Reawakening History: The Digital Transformation of the RAI Archives

July 13, 2018 Chloe Wenborn

Have you ever worked with archives or used them in your writing or research?

We asked this question recently at the 2018 Royal Anthropological Institutes conference ‘Art, Materiality and Representation’, at the prestigious British Library.

This esteemed event attracts a variety of participants from anthropologists, curators and teachers to undergraduates, postgraduates and artists, many of whom shared their experiences of using archives in their research:

‘I have used archived photos and articles. Archival material is vital for the research as they broaden perspectives and bring new dimensions to our understanding of the field of research.’- Mary Amsafe

‘I have used Journals, papers and archives of exhibitions and events. Archival material online has changed the way we research over the last 10 years. It has opened {up} lots of new ways to research subject using a trans-disciplinary approach… we cannot imagine doing research without it.’ -Marie-Blanche

These are just a couple of examples of the many responses we received where participants shared the importance of using archival material in their work.

It is clear, that there is educational and research value in using primary sources of content. But many of these primary sources, held by societies in their archives, are difficult, and in many cases expensive, for researchers to access.  Due to the physical nature, storage, and age of the archived items, it may be difficult to uncover these archives even when visiting the society library. Because of this, many societies, including the Royal Anthropological Institute, have had students request that archives be made more easily accessible.

“Might there be a way you can get that digitized and sent to me?”

--Faculty and researchers

The Royal Anthropological Institute was keen to lead an initiative with Wiley to digitize their archives to make them widely accessible to all their members and researchers

Why Go Digital?

By digitizing their archival content, the RAI became a pioneer in altering the competitive research landscape and in changing the nature of education in key fields for the future while also preserving their records for future generations to enjoy.

Digitizing archived content won’t just benefit the society and its faculty though.  The RAI would unlock a whole new wealth of material for their members and researchers making their content easier and more affordable to access.

Digitization offers a more holistic scholarly record for researchers, allowing them to gain a closer understanding or even to reinterpret the content and arrive at new conclusions.. It can also add historical context for researchers to add breadth and depth to their studies. Finally, digitization a offers a chance for researchers to re-visit, re-examine, and re-interpret content at any time so that, data or information can be viewed through a new lens or can be interpolated with more recent information to form new conclusions.

But, How Do You Go About Archiving Thousands of Pieces of Content?

The full range of content within the archive was worked through and considered for digitization.

The rights, copyrights, and privacy laws were considered for each piece before being put forward for digitization. The sensitivities and views of the RAI fellows and those of the peoples and cultures who may be represented in the archives were also carefully considered.. Following this process, the final decisions on the content to be digitized were made by the RAI.

From there, we worked closely with the RAI providing two conservators to work onsite to pull, identify, assess, repair (if needed) and track content throughout the process.

All content that is digitized has extant cataloguing and associated metadata connected to the documents at the item level. Digitization occurred offsite for most of the content using scans of 400 DPI 24-bit colour and printed text is OCR’d. Additional metadata is derived from the OCR process and/or keyed-in (handwritten documents) from the headers, names, places, and dates.

At the end of the process, all analog content is returned to the RAI. Much of the content was re-housed in new archival storage boxes and sleeves provided by Wiley. The digital archive is also available onsite at the RAI offices and all files, images and generated text, metadata were returned as well.

What was found within the RAI archives?

Several surprises arose from within the RAI archive. Because the content was not restricted to journals The RAI and Wiley managed to digitize everything from: reports, drawings and book clippings to field notes, correspondence and meeting minutes.

Beyond these more traditional primary sources, the process unearthed, a collection of Victorian glass plates numbering in the thousands most of which were designed to be used with a Magic Lantern.

The Magic Lantern, (as seen above) is an early type of image projector employing light to project pictures painted, printed or produced photographically on transparent plates (usually made of glass). It was mostly developed in the 17th century and commonly used for entertainment purposes. The magic lantern was in wide use from the 18th century until the mid-20th century.

The RAI Conference ‘Art, Materiality and Representation’

During the conference, the RAI gave us a demonstration of the magic lantern with popular slides used for entertainment from the 18th century to the mid-20th century.


Above left is an ad for a magic lantern show and on the right is a popular depiction of Scrooge from Charles Dickens ‘Christmas Carol’.

We were then treated to a famous story of the time called ‘The Death of Koshchei the Deathless’- a fairytale which follows Prince Ivan on his quest to save Maray Morevna from Koshchei the Deathless facing many perils along the way.

Researchers and students were also given a live demonstration of how the new digital archives platform works.

Wiley Digital Archives

Wiley plans to continue this initiative to partner with the world’s leading societies RAI libraries and archives to digitize their unique and rare primary content to support researchers today while preserving it for future generations.

If you would like to find out more about the RAI Archives and other archives visit our resources page here.

Image Credit: 1 & 2: Chloe Wenborn, 3-6: Ray Abruzzi

About the Author

Library Services, Wiley //

More Content by Chloe Wenborn
Previous Article
Enhancing Digital Archives Research Experiences
Enhancing Digital Archives Research Experiences

Learn how technology enhances digital archives research experiences in this infographic.

No More Articles