BCLA Perspectives

Digitized Okanagan History: Collaborating to build a regional digital repository

Since its inception in 2016, the Digitized Okanagan History project (https://doh.arcabc.ca) has enabled repositories throughout the Okanagan and adjacent regions to participate in an initiative to provide online access to digitized copies of their unique historical resources. The Digitized Okanagan History project (D.O.H.) is comprised of a network of partnerships between and among the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus library and twenty-two memory institutions throughout B.C.’s southern interior. Coverage includes the Shuswap, Okanagan, Similkameen, and Boundary regions of the province. The D.O.H. web portal, hosted by Arca, B.C. Electronic Library Network’s province-wide network of institutional repositories, currently includes over 40,000 indexed and searchable digital items.

Armstrong Spallumcheen Museum and Arts Society. Derailed steam locomotive 474, east of Armstrong (1914) https://doh.arcabc.ca/islandora/object/arms:1291

Armstrong Spallumcheen Museum and Arts Society. Derailed steam locomotive 474, east of Armstrong (1914)

Abundance has been a common theme throughout the life of the project. There has been no scarcity of material, tasks, opportunity, or potential. Preliminary data gathered from institutions initially interviewed in 2016 suggested the existence of approximately 200,000 archival photographs that could be candidates for project inclusion; this figure did not include textual archives, maps, newspapers or other formats.  Since that time, the project’s geographical scope has expanded deeper into Similkameen and Boundary and the number of participating partners has grown, and consequently this number is likely significantly underestimated. Even at the time of initial reporting, over half of the nearly quarter-million photographs identified were indicated as having already been scanned for in-house use.

As anyone familiar with digitization can attest, it is the process of digital conversion to high quality specification that is often the most time consuming. A close second is the development of original metadata. D.O.H. has been generously funded to carry out this project, but resources require prudent management; after all, our prime directive is to build and sustain an online presence for these objects to support access. For this reason and to maximize the volume of material to be made available in the D.O.H. portal we decided to advantage these already-digitized objects, and to include, where they existed, any prepared descriptions. In doing this, we have magnified the reach of the digital objects prepared by the repositories and operationalized the work already completed by our partners, making our roles and areas of expertise mutually complementary.

While various aspects of the project, particularly the management of the volume of material and the determination of an identity for the site, have evolved over time, what has remained consistent has been our focus on the active cultivation of relationships with our partner organizations so important to the early success of D.O.H. Through frequent trial, and occasional error, we have moved to a partnership model that is gaining maturity and promoting capacity beyond its initial intent and will undoubtedly continue to evolve over time. This article briefly describes our attitude toward, and strategies for, active collaboration.

Armstrong Spallumcheen Museum and Arts Society. Armstrong High School ice hockey team, 1921-1922 (1922)

Armstrong Spallumcheen Museum and Arts Society. Armstrong High School ice hockey team, 1921-1922 (1922)

Three major components compose and define the workflow for D.O.H.: contributing repository, student team, and coordinating archivists. The pivot connecting these components is an active, ongoing dialogue and a spirit of cooperation and common cause. These three aspects were conceived of implicitly at the outset, but as the project has developed, the value of articulating the roles and the contributions of each toward the project’s ultimate output has become more apparent. We have each respectively settled into a groove determined by capacity and enthusiasm associated with our respective roles, which, taken together clarify the guiding principles of the project. For example:

As archivists in an academic setting, we have the capacity to leverage the infrastructure and stability of the University as an institution. Specifically, we have access to sustainable, standards-based digital tools and consortial relationships. Complementing that, we have the enthusiasm and skills for developing mechanisms for the representation, discoverability, and preservation of complex archival structures in the electronic environment.

The repository partners have exercised (and often exceeded) their capacity to preserve and manage physical archival materials over the long term in their individual organizations. Repositories bring additional capacity, intersecting with their enthusiasm and passion for community history, in deep contextual knowledge of their holdings and in a strong culture of volunteerism and community involvement.

The student team has capacity to build the bridge between repository inputs, and archivist outputs in their dedicated time spent digitizing, editing, and contributing to metadata development. As students, they have enthusiasm for paid work opportunities and resume-building, and in the case of the graduate co-op, the work corresponds to academic interest and career preparation.

It is notable that partnerships for D.O.H. extend beyond the repository-student team-archivist dynamic. As much as this project brings together inputs from multiple sources, it in turn, benefits from being one of many partner repository sites aggregated by Arca to ultimately provide the basis for a B.C. Digital Library. D.O.H. derives significant benefit from participation in a community of practice that seeks to define common best practices and strategies for the management of digital repositories, and from the technical support provided by Arca.

The net effect of this multi-faceted collaboration model as adopted by D.O.H. is a project very much reliant on interdependence; if any one element were to be removed from the equation, the initiative would suffer. Each role is invested in different ways in both the process and the product, and is success is necessarily founded in mutual trust.

This sense of mutual trust so important to the success of D.O.H. was neither automatic nor guaranteed, but was rather incremental, contingent, and always carefully protected. As much as we can model and plan for this idealized concept of trilateral partnership in flowcharts, staffing plans, and portal design schemas (and indeed we have), without the consent and buy-in of the contributing repositories, results would have remained hypothetical. We began this project by approaching repositories, unsolicited, and asking them to trust us despite having little tangible to demonstrate the projected outcome. The balance of unknowns overwhelmed certainties. Uniformly, a warm, active, more “hands-on” approach to connecting proved effective and this resulted in many phone conversations and outbound trips from campus out to participating institutions. The human dimension of this project is at least as important as the technical.

Peachland Museum, Woman in a buggy (1905) https://doh.arcabc.ca/islandora/object/peach:129

Peachland Museum, Woman in a buggy (1905)

One of the most effective approaches to trust building and encouragement of project participation was the conscious decision from the outset to lower barriers to potential partner participation. As a result, in our first collection season (summer 2017) we packed up our mobile digitization lab and met our partners, in their own museums and archives, and asked for nothing apart from a pulled box or two of candidate materials and a little space. Positive response exceeded expectations. Our partners graciously invited us into their spaces and we were often overwhelmed by their generosity in hosting the student team overnight on multi-day visits. These outbound trips emphasized the human aspect of this project, and more than putting names to faces, put people in places. Additionally, it dramatized a recognition of a mutual goal in building the visibility of community heritage.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that we did not encounter some misapprehension or that the services offered by the D.O.H. were a perfect fit for every repository. When initially approached prospective projects expressed some concern about the potential loss of control of digitized archival objects on the web, anxiety over possible reduction in foot traffic, and a categorical wariness of the motivation of a large institution in providing coordination for the project. In response, we have emphasized flexibility and inclusivity, and incorporated feedback to the greatest extent possible. This has resulted in several responsive measures aimed at dismantling real or perceived obstacles. One example of this involved the revision of our partnership statement, emphasizing simple language and clarifying lines of ownership and control. Another has been support for flexible timelines and phased subprojects tailored to the seasonal staffing and often limited operational hours at smaller museums and archives. Still another has been reflected in portal design that positions archival materials in the context of their repository origin and includes item-level repository attributions. The net effect of many of these countermeasures has been the positioning of project management in a role or broker rather than dictator.

The pursuit of collaboration and relationship building in a project like this is neither effortless nor without cost; developing truly effective partnerships is a daunting goal requiring persistence, organization, skill, and time. However, when this is recognized, adequately supported and intentionally executed, our experience suggests that the positive impacts of investing in this work are well worth the effort. Not only did the trust developed as part of this initiative make more institutions more enthusiastic about participating but it also enabled some increased efficiencies by switching from a predominantly in-situ scanning operation to a model in which most repositories sent their materials to the UBCO campus in Kelowna for digitization. This flexibility to move between operational models will be particularly important as D.O.H. transitions into more of a maintenance mode. Looking forward the D.O.H. will have to rely increasingly on the ability of repositories themselves to create digital copies of their own materials and provide the associated descriptive information which will be transferred to UBCO for upload. This requires investing in support materials and training for project partners and this is the goal for the summer of 2020.

For D.O.H., active collaboration has been both a means and an end. On one hand the relationship building that has been actively pursued as part of this initiative has been important in encouraging as many institutions as possible to participate in order to create a comprehensive digital repository to provide access to a wide, and growing, cross section of unique historical resources. The community collaboration arising from D.O.H. will also inform and provide a foundation for future developments. Even with plans to begin to wind down the active phase of D.O.H. , there are simultaneously, plans to adapt, scale, and replicate the project in several new directions: First, into new locales in the Columbia and Kootenay regions; Second, beyond archival materials in collecting repositories toward systematic digitization of Okanagan regional newspapers; Third, into the private domain with the launch of a Community History Digitization Station in conjunction with UBC Okanagan’s Innovation Library, and with support from the Okanagan Historical Society, Kelowna Branch. All three of these new areas of expansion will most certainly benefit from the lessons learned by D.O.H. about partnerships.

Building effective collaboration is not costless and must be approached with intentionality. It is our hope and sense that the investment made in relationship building and collaboration has been worth it for D.O.H. proper and that this will also provide the foundation for additional cooperation and networked development in the regional heritage community going forward.