The pleasures and pitfalls of writing a conservation project blog

Person working on Great Parchment Book

The Great Parchment Book blog was started in 2012 to record the progress of the major and ground-breaking partnership project to conserve, digitally reconstruct, transcribe and publish the iconic 17th century parchment document known as the Great Parchment Book of The Honourable The Irish Society, also referred to as the Domesday Book of the Plantation because of its significance to the history of Ulster.

The Great Parchment Book is a 1639 survey of the Londonderry estates managed by the City of London through the Irish Society and the London livery companies. It was damaged in a fire at the City of London Guildhall in 1786 which caused such dramatic shrivelling and fire damage to the manuscript and distortion to the text that it had been completely inaccessible to researchers for over 200 years. Owing to its appearance it has been affectionately referred to at LMA where it is held as the ‘poppadum book’.

The blog records the progress of the project led by LMA, firstly the conservation which aimed to gently flatten the parchment sheets as far as possible to facilitate the digital imaging which followed. LMA’s partners at the Department of Computer Science and the Centre for Digital Humanities at University College London then captured a set of images for each page, generating 3D models from these and developing ground-breaking software which enabled these models to be flattened and browsed virtually. Alongside this, a readable and exploitable version of the text was prepared, comprising a transcription of the manuscript with encoding of appropriate terms using the Textual Encoding Initiative (TEI) to enable comprehensive searching. This culminated in the launch of the dedicated Great Parchment Book website in June 2013 where the images (of the folios both in their original state and digitally flattened) and transcript were made available and which featured as the centrepiece of an exhibition in Derry 2013 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the building of city’s walls in 1613.

The blog, administered by LMA and now embedded in the website, continues to record the continuing legacy of the project focussing on ways to revolutionise access to archives and manuscripts through the use of new technology and innovation, and linking the Great Parchment Book to other sources for Irish history and thereby facilitating both personal and academic research and knowledge.

Our tips for writing a project blog

The importance of recording the progress of the Great Parchment Book project through a blog was identified right at the start of the discussions about the project. 

There are three main reasons why a blog was identified as important to the project:

  • We knew from the very beginning that not many projects carried out in the archive and libraries field involved such a wide range of professions and skills so we thought that it was something new to share with the public and we wanted to share our excitement.
  • As is common, many of the grant funders which supported the project required that we shared the outcomes of the project.
  • One of the remits of LMA is to engage with the public and other stakeholders as widely as possible.

However, writing a project blog is not something you can do at a drop of a hat and without planning ahead.The structure of the blog needs to be thought out before starting the project you’d like to write about. You also have to think of what could be interesting to potential readers and decide on the most effective way to explain the details of the project.

Writing a project blog is extra work because whatever you are doing or have done in the project needs to be translated or re-processed in order to make it interesting and understandable to a wide audience and this needs to be factored into the project plan and individual work plans. It’s hard work writing a blog!

1.Have a blogger-in-chief

If more than one person is contributing to the blog, especially if elements of the project are being undertaken by partners outside your organisation, or contributions are being made by a number of people, you must have a blogger-in-chief, to take responsibility for the blog as a whole, ensure consistency and exercise editorial control.

2. Write in a simple and accessible way

Initially we were writing for an unknown and potentially wide audience, from professionals in a variety of disciplines to the general public. This meant that the way we explained things had to be interesting to, but understandable by everybody. The challenge is to be able to write without going too much into depth. If you decide to do so, then you have to explain the concept in the simplest, but most engaging way possible.Following on from this, it is important to be clear and not to use jargon or too many technical terms. Where technical terms are used, they need to be explained.

3.Keep it short

Try too not to write too lengthyposts.If the topic we wanted to cover describe was very long we split it into more than one post, especially when describing conservation processes.You can always link to more detailed content elsewhere and this was frequently done when we were referring to the cutting-edge digital techniques and technologies used to virtually reconstruct the Great Parchment Book.

Use titles for posts that areeye-catching, but describe the topic the post covers accurately.

4. Post regularly

Try to post regularly. This was difficult sometimes because the time scale and deadlines of the project did not fit with the regular blog timetable, but we were able to adapt if the events described were not tied to a particular date.

However, when we needed to be timely, we ensured that we kept our subscribers up to date with what was happening, for example events tied to the project, or announcements about awards (European Succeed Award 2014 (for digitisation focussing on textual content):  commendation of merit; The Pilgrim Trust Award for Conservation 2015: shortlisted).

5. Vary what you post

In some posts, we introduced the staff that had worked on the project. This seemed to interest the audience and “personalised” the project.

Particularly with the conservation and imaging aspects of the project, we found it useful to take or use imagesto help to tell the story or to show an interesting detail. Images are the fastest media to convey information to those who are not familiar with that which is being described.With conservation we often had to stage the picture so we could fit into one image all the different elements of the conservation process we were describing to make it more understandable.

6. Provide proper attribution

You must make sure that all content is properly attributed and acknowledged – this is especially the case with images and academic research - and that supporters and other funders are acknowledged too.

Lessons for the future

We have received lots of good feedback about the website and blog, but we have not had so many direct comments and conversations on the blog as we had hoped. We have also found that our number of core subscribers has remained static at just over 100 pretty much since launch in spite of efforts to increase it. This may be because after the first year of the blog, it became embedded into website and those interested in the project know they can just go straight there for information; people link to the website not to the blog now.

We have been able to keep tabs on the usage of the blog and the website (86,000 page views and counting), and look at where visitors are coming to the site from. We have seen from this that many others are linking to the website in their own blogs particularly those relating to conservation and the digital humanities. We also know from the links in and links clicked out, that lots of users are interacting positively with the blog and website and that its reach is much wider that the number of core subscribers or direct comments might suggest.

On the technical side, if we set a blog up again, we’d look at making it more smart phone friendly and link it more to social media (although we do use this to some extent).

Close up of Great Parchment Book

The legacy

The blog has provided a detailed and accessible record of the project which is there for all to explore. Right from the start, we used a controlled list of categories to tag posts (eg conservation, digitisation, events). These now provide an invaluable tool for those trying to find out more about the project and many of the areas associated with it, and enabling the story of the distinct elements such as conservation or digitisation for example to be pulled out of the whole.

The risk in blogging about an ongoing project is that you don’t know whether there will be a “Happy Ending”. We were fortunate in that the project had a successful outcome and it has continuing impact and a legacy which we can post about.

Four years on from its beginnings then, the Great Parchment Book blog is still going strong, but has had to adapt.We still report directly on the project and the content of the Great Parchment Book, but we are now trying to explore the connections with other digital projects and technologies revolutionising access to archives and cultural artefacts, and identify synergies with other documents relevant to the story that the Great Parchment Book has to tell.

Great Parchment Book UK Blog Awards Finalist

The Great Parchment Book blog has made it to the final of the UK Blog Awards 2016. View the shortlist for the Arts and Culture category.

Judging begins on Monday 1 February and will be carried out remotely until 19 February 2016. You can find out more about the judges and also follow the competition on Twitter @UKBlogAwards #UKBA16. The winner will be on Friday 29 April 2016.


Image credits: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London


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