges: the first day or so was spent navigating operating manuals to discover how to optimise the equipment’s potentiality and streamline workflow. I quickly learned to save my scans at regular ten minute intervals – and heed the recurring timeout warnings – after I returned from a tea break to find a morning’s work had heartbreakingly vanished! Light was a further issue, and patient experimentation with document positioning and scanner settings was necessary to ensure legibility and minimise reflection and glare: only after completing the pilot did I discover that the shadow-inducing V-shaped book cradle (designed with the support weighty hardback volumes in mind) could actually be removed!   Some of Daiches’ letters were heavily folded and the scanner offered no flat glass plate which might be lowered to flattened the paper.   The improvised use of wooden snakes – and subsequently cropping the beaded borders from the page in Photoshop – was therefore necessary as the scanner was unaccompanied by editing software.

Despite these obstacles, by the end of the pilot, I had nevertheless evolved a reasonably efficient workflow and was consistently producing scans of a readable quality. Grappling with these various challenges (perhaps arising largely from my technical ineptitude) increased my competence in my own ability to identify innovative and iterative workarounds. The digitisation pilot revealed which criteria are most important in scanner selection, and awakened me to just how much forethought the process of digitisation demands.

paper weights

Folded letter weighted with wooden snake

Theatrical families: interview with Edna Cates


Edna Cates, niece of Avrom Greenbaum.  Copyright © 2016 [Deborah Butcher]. All Rights Reserved.

Acting means living, it’s all I do and all I’m good at.   If I weren’t getting paid well, I would still be acting in a small troupe somewhere’ is how Morgan Freeman voiced his passionate and prideful dedication to his craft.   Cast alongside Freeman and fellow Hollywood great Danny De Vito, the Glasgow-born Michael Cates was once lingering on the shaky precipice of stardom before the wheel of fortune took a calamitous turn when an untimely car accident involving Freeman resulted in the film’s cancellation.   Although his elusive celebrity ambitions were cruelly dashed, Michael’s natural talent has indeed transported him across the Atlantic to tour with the innovative, award-winning Blue Man Group.   That he was destined to tread the boards is however unsurprising, for his mother Edna (maiden name Green) was the niece of the phenomenal playwright and founder of the Jewish Institute Players, Avrom Greenbaum.

Edna initially agreed to an interview to shed some light on the creative legacy of her uncle to theatre national and local, and to reflect also on his personal contribution to the company and wider community.   His one act plays (ranging from the hilarious Watch on the Clyde to the more sombre Bread of Affliction about a Russian Pogrom) and poetry coincide with many of the themes of ‘Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces’ project: the dramatic performance of a distinctly Scottish-Jewish identity, the artistic expression of diasporic experience, and the transformation of Scottish urban landscapes into real and imagined Jewish cultural spaces.

Her testimony enlivens my understanding of the various memory objects – theatre programmes, photos, postcards and ephemera – lodged at the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre.   She articulates what involvement with the Players meant to those, like herself, happy to devote much of their leisure to learning lines and perfecting performances. She touches upon the group’s role in facilitating and reshaping relations within the Jewish community – revealing that many of the Players met or got to know their future spouses at club rehearsals – as well as the interplay between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities through the collaborative involvement of the troupe in the 1940s Unity Theatre.

A charming and highly self-deprecating, natural raconteur, Edna is effortlessly able to weave details both humorous and touching into an engaging and extraordinarily candid life narrative.   Echoing Freeman’s love of acting, she wistfully recalled her own youthful aspirations:

All throughout school there was nothing I ever wanted to do except being on stage. I was the class clown.’

Passing the King’s Theatre in Glasgow as an ambitious schoolgirl, she confidently assured her friends ‘I’ll be there one day!’   Although breaking into the highly competitive professional theatrical world ultimately proved an unattainable dream– hindered by the lack of local Drama College and daunted by the prospect of forsaking family to relocate to London in uncertain pursuit of fame and fortune – Edna nevertheless enjoyed what she recalls as ‘a wonderful experience’ with the amateur yet highly acclaimed Jewish Institute Players.

Unassumingly, she attributes much of her success to invaluable encouragement of her pre-eminent and inspirational uncle – ‘Uncle Abie’ she affectionately calls him – who recognising her talent, secured parts for her in numerous plays. While still a girl she landed a small part in the festival-winning production of The Dybbuk, in which Ida Shuster topped the bill as Leah, and at the tender age of 14 she was cast as the lead in Dear Ruth.   She also played the bride in Blood Wedding and counts Café Crown, Winter’s Journey and The Dream amongst the highlights of her varied theatrical career.   Active also behind the scenes, she tried her hand at directing Morning Star and Brighton Beach Memoirs during the 1980s, and served on the committee of the Greenbaum Players (as they became known following Avrom’s death) when the company relocated to Coplaw Street.

Edna spoke adoringly of the Uncle Abie she remembers as ‘so clever, modest and quiet.’   ‘He had these fantastic eyes’ she mused ‘you just listened to every word, and just a wonderful sense of humour.’     Watching Edna captivatingly holding court, regaling us with a delightful selection of annecdotes of mishap and mayhem – untimely curtain closures, actors appearing late on stage, bungled and improvised lines – it is striking how many of her uncle’s qualities she shares.   The intergenerational legacy of the Greenbaums, happily, lives on!