Saturday, July 17, 2010

Oxford extra special: John Johnson Ephemera Collection

Based on my interest in digitization and given the time we had in Oxford, I made an appointment with the Curators of the John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera. The John Johnson collection is one of the world's foremost printed ephemera collections containing more than 1.5 million items on topics ranging from printing to advertisement to social history. The Society for American Archivists provides an excellent definition of ephemera: materials, usually printed documents, created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use.

The earliest item dates from 1508 with the bulk of material from the late 19th and early 20th century. The collection emerged from John Johnson's own interests. As a papyrologist a scholar of ancient Egyptian texts, Johnson was concerned that the UK was not preserving its paper heritage. Johnson collected with the goal of creating a museum which would house what is commonly thrown away. The collection, originally housed at the Oxford University Press, where Johnson served as editor, was transferred to the Bodleian in 1968.

Upon first viewing the objects laid out by Assistant Curator Amanda Flynn, I can say that Johnson succeeded with the goal of his collection policy: the materials were colorful, appealing, entertaining and full of educational, cultural and historical significance. The records are used by historians as well as theatre professionals, movie and television producers looking for visual resources, and artists. Most recently there was a request from the producers of the latest X-Men movie for Oxford-related ephemera to include as part of the film.

The collection participated in JISC Phase II--a UK-wide digitization initiative that granted nearly 12 million pounds to 16 digitization projects. More information about JISC Phase II can be found at the JISC website: and in the initiative's 2007 conference report.

The JISC grant allowed the John Johnson collection to digitize 65,000 items from five of their nine categories. (The categories were created by Johnson as he collected and that order was retained as the collection was processed and digitized.) The Bodleian chose to digitize nineteenth-century entertainment, the booktrade, popular prints, advertizing, and those materials related to crime, murders, and executions. More detailed information about the digitization project can be found in the JISC's Phase II summaries and the John Johnson Collection.

The John Johnson collection was chosen for Phase Two as part of JISC's mission to make "hidden" archives accessible. Due to the Johnson collection's limited cataloguing, researchers needed to come to Oxford to do research, and even then the researcher had to wade through hundreds of over-filled boxes. When the collection moved from the Oxford University Press to the Bodleian the librarians' decided to retain Johnson's original organization--with over 700 separate subject categories--one can only imagine the difficulty of finding specific documents.

While only a small fraction of the collection has been digitized--since the JISC grant was limited in time and scope, the online collection is, in many ways, a best-case example for how digitization can not only increase access to hidden archives but also change the way the audience interacts with them. The John Johnson collection interface, created in conjunction with their digitization partner ProQuest is a masterful combination (in my opinion) of cataloguing and common sense. They not only created a fully searchable catalogue--using the services of four full-time cataloguers to complete the controlled vocabulary and create links between resources, they created a browse option that replicated the experience of taking a box from the shelf and flipping through it for those whose searches are non-specific.

The digitization was contracted out to a company called Bister, which had done previous work for ProQuest and with the Bodleian Libraries. They completed a weekly consignment of 2500 images scanned at 600dpi with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) from four (4) directions. The result is an impeccable text-based search that pulls up scanned documents and identifies the desired terms. A few documents were scanned in-house because of fragility or rarity.

The John Johnson collection, due to JISC restrictions, can only be accessed at the Bodleian or through a UK institution of higher or further learning. The access is free to these institutions, but for those outside of the UK or who are not affiliated with an institution, there is a steep fee to subscribe (for institutions). They do provide a free trial that you can sign up for as well as an online free demonstration that provides a taste of how the search and browse mechanism works. For this reason I was unable to reproduce a screenshot of the search system but please do investigate the demonstration to get a feel for how it works. The browse function is arranged into the 5 categories and more than 700 subject headings that Johnson created. The search system relates to the work of the cataloguers who did item-level description for each image creating in-house lists of types of crime that then relate to the broader topics. They followed Allegro bibliographical format based on MARC 21 and AACR2 with Library of Congress name authority headings. In addition, they accessed specialist Thesauri AAT (Art and Architecture) and ICON class for the images and advertising. The aim was to provide multiple access points for search and retrieval. They chose to digitize the 5 subjects that were the most in demand, but hope, when time, funding, and staff are available, to digitize the entire collection.

It must be remembered that the John Johnson collection's digitization succeeded due to good planning and adequate resources: 1 million from JISC and a matching 1 million from ProQuest supported 10 full time staff members. In addition ProQuest assumed the cost of creating and sustaining the online delivery system providing design expertise, resources for market research and public relations, as well as technical support for users. The John Johnson collection provided conservation and cataloguing expertise as well as subject knowledge and advise on the creation of the user interface.

The ultimate goal of the digitization project was to bring together all of the previous projects and make it obvious to users what the John Johnson collection has and improve how it is accessed.

The John Johnson collection is a living collection--ephemera is added to fill in gaps in subjects or timeline and modern ephemera is acquired--mostly relating to Oxford University and student organizations.

Thank you to Amanda Flynn and the staff at the John Johnson Collection for their time and expertise. This site visit, and the visit to the History Library, were highlights of my UK library tours. It should be noted that I arranged these two visits--no support was given from BSP (in fact, our leaders only provided a 60 minute tour--the same tour accessible to all visitors at the University. In addition, I had some issues setting up the appointments because an accurate time table was unavailable until 2 days before we went to Oxford). Students should have been encouraged and informed ahead of time that "visitor" passes we were granted did not in fact allow access to the various libraries at the University.

One of the great benefits of going back to school as an "older" student is an awareness of professors humanity (i.e. imperfection), confidence, and creativity. I realized early on that our tours, focused on libraries rather than archives, were not going to address the questions of standards and digitization: therefore, I found archives that informed me about those critical issues in archival management. Stepping beyond the prescribed path not only helped answer some of the questions I had about current digitization practices and the use of standards in the UK, it was an amazing opportunity to share something I was interested in with my friends and colleagues at BSP.

Images courtesy of John Johnson Collection and the University of Auckland library,, accessed July 28, 2010.

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