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"It’s not just a matter of correct preservation"

In the spotlight Geschreven op 19 Dec 2023
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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 Matti Pen, Preservation and management officer at the Heritage Library KADOC-KU Leuven

Matti Pen

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

I spearheaded the digitisation drive for the valuable newspaper collection at the KADOC-KU Leuven heritage library. I had a multifaceted role: from initial planning to comprehensive follow-up, frequent consultations and even hands-on tasks such as packing. Before the project began, I estimated the number of pages to be digitised and meticulously checked each item for damage. During the project itself, I contributed to the registration of the objects in the AMS registration system. I also carefully packaged the newspapers, coordinated their transport, and communicated with meemoo and other partners. Finally, I introduced interns from Flanders Heritage Library to KADOC’s magnificent collection and assisted them with tasks related to digitisation.

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

Digitisation is truly essential for old newspapers. We’re dealing with fragile materials, so there’s always a risk of damage whenever they’re consulted. That’s why we chose to digitise titles like De Volksmacht. These newspapers are frequently requested in our reading room, but due to the fragility of the paper, they’re highly susceptible to new damage.

It’s not just a matter of correct preservation. We’re seeing an increasing demand from users and researchers for digital copies. A digital copy is much more than an image. Thanks to OCR (optical character recognition, a technique that recognises text and saves it as an extra layer), you can search for specific words. This means you can quickly get results about people, places or events without having to read every article.

Digitisation is a key part of our operations at the heritage library, and projects like this allow us to digitise and showcase our larger collections.

What impact do you hope the GIVE project will have?

Projects like GIVE enable us to make significant strides in the digitisation of our heritage. Projects like this are vital for digitising larger collections, especially for institutions that may not always have the resources, like ours. Looking at this project in a broader context, I hope it contributes to raising awareness among a wider audience about the utility and necessity of digitisation, and that it broadens the concept of ‘newspapers’ beyond just the well-known dailies.

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

To ensure everything ran smoothly, it was crucial to have a very accurate estimate of the number of pages to be digitised. I haven’t had to use a calculator so much since my school days, but guesstimating wasn’t an option here.

And even though we have limited resources and manpower as a heritage library, we still opted to digitise the maximum possible number of pages in this project. Our day-to-day work still continued in the meantime, however, and I was also involved in another project, so it was a challenging puzzle to plan all my time properly.

What have you learned or discovered during this project?

It was a real eye-opener to see how much work goes into a project of this scale. Registering the newspapers in the system is the most important and time-consuming task, but it’s also the most repetitive. Preparing for the registration and packaging the newspapers for transport were much less predictable: transport dates could change, newspapers we had planned for this project were sometimes requested by researchers or users in the reading room, additional checks during registration meant we had to unpack newspapers we had already packed, and so on. Ultimately, I guess you can say this project taught me to always leave room in my schedule for unexpected situations.

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

Our team at KADOC is too small to bring a big project like this to a successful conclusion on our own, which is why we repeatedly called upon interns working at Flanders Heritage Library for help. Around a dozen interns have passed through our doors over the past two years – all of them very enthusiastic individuals who were fully aware of the materials and their assignment. And, despite the solitary and repetitive nature of the registration work, they all approached it with the necessary dedication. They were almost all recent graduates, and they clearly showed they were well-suited to the heritage sector.
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Curious how 630.000 newspaper pages were digitised?

What is your favourite masterpiece and newspaper article, and why?

During the project, the focus at KADOC was really on the cataloguing and digitisation of the newspaper De Volksmacht from the former ACW (this newspaper still appears today under the title Visie, commissioned by the current Beweging.net – ed.). So I have no choice but to highlight this newspaper.

It originates from the Christian workers’ movement and is a crucial part of our collection. It’s also still regularly requested by our readers, which is why it was given absolute priority in the GIVE project.

In terms of content, it largely covers socio-economic themes and the influence that the Christian trade union movement has on them, but there’s also space for domestic and international politics, culture and sports. There is even room for media; in the years that we are digitising, you can see the impact that the rise of television had on families.

Comic strip enthusiasts will also find something to interest them, as the illustrations in the newspaper come from, among others, a young Jef Nys, the artist and creator of Jommeke, and Marc Sleen, the artist and creator of Nero. The Marc Sleen Foundation has been a regular visitor to our reading room for several years in an attempt to compile all these illustrations by Sleen in De Volksmacht and other Catholic weekly magazines.

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

The youth magazine Zonneland is very high on our wish list. It’s an iconic title that has been published for decades and occupies a central place in our collection (Zonneland has been appearing weekly since the 1920s and still exists today – ed.) We initially wanted to digitise Zonneland as part of the GIVE project. Like De Volksmacht, this involves a huge collection which we ourselves lack the time, resources and manpower for.

We therefore ultimately chose a different title because the majority of our Zonneland collection was still in too good condition. We’re actually a victim of our own methods here: when we receive old magazines in good condition through donations, we always check in our warehouse whether we should replace our current collection with them. We pay the necessary care and attention to this, but it does also mean that we can’t propose such a prominent title for these kinds of projects. We also understand the reasons behind giving priority to the most damaged magazines first, of course, but we still hope we can include Zonneland in a future project.

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

The impact will be greatest for researchers and readers. In particular, there has been a noticeable shift in the audience since the Covid pandemic – with an increasing demand for digitised content. We are struggling to meet this demand, but making these newspapers, magazines and also (image) archives available digitally means we can also use our time and space more efficiently.

I also hope that a wider audience becomes more aware of the richness of our own heritage and the importance of digitisation – because they are all fantastic stories. I have seen for myself how several of our interns looked at the newspapers with great interest and struggled to keep their focus on the cataloguing, rather than read the titles from beginning to end.

I hope that a wider audience becomes more aware of the richness of our own heritage.

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?

Preparation is everything! But a large dose of flexibility is also necessary. Even if you work everything out in advance, you still need to constantly adjust and adapt plans. Be aware that projects such as this require a lot of time and effort. And the repetitive nature of the registration will mean there are moments when you wonder what you have started. But thanks to the support of the project partners, such as Flander Heritage Library and meemoo, you can’t help but look back with satisfaction on the work done.

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