The National Library of Ireland (NLI) is home to collections that record the memory of Ireland. This includes extensive visual collections in the form of prints, drawings and ephemera. The NLI also holds the world’s largest collection of photographs relating to Ireland, in a variety of formats from daguerreotypes to chromogenic processes. But what about the contemporary visual record, Irish born digital photography?

In order to develop our capacity to collect, preserve and share Irish heritage, which is now in digital form, the library has commenced a series of three pilot projects focused on unpublished born digital collections. These originate from diverse sources representing contemporary Irish life. Late in 2019 bestselling Irish author Marian Keyes donated the archive of her novel, The Mystery of Mercy Close and we look forward to announcing the third donor later this year.

Preservation of digital photography: advocacy and collaboration

Our work on the three pilot projects includes developing our capacity to preserve the visual record in digital form and in a broader context, advocating for digital preservation across key communities. Ensuring long term access to Irish born digital photography or indeed what we can just call today “Irish photography” cannot be achieved by any single sector acting alone. The visit of Matthew Burgess, Digital Collections Analyst, State Library of New South Wales, (SLNSW) as part of his overseas research travel project provided an ideal opportunity for us to raise awareness and begin important conversations about the vulnerability of Irish photography, the need for digital preservation and the role that all involved can have. This was our motivation to run an event last September called Digital Photography: Create, Curate and Save. Aimed at photographers, curators, photo historians, librarians and archivists, it featured speakers from across these communities and provided an opportunity for everyone to gain insight into each other’s roles and concerns in order to build awareness of how, together, we can further longer term preservation of Irish photography. Matthew was the perfect keynote speaker to address all the various stakeholders. Originally a photographer himself Matthew now works as Digital Collections Analyst at SLNSW and his talk covered preservation of photography ‘from creation to the archive’, touching on file formats, checksums, file naming, and metadata. As with all digital collections he emphasised the importance of engaging with creators (photographers) as early as possible, which was our rationale for including the creative community itself in the event both in terms of speakers and those attending. Uniquely placed to describe ‘what photographers need to think about’ Matthew also considered the role of the collecting organisation, which, for the NLI is to share the story of Ireland with the world though our unique collections.

Sinead Curran, photographer and lecturer at the School of Creative & Digital Media, Technological University Dublin, considered digital preservation issues from both the perspective of practicing photographer and educator of photographers. The challenges facing national photographic organisations in relation to historic and contemporary photographic collections were addressed by Elizabeth Kirwan, curator of Photographs at NLI, who considered the value of photography for identity, memory and history and Trish Lambe, Gallery of Photography Ireland, who identified the ever present challenges to sustaining digital preservation, i.e. resources, skills and long term funding. Photo historian and librarian at the National Museum of Ireland, Orla Fitzpatrick, introduced the issue of photo sharing sites and the risk of loss of these and also user generated responses to photography on social media sites. This issue surfaced again later that autumn when the DPC Bit List included Born Digital Photographs and Video shared via Social Media or Uploaded to Cloud Services on its endangered list. The OAIS model was introduced to the captive audience (!) but hopefully not in too heavy handed a way in order to illustrate that the roles of creators (photographers), users (photo historians, curators, researchers) and collection managers (librarians, archivists, digital preservationists) are all essential to ensuring long term access to digital photography and that, as identified by several speakers, it is essential to work collaboratively to achieve the goal of ensuring Irish photography is available for the future.

The other speaker at Create, Curate and Save was photographer Karl Hayden who spoke passionately about his own personal photographic collection and how this has led him to the realisation of the need and importance of digital preservation. Video producer and archive team co-ordinator for Yes Equality, the organisation that led the nationwide campaign to secure a yes vote in Ireland’s 2015 marriage equality referendum, Karl was instrumental in ensuring preservation of its visual record, keeping the collection safe and ensuring it could be passed on.

Born Digital Pilot Projects and photography

Last week the NLI announced the donation of the second collection as part of our born digital pilot projects with the acquisition of the Yes Equality Visual Archive comprising over 6,000 photographs by Paul Sharpe, commissioned for the campaign. Presented by co-directors, Gráinne Healy and Brian Sheehan, these images document various aspects of the campaign, including activities that tell the personal stories of campaigners and their families and friends, voting day, and post-result celebrations. How creators such as Karl Hayden can also be powerful and essential advocates and agents for preservation could not be better illustrated than by the acquisition of this collection.

The library has workflows for outputs from our well established digitisation programme and over 680,000 images are currently manged in our Samvera digital repository. However acquiring digital images created externally offers new challenges at all stages of the digital lifecycle. At the moment we are using Siegfried to identify the file formats in the Yes Equality collection. Key questions for us are around how the photographer’s intent, the context of the collection and the extent of processing have implications for appraisal and ingest. Another issue likely to emerge regarding descriptive metadata is how to distinguish images which are very alike. The effort involved in creating a glass plate negative is a world away from the ease with which a photographer can create multiple, almost identical digital photographs. We would love to hear from anyone working on preservation of digital photography so that we can learn from your experiences of dealing with of any of these challenges. Susan Sontag said that with photography one can’t possess the future but one can poses the past. Our goal working with Irish born digital photography is to make sure that the public can always possess that past.

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