Afterlives of Digitization

Lily Cho (lilycho@yorku.ca), York University and Julienne Pascoe (julienne.pascoe@gmail.com), Library and Archives Canada; Canadiana.org

This paper is based on our commitment to the possibilities of re-thinking the processes of digitization such that digitization does not end with the uploading the scanned object and archivally-mandated metadata. Rather, that point is merely the beginning of the life of any particular digital collection. The ways that any collection is used by academic researchers, community groups, and members of the public should contribute to the processes of digitization. These collections live when they are used and these uses should be reflected in the collection so that other researchers can see and build on this work. Every collection that has been digitized has an afterlife. But how can we use new technologies – in particular, the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) and linked data –  in order to make these afterlives visible and usable? How can we develop infrastructure and protocols so that the metadata lives ?

Our project focuses on building a platform for annotations based around a specific collection of images: the Chinese Immigration records, initially captured by Library and Archives Canada (LAC), and subsequently digitized, preserved and made accessible online by Canadiana. There are approximately 41,000 images in this particular set of archival images that we work with. Canadiana has recently completed the digitization of this collection. Because it is comprised of a nearly complete set of immigration certificates for individual Chinese migrants collected between 1910 and 1953, the collection is particularly rich for researchers working in the area of race, immigration history, and citizenship.

In working with these materials, Lily Cho’s research team has identified several layers of annotations that would be pertinent to this material. For example, the research team has transcribed names of each immigrant on the record. Each image contains two names: the anglicized Chinese name written down by an immigration agent, and a name in Chinese script written by the migrants themselves. In our transcriptions of the first several hundred images, there is no correspondence between the name written by the immigration agent and the name in Chinese script. Because these records were used to identify individual immigrants for the purposes of allowing them to exit and enter Canada (and thus functioning much like a passport for Chinese immigrants who were, during this period, denied the rights of citizenship), this finding radically changes our understanding of how Chinese immigrants navigated racist immigration controls during this historical period. However, there is currently no way for her research team to contribute to the metadata already attached to this collection.

Such contributions to the metadata already in place function as annotations in this project. Working in partnership, Cho and Julienne Pascoe, who has been the Lead Metadata Architect for Canadiana and is now serving as a Digital Archivist at LAC, are developing a platform for supporting annotations for this archive using the Web Annotations standard, the IIIF, and linked data. Canadiana is currently in the process of implementing IIIF as well as the initial stages of developing a data model that would provide the foundation for such a partnership. In short, this project uses IIIF as a framework for enabling open standards for annotations that can then be reused as linked data - all three areas coming together to support the linking, sharing and re-use of metadata.

This paper reports on the progress we have made in developing this platform, and will also briefly outline the possibilities for the use of this platform beyond this specific collection of images. Although museums and archives are under enormous pressure to digitize their collections, and are rapidly in the process of doing so, these digitization initiatives are rarely undertaken in conversation with some of the primary users of these digitized texts and objects: academic researchers. For example, metadata that meets archiving standards is not necessarily useful for researchers, and is often based on hegemonic archival practices that reinforce colonial structures and narratives. At the same time, academic researchers often have resources to contribute to, and enrich, the digitization that has been accomplished as well as facilitate postcolonial interpretations of the archive. This project brings academics and digital archivists together in order to develop protocols so that digitized collections can be dynamically connected to the communities using them. Once digitized, a collection does not need to remain static. It can respond to, and include, the findings of researchers in the community; and these findings could and should be made available to other users of the collection. However, protocols for curating, organizing, and disseminating this information must be developed. This project will use one specific collection, an archive of approximately 40, 000 head tax certificates held by LAC and digitized by Canadiana, as a test case for developing precisely the kinds of protocols that would allow a digitized collection of materials to leverage the findings emerging from people using these materials.