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"It’s incredible how diverse this heritage is!"

In the spotlight Geschreven op 13 Dec 2023

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 Sophia Rochmes, project manager for newspaper digitisation at the Flanders Heritage Library.

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

I’m the project manager for newspaper digitisation at Flanders Heritage Libraries, where we have extensive knowledge about the landscape of newspaper collections in Flanders and Brussels. We’ve been working closely with organisations that preserve newspaper heritage for many years. Within the newspaper part of the GIVE project, we were responsible for selecting the newspaper titles and preparing them for transport.

Why do you think digitising newspapers is so important and valuable?

Newspapers are an indispensable source for historical research and they speak to a wide audience. But they are not made to last forever; the acidification of the paper makes them very fragile, and copies from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in particular are very vulnerable. Every time they are handled they can suffer from damage, and even if they are'nt consulted the condition of the newspapers deteriorates. Digitisation is the solution that can save these resources for the future. It also has the added benefit of making them more accessible and usable for a larger audience.

What impact do you hope the GIVE project will have?

Of course I hope that the digitised items will be widely used and lead to more research and new knowledge.

Flemish newspaper heritage is currently spread across dozens of organisations.

In particular, I hope that the GIVE project can be a catalyst and inspiration for a coordinated mass digitisation of all these historical newspapers.

What challenges did you encounter in your work on the project, and how did you deal with them?

At the start of the project, we established some detailed guidelines for registering and packaging the newspapers. Then we came across many exceptional cases. For example, how do you deal with newspapers that have never been cut open so you cannot turn the pages? What should you look out for when digitising editions with non-standard formats, such as fold-out supplements? And how do you register a regional edition of a national newspaper when only the regional pages have been preserved?

All these exceptional cases tested our creativity and flexibility in order to devise specific solutions and adjust the guidelines.

What have you learned or discovered during this project?

It’s incredible how diverse this material is! Even just within Primeur, the newspaper part of the GIVE project, there is enormous variety. We worked with a wide range of organisations from every Flemish province. It’s fascinating to see the diversity within the newspaper collections that these partners preserve, both in terms of content and form. It’s truly a reflection of the diversity of the press in Flanders.

Which collaborations within the project have made the biggest impression on you, and why?

I really enjoyed working with the libraries and archives, and catching a glimpse into their various collections, operations and visions through this project. I’m also impressed by how all these organisations have made time to engage with this project, in addition to their daily and structural activities, in order to grab this wonderful opportunity. Preparing the newspapers for digitisation in particular is a time-intensive but important part of the process. The end result confirms that it was worth all the effort!

What is your favourite newspaper and why?

This a difficult question because there are so many beautiful and interesting objects. However, with my background in art history and my appreciation for all things visual, I have a particular affinity for illustrated weeklies such as Het huisgezin and De kindervriend. But actually, I can’t and don’t want to choose. Every partner in the project owns some real gems, and with every digitised collection I see there are always titles that inspire me. It’s up to the public to discover their own favourites!

Which newspaper do you think definitely still needs to be digitised, and why?

We have digitised a lot of newspapers during the project, but it’s just the tip of a large iceberg. Together with the collection managers, we have identified more than 500 titles, amounting to about 3.3 million pages, that really need to be digitised. The deteriorating material condition of the newspapers, combined with their frequent consultation by researchers, students, heritage professionals and other interested parties, makes digitisation really urgent.

Who do you think benefits the most or is most impacted by the digitisation of heritage objects?

Digitised newspapers attract a broad and diverse audience and are consulted very frequently. They are – of course – an important source of information for scientific researchers, journalists and students. But the largest group of users are those who conduct their own research for private purposes or as volunteers, such as for genealogical research or fact-finding about a historical event for a local historical society.

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?

Try to involve as many potential partners as possible. The largest organisations are often the most well-known and naturally have the most material to digitise in terms of volume. But smaller collections often contain interesting and unique titles that have not yet been preserved anywhere else. You should also pay attention to regional and political diversity when selecting which materials to digitise. That’s crucial for a representative digital heritage collection!

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