Collaborative Description: Opening Access to the Georgian Papers

Launched by Her Majesty The Queen in 2015, the Georgian Papers Programme (GPP) is an interdisciplinary partnership to conserve, digitise and catalogue 425,000 pages of material held by the Royal Archives and Royal Library relating to the Georgian period, 1714–1837, encompassing the reigns of the five Hanoverian kings (George I, George II, George III, George IV, and William IV). The papers include private, official, and financial material pertaining to the monarchs and their families, papers of various courtiers and ministers, and in addition records which relate to the running of the Georgian royal households. The papers are invaluable in all areas of eighteenth-century study, for they shed light on matters of political, social, economic and military history, as well as international relations and medical knowledge in the Georgian period.

Round Tower, Windsor Castle
Royal Collection Trust/©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
Round Tower, Windsor Castle
Royal Collection Trust /
© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The Georgian Papers Programme is expected to take ten years to complete, with the core cataloguing work taking place within the walls of Windsor Castle, in the Royal Archives and Royal Library. The Programme’s principal partners are the Royal Archives and Royal Collection Trust (RCT), King’s College London (the academic lead), the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture (lead American partner), and the College of William & Mary.[1] The Programme has taken an ambitious approach to developing an integrated workflow that simultaneously supports access, cataloguing and dissemination of digital facsimiles and transcriptions to create a virtuous feedback loop between the expertise of archivists and academics. The Programme has two ultimate ambitions: to optimise public, freely available access supported by enhanced metadata and interpretation; and, to provide a collaborative workspace in which scholars may explore, interrogate and manipulate data using a variety of online tools.

At the outset of the Programme, the writer and addressee of each individual item in the Georgian Papers had been recorded, but there were no other access points into the collections. The Georgian Papers were initially reviewed in terms of quantity and content and then divided into work packages, mainly according to creator, or in some cases, subject. Some examples of these packages include the essays of George III, Georgian menu books of food served, the papers of Lady Charlotte Finch (a governess), and George IV’s bills. These packages of material have been allocated to delivery phases, which are scheduled for publication at intervals throughout the duration of the GPP. Recent highlights released by the Georgian Papers Programme include the previously unpublished medical records of George III and a bill from George IV’s collection which shows that, as Prince Regent, he pre-ordered Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in 1811.

George IV, as Prince Regent, pre-order for Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, 1811. GEO/MAIN/28514 
Royal Collection Trust/©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
George IV, as Prince Regent, pre-order for Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, 1811.
Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The core workflow begins with a ‘conservation triage’ process where all documents and volumes are paginated and checked to ensure they are suitable for scanning. A significant issue with some sections of the Georgian Papers is the presence of non-conservation standard adhesive tape, used in historical repairs. Because of the effect this has on scanning (in terms of both reflection and aesthetics) documents so repaired are withheld from the digitisation process. Unfortunately, this had caused a backlog of conservation work (now being ameliorated, to some extent), which meant it was not always possible to publish digitised images alongside the catalogue records.

Royal Archives and Royal Library Workflow

Cataloguing of the Georgian Papers is carried out in CALM,the archive management system used in the Royal Archives since 2008. This core cataloguing work adheres to the International Standard for Archival Description (General) (ISAD(G)). Writer and addressee are recorded for correspondence at this core cataloguing stage with further indexing to be addressed as part of the metadata enhancement phases.

The digitisation of the Georgian material is also being carried out in-house, in a new imaging studio based in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle. Images of the documents are captured in tiff format for master images and then converted to jpeg format. These files are ultimately used to produce PDFs so that the relevant images of the Georgian letter or volume can be displayed alongside the published catalogue record.

Since January 2017, the core catalogue records and PDF images have been published on Georgian Papers Online. By the end of 2018, over 100,000 pages of Georgian material will be available online for any user to search and view, free of charge.

Catalogue records and images are shared with King’s Digital Lab (KDL) at King’s College London subsequent to release. The Lab hosts these files for William & Mary to use for transcription. Currently there are two mechanisms by which transcription of the Georgian Papers occurs: through crowdsourced transcription captured using the Omeka Classic platform; and through Transkribus, a Handwritten Text Recognition tool developed as part of the Recognition and Enrichment of Archival Documents Project (READ). The original link with William & Mary was suggested by its unique history as being the only US institution that (like King’s College London) holds a Royal Charter, and its preexisting collaboration with Colonial Williamsburg. In terms of scholarship, the partnership has been considerably enriched by the participation of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, an independent institution based at William & Mary which is the US hub for18th-century studies.

Georgian Papers Programme Workflow

A GPP Collaborative Workspace is currently being developed by KDL to bring together metadata, images, and transcriptions that are being produced by our partners, as well as allowing enrichment of metadata (and transcriptions) by those who are undertaking close reading of the material.

There are three main ways in which this enrichment will take place:

  1. Editing of the baseline catalogue records to include further detail
  2. Subject indexing
  3. Name authority file creation and linking

The sheer volume of material in the Georgian Papers gives the Programme a major incentive to optimise use of innovative technology and professional expertise. To improve findability and discoverability for users, we are opening up the editorial process to our users so that they may enhance the information included in the Collaborative Workspace. This activity will be moderated by academic experts.

The baseline cataloguing will be further augmented through subject indexing using the United Kingdom Archival Thesaurus (UKAT), which will shortly be expanded to include terms derived from the already transcribed letters of George III as published by Sir John W. Fortescue, Royal Librarian and Archivist (from 1905 to1926), as well as from a number of the (unpublished) essays of the king. Other terms used to enrich UKAT are derived from military event lists, medical history controlled vocabularies, scholarly publications on the 18th century, and other sources. Other indexing that will be added includes geographic names, using GeoNames, as well as organisations, individuals, and families.

The last three types of entities (organisations, individuals, and families) are being captured based on a metadata standard called Encoded Archival Context – Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (EAC-CPF). ‘Traditional’ name authority files are generally used in catalogues to:

  • Control for spelling – ‘non-standard’ names point to a preferred name
  • Assist in disambiguation (using birth and death dates) – you should be able to tell which of the entries is the specific John Smith you are looking for
  • Link items in the catalogue (books, manuscripts, letters, etc.) to an entity

EAC-CPF allows for all these functions as well as much more detailed context including: other names used and when; biographical/administrative information; and, where an entity was born/created and died/disestablished. One of the most important functions offered through the use of this metadata standard is our ability to capture the relationships between various entities, which is especially important due to the complex familial and other relationships that existed both within and outside the Royal Household.

The second and third approaches to metadata enrichment will be undertaken through a mix of manual and automated processes. Subject indexing can be undertaken manually based on the descriptions provided in the catalogue descriptions as well as through matching frequent word usage to UKAT terms. Name authority files can also be created manually, that is from scratch, but also from other sources such as the Linking Parliamentary Records through Metadata (LIPARM) project, the Database of Court Officers developed by the scholar Robert Bucholz, and other material already digitised by the Royal Archives.

The Georgian Papers Programme is a collaborative enterprise in almost all facets, from digitization and transcription to academic engagement and dissemination. This is by design and on occasion, especially with regards to the cataloguing and metadata enrichment, by necessity. The whole process is very much a learning curve for all parties concerned and significant teamwork and cooperation is absolutely key.

Julie Crocker has worked in the Royal Archives since 2005, having previously worked as an archivist for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Julie became the project manager for Georgian Papers Programme content delivery (Royal Archives and Royal Library) in 2016.

Samantha Callaghan joined the Georgian Papers Programme as Metadata Analyst in 2017. Previously she has worked in the field of digitization both in the UK and New Zealand for libraries, museums and archives.

[1] The Royal Collection Trust is a charitable body established to manage the Royal Collection of the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. The Royal Library and Royal Archives sections of the Royal Collection Trust look after significant historic collections that form the documentary and intellectual heritage of the monarchy. The Royal Archives also report to the Private Secretary to The Queen, who is Keeper of the Archives.