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.