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DRI Blog: Amplifying Change: The Making of a Digital Archive

By Anja Mahler, Digital Archivist, Atlantic Philanthropies Archive Project


Before I took up the position of digital archivist for the Atlantic Philanthropies archive project in early 2018, I did not know much about Chuck Feeney and the extent of his philanthropic investment on the island of Ireland. Conor O’Clery’s book The Billionaire Who Wasn't: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune provided me with great insight into the work of the Atlantic Philanthropies.  Soon after I took up my position, I travelled to New York to visit Cornell University. I got to see the physical archive held at the Division for Rare and Manuscripts Collections and I also gained exclusive access to The Atlantic Philanthropies grant management system for Ireland and Northern Ireland.  It was then that I grasped the great extent of this archive. It was not, however, until I got to look closely at the grant files, which contain records that document the entire life cycle of grants-from proposals to final reports and rich ephemera, that I experienced a sense of awe because I realised the vast impact of the Atlantic Philanthropies. I recall cataloguing the document Action Plan on Bullying and how that acted as a catalyst for me to realise the sheer amount of combined energy needed to bring about societal change.  My dear colleague Phoebe Lynn Kowalewski, the Atlantic Philanthropies Archivist at Cornell University Library, put it this way to me very recently:

The value of these archives is that while anyone can see from a quick google search what Atlantic did in Ireland, these resources provide a more intimate view of the societal issues that Atlantic thought to improve and thought processes that made these improvements happen.


In addition to highlighting what this archive seeks to reveal – the processes, methods and mechanisms behind social, economic and historical change on the island of Ireland – I wanted to give insight to the thought processes, methods and tools used to build this research resource.  In writing this blog, I am wearing my digital archivist hat, but I do hope this look behind the scenes is of interest beyond the archival community.

[Anja Mahler at work, showing a Polaroid photograph of herself while transferring oral histories recorded by DRI at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy at NUI, Galway in 2018]


Computational thinking

Contents (business records, reports, and ephemera) and contexts (original arrangements of records and memories from individuals) are required to change from the realm of corporate memory to collective memory. To enable this lifecycle change of data for this archive, we drew on computer science strategies such as finding the logical structure of a task, modelling data in a more accessible form, and figuring out how to apply iteration and algorithms to break tasks into pieces so that they could be automated.


Creating a collection development strategy

My objective for this project was to create an online archive and a virtual exhibition platform and the complexities inherent to that task boil down to two problems: taxonomies and extent. In other words –  what are the resources? how are they retrieved? and how many resources can we process in the time we have? I worked closely with the project historian to figure out how to best develop this collection. We identified a pattern of Atlantics impact on the island of Ireland, categorised that information and modelled it into a collection development strategy by assigning the appropriate number Atlantic’s grantees, grants and grant documentation, and associated oral histories and essays for each theme.

[model showing the quantitative relationship of objects and categories]


The model enabled us to arrange contents on DRI, where we preserve the original corporative arrangement of records sorting by grantee and grant number, and for the virtual exhibition platform where we allow for curated exhibitions by themes and sub-themes.

For this project, curatorial selection and archiving of records existed in tandem. For the archivist, the model enabled the indexing of contents that would facilitate content retrieval on both the repository and the dedicated web platform. For the historian, the model provided a framework which ensured that the story of Atlantic’s impact is told broadly by identifying grants and oral history interviewees that would spread evenly over themes, while considering geographical parameters.