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Digital Preservation of Religious Collections: Conversations and Collaborations

Pic of listening attendees at DPASSH

The Digital Repository of Ireland’s (DRI) biennial ‘Digital Preservation for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities’ (DPASSH) conference took place 27, 29 and 30 of June 2022. The theme for this year’s conference was 'Digital Preservation of Religious Collections: Conversations and Collaborations' and the conference consisted of a day of online workshops 27 June, and two fully-hybrid conference days on 29 and 30 June 2022. This was facilitated by conference sponsors the Association for Church Archives of Ireland, Eneclann, Nano Nagle Place and the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.  All of the recordings for the event can be found on the DRI Vimeo page under 'DPASSH 2022' and we have added links to the relevant Vimoe video in the session titles below. 

The day of workshops sought to introduce conference attendees to practical approaches to digital preservation by looking at and responding through a practical demonstration of each stage of the life cycle of digital preservation. The day opened with a workshop on Appraisal of collections for digitisation and preservation by Barbara McCormack, Royal Irish Academy and where Barbara outlined several tools and frameworks that can be used to help with the assessment process. Her workshop was followed by Paul Manzor, Eneclann who spoke about the process of digitising and what to consider when preparing collections for digitisation in his workshop ‘A Practical Guide to digitisation’. He also spoke about the issue of digital degradation of files once collections were ingested and the need to consider their long-term future. Dr Richard Fitzpatrick, from Maynooth University, spoke about the Clericus project and described how they undertook the digital preservation of several ordination portraits from St Kieran’s College outlining each step in the process from digitisation to metadata creation, addition to their database and ingest to DRI. His workshop was entitled ‘Ordination Class Portraits: from analogue to digital’. The final workshop was provided by DRI’s software Engineers, Kathryn Cassidy and Stuart Kenny. ‘Enhancing user engagement with collections using post-ingest tools’ looked at the variety of tools available to users of the Digital Repository of Ireland that can add value to the collections themselves, like transcription tools, and viewers that allow the collections to be better explored. All of the workshops from the first day can be viewed on the DRI Vimeo channel. This includes ‘Copyright and licensing as a part of digital preservation’ by Clare Lanigan of the Archiving Reproductive Health project. The workshop had been postponed but was held at the later date of 7 of September 2022 and it can now be viewed as part of the suite of DPASSH resource videos.

After a break for travel, the conference re-started on Wednesday 28 June as a hybrid event. DRI Director Natalie Harrower welcomed online attendees and those who could make it in person to the Royal Irish Academy. The first keynote speaker was Prof. John McCafferty (University College Dublin) whose lecture was entitled ‘Digitising God’s fingerprints. The public, the private and the numinous in religious archives’. In his address, Prof. McCafferty said that there is a fruitful fusion of concepts when religious orders, archivists and researchers engage to look at archives and records. Prof McCafferty's lecture can be found, along with captions, on our Vimeo channel.

The second session was on the Practicalities and challenges of digital archiving with Anna James from Medical Mission Sisters and Susan Hood from the Representative Church Body Library speaking. There were also papers on the digitisation of collections from Robin P. Roddie of the Irish Methodist Archives and Prof. Deirdre Raftery and Audrey Drohan, University College Dublin. The topic of digital reconstruction was explored by Chris Hamill, Queen’s University Belfast, whose project The Atlas of Lost Rooms digitally reconstructs the Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street and Gary Dempsey, Atlantic Technological University, and Orla-Peach Power, MaREI University College Cork who are creating 3D models of Sheela Na Gigs in their project Sheela3D. The day closed with Laurence Cox of Maynooth University using the case of Buddhism to explore the 'Practical Challenges of Less-established and Newer Religions in Ireland'.

The final day of the 4th International Conference on Digital Preservation for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities was opened by Dr Niamh Nicghabhann (University of Limerick) whose paper ‘Questions Answered, Answers Questioned: collections, preservation, and new directions in the scholarship of material religion’ explored why built heritage and archival sources need to be examined together. Niamh made an important case for partnerships in digitisation and preservation and explored how sharing resources can lead to research collaborations, particularly around the re-use of archives and digital objects. 

Niamh’s paper was followed by a research project session from contributors to the PARISH digitisation project on 'Preserving and Recording Ireland’s Sacred Heritage'. The presentation was made by Dr Sarah Roddy, Maynooth University, Dr Heather Stanfiel, University of Notre Dame and Dr Colin Barr, University of Aberdeen/Notre Dame. The third session of the day looked at 'Accessing and Interpreting Digitised Religious Records' and included papers from Dr. Riccardo Amerigo Vigliermo and Prof. Federico Ruozzi, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (UNIMORE), Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose (FSCIRE). Their paper looked at Digital Maktaba: AI perspectives for automatic text extraction and catalogation of religious archives in non-latin alphabets volumes (Arabic, Persian, Azerbaijani). They were joined in their session by Sue Hemmens from Marsh’s Library who presented a paper ‘Finding asylum: preservation and access to a Huguenot archive’. 

The final speaker of the day was Prof. Fallou Ngom from Boston University who spoke about the Digital Archives of Muslim Africa: Making Africa’s Ajami Manuscripts Visible. Ajami refers to the practice of writing non-Arabic African languages in modified Arabic script. Colonial powers knew little about Ajami script & so underestimated or ignored the extent of pre-colonial African written heritage. The preservation and promotion of the Ajami language through these digital archives mean that a rich vein of African heritage is finally being recognised and preserved. Prof Ngom finished his paper by saying that there are major digitisation projects underway at Boston University, supported by British Library & National Endowment for Humanities & others, to digitise and transliterate and translate 50,000 documents in African languages over the next few years.

At the end of the conference, the DPASSH 2022 Committee Chair Deborah Thorpe said: 

DPASSH 2022 was an exciting opportunity for DRI to explore a conference theme that none of us specialises in: the digital preservation of religious collections specifically. In the planning of the event, and over the course of the three days, we learned so much from committee members; workshop leaders; and speakers who have demonstrable and wide-ranging expertise in this area. Due to the hybrid format of the event, we could welcome speakers and audience members at the venue, and remotely, from Ireland; the UK; Italy; and the USA. It was an enjoyable and fruitful few days, and a wonderful way to reignite DPASSH, after the extra year’s hiatus due to lockdowns.

We’d like to thank all of the speakers, chairs, attendees and sponsors for participating and making DPASSH 2022 possible. The next DPASSH will take place in 2024 and we look forward to updating you on that conference when it's scheduled. You can follow all of our DPASSH updates on the DPASSH twitter account and through the DRI newsletter.