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21 April 2015

A digital library for the future, in the present

A member of the digitisation team, Jane Aubourg Image: A member of the digitisation team, Jane Aubourg  

In 2013-2015, the AMC's took on the gigantic task of completing the digitisation of a major part of its library collection of scores and audio, as well as its photo archive and a number of its own publications. Funded through a grant from the Federal Government Department of Education and Training, this project has now met its initial goals: the AMC Digital Score Library now houses more than 9,000 scores. Work on a living collection is never complete, however, and some of the tasks undertaken had to do with preparing the music library for future needs. Project coordinator Chris Williams gives us some insight into the many challenges met by the AMC's digitisation team.

Imagine you wanted to turn your personal library into a digital one. Where would you begin? How long would it take? How would you organise the physical books and their digital files? Perhaps there are already e-books available? There would be some immediate, obvious difficulties, but there would also be bigger questions, which go beyond simple praxis. In many cases the answers depend upon what you want to do with your digital library, or what you might want to do with it, and so a little clairvoyance is required. How do you create a library for the future, in the present?

This is a small-scale analogy for the situation in which the AMC found itself when undertaking the Digitisation Project. Some of the challenges were small and practical - what's the best way to scan and store music if its pages are irregular and non-standard sizes? Other challenges were more overwhelming and conceptual. How can we continue providing the services we offer, while completely changing the way these services are managed, with no downtime? How do we adapt to the changing cultural landscape for present demands, and allow enough flexibility for future necessities? What we once wanted on a shelf, we now store as a series of 1s and 0s in various physical and metaphysical locations. What we now want to print and bind, we will one day only download to whatever supersedes the iPad.

In turning the collection digital we are talking about preservation - conservation - but it is also much more about looking forward, about perpetual preparation. This process and development has of course been an ever-present, if not very visible, part of the AMC's ongoing planning for many, many years.

When talking to people about the Digitisation Project, the response was uniformly 'oh, so you're just going to be chained to a scanner'. Now, don't get me wrong, there were plenty of hours chained to our scanners. Lachlan Hughes, Steven Kreamer, Thomas Krizanec, and Scott McIntyre, later joined by Meta Cohen, Elizabeth Jigalin and David Wright, spent many hours scanning score after score, always careful with fragile, sometimes eccentrically constructed, beautifully wrought pages of Australian music. If you want tips on getting clean, clear and straight scans, then these are people you need to talk to. Their efforts were monumental, and they each own a very real part of the history that has been written.

But there are also less obvious, unseen tasks that demand at least as much time and consideration.

Just as your favourite book has a particular smell, a touch - its own personality - so a digital item has special qualities too, be they resolution, compatibility, file size, or what you might want to call 'connectedness'. The idea of the now much-maligned 'metadata' initially emerged from library catalogues, and relates to this last quality. A good library isn't one where books are haphazardly scattered around a room, some out of sight, full of misprints. Similarly, a digital library requires much more organisation that just scanning items. Once you scan a piece of music, what then? It's simply not much use if it sits on a local drive on your computer.

The challenge is not just to replace a physical item with an on-screen replica but to invent a new digital item, with its own digital personality, that fully utilises the possibilities of this new form. It's a process of re-inventing, not replacing, and this has been the challenge at the forefront of planning and implementation for at least the last decade at the AMC.

The scores and the catalogue in the AMC collection form an integrated and sophisticated data-structure, of which our website is the elegant 'front-end'; the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In order to make the most out of this structure, digital scores need to inform and be informed by the catalogue. This is trickier than it sounds.

A single score might exist in several different digital 'ontologies,' each organised in a slightly different way or for a different purpose. The main file and the first point of reference is the Master file. It is designed to be printed and bound at the click of a button, so its layout needs to be exactly right before the file is added to the collection. A separate file is used as the library loan copy - this is the one that will be used if members want to borrow a file. It is security stamped with the library member's name and period of loan, and destroys itself on their computer after this period. Another file is chosen and prepared to be used as an online score sample - this must also be security stamped. At some point in the future, we want all scores available for purchase as e-scores. Another file, with another set of digital qualities is required.

The fluency of accessing the various versions on the AMC site hides this complexity, as it should, but convenience sometimes takes a lot of work.

Time was extremely tight throughout. Somewhat bound by the number of available desks, scanners, and the time period for the project, it became apparent that we needed to increase output, but couldn't do so at the expense of diligence. Simon Chambers, who is also behind the remarkable design of the AMCs catalogue, developed a new system which would automate as many trivial tasks as possible, and allow our digitisation staff members to concentrate on the more nuanced aspects of quality control. The system - a set of scripts - was affectionately named 'mog' (for a very good reason I am completely unable to explain). With little typographical encouragement 'mog' identified newly scanned scores. Sourcing data from the catalogue it then made several templates for covers, disclaimer pages, score samples etc. and updated the catalogue with information about the file. 'Mog' increased what we were able to get through by a factor of 2 to 3.

Charged with the task of ensuring both that every musical work had sufficient and accurate 'digital personality', Peggy Polias, Linda Kirkpatrick, Rebecca Cernec, James Lee and myself were all part of another stage of processing where scans were proofed in their various forms, connected to the catalogue, and sales information added. Forward compatibility is also a major concern through both of these stages. Making sure the files conform to an archival standard (PDF-A) is the digital equivalent of making sure there's no damp in your library that would render your books unreadable in the future.

The final crucial tasks in realising our digital library were undertaken by Judith Foster and Jane Aubourg. At this stage the catalogue information is expanded to fully utilise the complex data model (FRBR conceptual model) which underpins the entire catalogue. This model is becoming widely used in libraries worldwide, but its utilisation for documenting music and related resources is an example of AMC innovation (for more information, see this article). It is the tangible outcome of work over many years and an elegant solution to the multifaceted requirements of digital documentation for music.

It also demonstrates how AMCs previous 'clairvoyance' has paid off. The final steps in the process allow all the work done at previous stages to be made available and accessible both online and internally. This work, in combination with the data model, drives the intuitive but detailed searching capabilities of the online catalogue, as well as optimising AMC content for external search engines. It is here that managing the divestment of physical materials also takes place.

Judith Foster also took charge of the huge task of co-ordinating work hours, desks, and trips to our offsite storage in Balmain to collected bags upon bags of scores for scanning. We were assisted throughout and are perpetually grateful for the help of the AMC's volunteers Eve Salinas and Charles Davidson.

The AMC has undergone remarkable change, shown resilience and adaptability over its 40-year history, but these relocations were very different moves compared to our latest shift 'into the cloud.' What hasn't changed is a single-minded dedication to our members, artists and the Australian cultural landscape. Things may change around it, but this remains as vivid as ever. The Digitisation Project - a huge undertaking - has both laid the foundations for a new way of engaging with Australian artists, and their work, now and into the future, but also captured the tremendous treasure and resource of the AMC collection so that our shared history is a real part of our shared future.

Further links

Digitisation Project 2013-2015 - AMC Online (more information about the project)
'AMC's Digitisation Project - facts and figures' - a summary of the project by John Davis


Chris Williams worked as the project coordinator during the AMC's Digitisation Project. He is also one of the AMC's Represented artists.


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