Melanie Peart is Archives Specialist at BT Heritage & Archives.


BT Archives was set up over 35 years ago to preserve the history of the then recently privatised company, British Telecom.  Now a global telecommunications company, BT has its origins in mid-19th century telephone and telegraph businesses.  Its history includes, amongst many other things, the iconic red telephone box (or more accurately telephone kiosk), undersea cable-laying and memorable advertising campaigns.  So there is a wide and important history which we in the archives team are very keen to preserve and make available.  This includes digital archives as well as physical records and we have been collecting digital material since the 1990s and digitising physical archives for almost as long.

We are now embarking on the next stage of our digital preservation journey by ingesting our existing digital holdings into our digital preservation software.  Prior to this, much work had been done to provide access to digitised material in particular, using first an external project partner and then more recently presenting material on our online catalogue.  In terms of management, we have used our existing collections management system to record administrative and descriptive metadata about all our holdings, physical and digital alike.  And for storage, like many archives, we have used a mixture of network storage, drives and other media.  In anticipation of implementing digital preservation software preparatory work was carried out to sort and arrange digital collections onto a single drive and this curated collection of material is the focus of the current project.  This has all provided very good foundations to work from. 

We are eight months into this project and are seeing very clear benefits.  Most notably, we have been able to ingest the digital assets from two major digitisation projects.  The first took place between 2005 and 2007 and, in partnership with a family history website, we digitised telephone directories dating from 1880 to 1984.  This comprised over 1600 physical items, produced over 1.2 million digital files and over a terabyte of data.  In the 2010s, we worked on the ambitious BT Digital Archives project, partnering with Coventry University and The National Archives to digitise nearly 60,000 physical items, resulting in more than 20 terabytes of data.  Looking at this in terms of digital assets secured, this is clearly a good thing to have done and the statistics are heartening. But looking at it in terms of time expended on these two projects (scoping and setting up the projects, administration and management, retrieving and packaging up all those physical items for sending to external digitisers, checking off the returned items, returning them to the strong rooms…) this becomes even more essential.  Or, to put it another way – would we really want to repeat all that work on items we have already digitised?   

We also have a long-term in-house project to catalogue and digitise our large collection of film reels and videos.  This digitisation programme means that the older recordings are viewable alongside the more recent transfers of digital moving image files.  Or in other words, from my desk I can watch TV advertising from the 1990s just as easily as from the 2010s.  We use specialist software to provide access to this material but now, as part of the digital preservation programme, we are able to store all these files safely, create access copies automatically and start to consider migration.  In particular, we hold original file formats amongst the born digital material which require specific software, so access copies and migration are essential if we in the archives team want to be able to view this material, let alone make it more widely available. 

Preparing our digital assets for ingest means we are also rediscovering material. Very exciting were digital copies of oral histories from the 1980s which were originally recorded onto audio cassette.  The existence of these recordings is documented in our collections management system and had we been looking we would have found them.  But this way we got to rediscover them for ourselves.  Likewise, a diary dating from the 1850s relating to the transatlantic telegraph made itself known during the course of this project via a digital copy. 

Another key feature of our digital preservation programme is that we are taking an integrated collections management approach.  Importantly, we can take metadata compiled in our collections management system and apply it to the digital assets in the digital preservation system.  A nightly update means that the digital preservation system is never more than 24 hours behind in terms of metadata, which is acceptable for our current needs. Having the two systems linked in this way has acted as a catalyst for broader discussions on how we use our different pieces of management software, what data needs to go where and how we can get most value out of each piece of software.  Alongside this, we are also starting to re-evaluate our collections management practices and particularly our digitisation workflows.  Although we know that our thinking will change as we move from the comparatively ordered world of our existing digital holdings and into newly received material, these are important initial conversations which will provide a starting point for future conversations.

So for us the benefits of this stage of our digital preservation programme are clear.  We are able to use knowledge and technology which simply wasn’t available to us when we first began collecting and digitising to safeguard more than two decades’ worth of work.  The questions arising from digital preservation are causing us to have valuable conversations about procedures and software which will lead to us being more efficient.  And, probably most exciting we are rediscovering our collections. 

Comments

BT Archives
9 months ago
Quoting Mandy Bowman:
Hi - I'm looking for someone to provide me with a TXE4 Telephone Exchange diagram, so hoping a contact from the BT Archives can help point me in the right direction!

Many thanks.


Hi Mandy

Thanks for your comment. If you email us at archives@bt.com, we'll be able to help you with your enquiry.

Kind regards

Fahema
Archives Professional
BT Group Archives
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Mandy Bowman
1 year ago
Hi - I'm looking for someone to provide me with a TXE4 Telephone Exchange diagram, so hoping a contact from the BT Archives can help point me in the right direction!

Many thanks.
Quote

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