By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)
I was recently invited to user-test Wiley Digital Archives’ (WDA) platform which holds digitised archives from various societies including The Royal College of Physicians (RCP), The New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (RGS) and The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI). The WDA platform is a wonderful resource, bringing together numerous collections and enabling cross-referencing across multiple archive collections.
The WDA platform has a pleasing aesthetic (which really does enhance a user’s experience), an easy-to-use interface with relevant category break-down options, and allows for in-text search within images. One feature worthy of note is the “Analysis Hub” option. This feature includes a “charting terms” tool which allows for users to literature search efficiently and provides a broader overview of the type of material in the collection. This is particularly pertinent for researchers working on a new project or working with an archive collection for the first time. Many catalogues that offer digitised material online either do not provide this option or it is embedded within various webpages and takes some digging to be found. Another applaudable feature is the quality of images. Whilst browsing the collections, I found a map entitled “India as described by all authors before the 5th Century”, dated 1745, from the Royal Geographical Society. This map, with a zoom function that retains the quality and clarity of the image, would be useful for those interested in cartographic practices in the eighteenth century and for those interested in histories of history-making and information-producing practices. Images are also provided with an external link to share them with those that may not have access to WDA, (click for access to the map).
A current pitfall of the in-text option is that users are currently unable to search for text within a handwritten manuscript, which can be a real challenge for those who struggle with palaeography. However, Raymond Abruzzi, a publisher at Wiley Digital Archives, revealed that Wiley is experimenting with text recognition, stating that “we are testing Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) component so that the HTR can improve over time. As our current corpus of content features manuscript material heavily, we feel like this is a necessary step in making relevant content more easily discoverable.” Publishers at Wiley Digital Archives hope to begin implementing this technology toward the end of 2020 on discrete batches of content and expanding it gradually. WDA also currently support 115 languages including Arabic, Korean, Hindi, Romanian, Tagalog and Welsh, to name just a few. I was impressed by the language options available including many languages that do not use Romanised scripts. Looking forward, this could allow equal accessibility and enable greater equity within academia, decentring the prominence of European languages as the basis for knowledge-producing.
This all sounds great, but what about accessibility for underfunded universities, colleges and training providers? Wiley currently bases their pricing for their first four collections (see above) on institution types. However, there are no ongoing hosting or subscription fees and Wiley is working with consortia and collective purchasing clubs to increase access. In September 2019, Wiley announced a partnership with Jisc (the UK higher and further education not-for-profit organisation for digital service), the British Science Association, and a number of UK-based university libraries, to create a new model for access to digital archives. Through this partnership, digital collections with materials dating from about 1800 to the 1970s will be free to all UK universities and colleges and, once licences to content expires, will be made available globally password-free.
Lastly, there has been considerable debate over the increasing use of digitised material and what that means for the continued use of physical archives. Criticisms delineate how the limits of digitising, including part-digitisation, confidentiality and copyright issues, could affect the quality and validity of research. However, digitised collections are not substitutes for physical archives, instead they are supplementary systems; offering an alternative for those who are unable to visit archives for a multitude of reasons, from travel costs and locations to time constraints and health issues. In many ways, digital collections can enhance research communities by offering new ways of engaging and reviewing material. For instance, online access to material allows for checking and cross-referencing later, and empowers readers of published works that use digitised materials to find and follow-up on sources, assuming they are fully cited. Such digitising projects have also been undertaken by other organisations such as the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. This programme facilitates the digitisation of archives that are “in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration”. Yet, in doing so, the programme strongly supports “training and capacity building in the country where the archive is located, so that expertise…is embedded in local archival institutions”. Similarly, Wiley also hopes to continuously work with scholarly societies, universities and libraries to digitise primary source materials with the aim of making research more accessible and discoverable. If such organisations embed practices that enable greater and easier accessibility, then digitisation will indeed enhance the research capabilities of researchers and teachers for the better.
Image: “India as described by all authors before the 5th Century” map, 1745, Source: Royal Geographical Society, with permission from Wiley Digital Archives Royal Geographical Society.
 From a conversation with Raymond Abruzzi, publisher at Wiley Digital Archives.
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