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"Photographs are always subjective views of reality."

In the spotlight Geschreven op 02 Jan 2024
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The GIVE-project is a digitisation effort of impressive proportions: over 800.000 newspaper pages, masterpieces and glass plate photographs were digitised and sustainably preserved. With the help of artificial intelligence, over 130 collections with audio and video received more accurate descriptions, making them more searchable. Impressive results, but the project also initiated intensive cooperation between heritage organisations, experts, technical professionals and more.

In this article, we put the spotlight on the people behind the project. This time, we asked our 10 questions to Willy Van de Vijver, archivist at Mechelen City Archives.

Willy Van De Vijver

Can you tell us about your involvement in the GIVE project and your specific role?

I’m part of the team at the Mechelen City Archives, where I manage the content of our collections, including a vast array of around 22,000 glass plates. We’ve been working with meemoo for quite a while already, so it was a natural step to get involved with the GIVE project.

My role in the project was to oversee and coordinate the preparations and the subsequent digitisation process of our glass plates. This meant guiding all the parties involved and managing various tasks, such as ensuring we had the right packaging materials and organising the practicalities of transportation.

Why do you think digitising the glass plates is so important and valuable?
The Mechelen City Archives has been operating an online image database (www.regionalebeeldbank.be/) for nearly two decades, which has proven to be incredibly popular with the public. These images are not only a hit with history enthusiasts, but also used in academic research and even street art.

The glass plates are a remarkable, largely undiscovered collection of historical images. They are also quite delicate and tricky to handle, and therefore require special care, but the images can be viewed countless times without any wear and tear once they have been digitised.

What impact do you hope the GIVE project will have?

Digitising the glass plates achieves two significant goals. In the short term, we’re making a wealth of historical images accessible to the public. And in the longer term, we’re ensuring the preservation of the original glass plates because they won’t need to be handled so often.

What challenges did you encounter in your work on the project, and how did you deal with them?
Many of our glass plates already had detailed descriptions, which made us want to provide the same level of detail for the newly added plates. But the project’s tight schedule meant we had to scale back this ambition, so we described the new plates with just one or two keywords. We’re planning to expand on these descriptions later, which will be more efficient once we have the digital images to help with identification.

We occasionally come across special, previously unseen photos. Discovering an image like this can offer a fresh perspective or insight into historical events we thought we already understood.

What have you learned or discovered during this project?

Even though we’re already pretty familiar with our image collections, we occasionally come across special, previously unseen photos. These can be of events, places or situations that we knew about from written records but had no visual reference for. Discovering an image like this can offer a fresh perspective or insight into historical events we thought we already understood.

It’s also been enlightening and inspiring to gradually recognise the different ‘styles’ of the photographers, giving us a glimpse into their personalities. This reinforces the idea that all photography – including press photography – is to some extent a subjective portrayal of reality.

Which collaborations within the project have made the biggest impression on you, and why?
The team at meemoo have been very impressive; they’re skilled and passionate organisers, and have been very responsive to our partners’ needs and expectations, collaborative, and flexible wherever possible – all while maintaining high-quality standards. I’ve also been highly impressed by the dedication of our volunteers. Their hard work in preparing and executing the GIVE project – meticulously packing, labelling and describing thousands of glass plates – has been invaluable. We couldn’t have done it without them.

Who do you think benefits the most or is most impacted by the digitisation of heritage objects?
Mechelen City Archives is a public archive, safeguarding collections that belong to the community, so the entire community is the primary beneficiary. These historical glass plates are part of our collective heritage, and digitisation makes them more discoverable, accessible and better preserved for everyone.

Based on your personal experience and expertise, what recommendations would you make to someone who wants to work on a similar project in the future?

It’s actually a no-brainer, so my advice is simple: get involved. For any heritage professional in Flanders, the advantages are obvious. Collaborating allows you to leverage the vast knowledge and expertise of meemoo and other partners, which is perfect for refining your skills.

A project like this also brings economies of scale and the potential to reach a wide audience, all at a relatively modest cost.

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