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Sunday, November 29, 2009

News on the Edinburgh Fire Digital Preservation Project

By Susan Deeny, PhD student.

Tao and Ania working on the Archive, 2009

In June of this year several post-grad students from the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh delivered 1400 box files containing the BRE Fire Research Archive from BRE headquarters in Watford to the University of Edinburgh; proof that if a road trip is involved you can get a post-grad to do almost anything. Little did they realise that this delivery, a mammoth task, was just the first challenge in the ambitious project to digitise the archive to ensure the preservation and future dissemination of its contents.

Undaunted the students set about planning the digitisation process of the archive. The primary challenges were finance, equipment and man-power. The students successfully convinced the Edinburgh Small Projects Grant (funded by alumni donations to the University) that this project met their ‘innovation in teaching, research and student provision’ criteria and secured start-up funds. With this and top up funds from the BRE Centre for Fire Engineering, the students secured almost £5000. This was enough to purchase a scanner and employ two fellow students over the summer break to get the project started. The scanner the group settled on was an Atiz BookDrive Mini a v-shaped cradle scanner that employs two digital cameras for image capture; capturing up to 700 pages per hour. The cradle reduces curvature in the scanned image improving the success of optical character recognition software.

Two undergraduate students, Ania Grupka and Tao Gao were recruited over the summer to set up the equipment and develop a robust work flow. Once the scanner was installed and working, the team trained and the methodology set up (which took up most of the summer time), in the space of a month over 185 documents were captured, edited and converted to pdf format, which amounts to 11 of the 1400 box files the archive contains. Based on progress this summer the group are conservatively estimating that at this pace and current team, it will take 8 years to complete the digitising process which is somewhat longer than most students spend at University (in the UK anyway!), thus we are currently looking into ways of boosting the rate of workflow. Increasing productivity is currently the most significant challenge facing the group however many more exist including database development, digital storage and decisions concerning dissemination. Despite these challenges the group have made a significant start towards their goal of preserving and opening up the archive, they are learning fast and they remain undaunted (naïve?).

The BRE Fire Research Archive is a treasure trove of research conducted in the pioneering days of fire safety science. The intention of this project is to create an asset available to the entire fire community, therefore if you feel you can contribute to this project we are eagerly awaiting to hear from you.

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