Digitising Firefighter

Rebecca Jones, one of the Modern Records Centre’s Digitisation Assistants, talks about her work: 

Digitising Firefighter magazine was an extensive task: when I joined the MRC in January 2017, my colleague Gareth had already started on the project, but even with two of us now working on it, it would still take the best part of a year to complete. With our combined efforts we finished the bulk of the work in September, and with October spent going back to catch up with the few issues that had somehow slipped through the net and deal with some last-minute additional materials and technical complications, we were able to go live in early November.

Figure 1: The cover of the first illustrated issue of Firefighter, published in June 1940 (our ref: 346/6/1/6).

The digitisation process itself involved a few steps that were repeated for every issue of Firefighter. We’d be given the physical copy of the issue (either in its original newspaper/magazine format or as part of a hard-bound collection covering one or two years). Digital images were taken using an overhead scanner, and a software program allowed us to edit out some of the minor physical flaws (aided by buttons with labels such as “book-fold correction” – preventing text from getting lost in the spine of tightly bound books – and the grim-sounding “thumb removal” tool, which is actually a highly useful feature that allows you to manually restrain a book that won’t stay open in order to scan it without your digits being digitised along with the page). The end product of this stage of the digitisation process was a digital image of the page, preserving the text and images from the original, physical copy. In a three-hour shift, I’d typically scan about a year’s worth of issues of Firefighter.

In the second stage of digitisation, these images were imported into an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software program. This program allows us to mark out areas that contain pictures (making it easier for people reading the end product to single out and save an image they want), as well as areas containing text. The OCR software reads these text areas automatically, producing a digital version of the text that can be recognised and interacted with online: so that its contents can, for example, be searched on our website, copy and pasted by readers interested in just a section of the whole document, or converted into other formats like Word Documents for ease of reading. However, OCR software is not yet universally accurate, though highly useful for quickly generating a first draft transcript; and it was necessary to check the text ourselves to eradicate the more serious errors (misspelt names and incorrect dates would be particularly unhelpful to people attempting to search the text; and, on a quirkier note, my software’s unfortunate tendency to turn unrecognised words into profanities was not exactly reflective of the professional quality of document we aim to produce here at the MRC). Though the length of Firefighter issues has been widely variable over the course of its publication history, on average it would take about an hour to fully OCR an issue. Once everything had been checked, we saved the document as a PDF to be uploaded to the Warwick Digital Collections website.

Figure 2: One of the many header designs used by Firefighter over the years; this one is now the banner for the collection on our website. It was used for several issues dating between 1945-1948.

The project held a personal interest for me: as the daughter of a retired firefighter, I can remember reading issues of the magazine that were lying around the house (in fact, I still do on visits home – sadly my favourite feature, The Station Cat, a political review disguised as a gossip column, is too recent to be represented in our collection); it was interesting to me to look into the publication’s history, to see what changed over the 70-year period we were digitising and what has remained the same.

While reading every article in every issue I digitised would have caused the process to take well over the nine months I eventually spent working on it, it was of course impossible not to become side-tracked now and then by a headline or by-line that I found particularly interesting. A number of political figures in the Labour Party, which has historically shared close ties with the FBU, and whose influence has grown in recent years are represented earlier on in their careers: perhaps most notably, Jeremy Corbyn, MP, now the party leader, was featured on the letters page of the January/February 1998 issue, expressing his support for the Union and reminiscing about his memories of and involvement in the 1977 strike. Current London mayor Sadiq Khan was mentioned in Firefighter in March/April 2000 in connection with his role as a solicitor representing an anti-Nazi campaigner assaulted by police officers. The latter is an interesting example of the kinds of stories featured in Firefighter magazine increasingly throughout the twentieth century: those of political activism and social justice in ways sometimes only tangentially related to the firefighting profession. The development of Firefighter from a somewhat dry journal chronicling AGMs and pay scales in the 1930s and 1940s, to a magazine reflecting its readers’ interests more widely and encouraging them to become increasingly involved in political and social activism outside of the Fire Brigade’s direct sphere of interest by the 2000s, is a gradual but constant force of change that can be charted through the digital collection. To some it may seem out of place in a trade journal, but in my opinion it is wholly consistent with the underlying mission of the Fire and Rescue Service as I have always understood it: to give help and aid indiscriminately wherever it is needed, in the belief that everyone has an equal right to protection and safety.

Figure 3: The September 1990 issue of Firefighter (ref: 346/4/117/21) explains the FBU’s growing interest in social issues, both at home and internationally.

The collection of Firefighter issues held by the MRC dates from 1932 to 2001. I find it particularly poignant that the last issue we digitised is the September/October 2001 edition, which includes the FBU’s commentary on the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in New York, in which 343 of the 414 emergency workers who died were firefighters. (The death toll amongst first responders would later rise due to injuries and long-term health conditions developing as a result of their presence at the site.) On this terribly sad subject there is very little to add to what has already been written, except to appreciate again the extraordinary and selfless efforts taken by emergency responders every time they report to work.

Figure 4: A brief notice in the September/October 2001 issue (ref: 346/4/239/12/10) shows the international solidarity between UK and US firefighters in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York.

On the subject of our collection ending here, it feels somehow apt that this devastating turning point in 21st century history is accompanied by a reminder of some more positive changes in the realms of computing and technology that were taking place, gradually, at the same time. The Fire Brigades Union in the period 2000/2001 acquired the capacity to begin keeping digital copies of their own magazine, and this is the reason our online collection ends here: more current issues can be found in PDF format on the FBU’s own website. What we hold in our digital archive is a thorough and comprehensive history of the Fire Brigades Union in the twentieth century, chronicling everything from the biggest concerns of the day – annual meetings, major incidents, and watershed changes in policy – to the day-to-day concerns of the individual union members: injury claims, holiday clubs, training schools, and views and opinions that are deeply held and passionately expressed. It is a history that is still very much alive and very relevant today, because the modern Fire and Rescue Service is a direct continuity of everything written down and preserved in this collection.

Firefighter, 1932-2001, is available online as part of Warwick Digital Collections

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