December 07, 2011

ARA Conference 2011 missed

I missed the conference this year (it's hard to justify training when your employer is firing people and the general mood at the office is low). From the reports of colleagues and friends, and the predictably favourable write up it got in the ARA magazine, it was a good event. I could probably have done with attending - I admit I have a problem with advocacy. Mainly, I just can't understand why everyone doesn't instantly grasp the importance of what we do and throw resources and money at us while simultaneously shaking our hands and buying us drinks. It's mind boggling. Clearly I live in a place far from reality.

When I look at the current frustrations in my job (or, from a different perspective, the frustrations in my current job), advocacy could help. How to convince other departments in the organisation that they should support the archival endeavour? Particularly when: a) the budget is tight and we do not tick any boxes in the company strategy (and I work in a library!); and b) I am low down the hierarchy of power and my voice is correspondingly heard only as a slight murmur on the breeze.

I like to moan as much as anyone. Perhaps more. I'm developing a pessimistic streak. Unfortunately, experience has taught me that this produces zero positive outcomes (unless I do the moaning over several pints of beer and count inebriation as an outcome). Perhaps the conference would have provided a space for me to moan, drink and be encouraged by fellow archivists and conservators. I am sorry I missed it.

August 19, 2011

Experiencing history on-line

Over a month ago the Guardian published this piece by Tristram Hunt on using on-line sources for historical research. The author seems to conflate access and interpretation, and to be in thrall to a concept of history as a truth that can be comprehended only through physical contact with the documentary evidence. What tosh. At the time I rolled my eyes and got on with life.

But Hunt’s article highlights assumptions about, and attitudes to, on-line resources that impact my everyday working life. Digital collections, catalogues and other on-line resources (such as transcriptions and translations) often suffer unfavourable comparison with their original counterparts. This is unfair. Worse, it is proof that those of us involved in creating and providing access to digital resources are failing to communicate with our users. Worse still, it shows that misconceptions regarding research and resources persist, in defiance of common sense and the positive attitude that should develop from actual use of these resources.

Here are some of them:

1. That digital resources offer a short-cut, and that this is a bad thing

Digital resources do offer short-cuts. On-line catalogues, digital collections, transcriptions/translations, OCR, etc all help reduce the time needed to identify and access useful material. I cannot really conceive of the argument that says this is a bad thing. Perhaps I am misinterpreting the issue. Hunt writes: “…historians are very keen on short cuts for interpreting the past” (my italics). This brings me to a second misconception….

2. That in the past historians did proper research but today’s generation don’t put in the effort

Accessing historical sources is not the same as interpreting them. This holds true for hard copy originals and their surrogate digital versions. Lazy or inadequate research is not caused, or encouraged, by new technologies. It is caused by lazy and inadequate researchers.

3. That digitisation eliminates impenetrable prose

Digitisation does not alter the content of a record. Granted that transcripts help with deciphering difficult hand writing, but if the meaning of the text being studied is hard to penetrate, this characteristic of the author’s style does not disappear by being rendered into digital form.

4. That those responsible for creating digital surrogates of original material do not understand about the integrity of the record

There is a belief that digital surrogates can never really stand in for the originals because something inherent in the physical object and essential for it’s proper understanding will be lost. This attitude is disturbing; see points five and six below. I think it is fuelled by an assumption that those creating digital copies do not understand records and will somehow ‘get it wrong’ – that we will not copy the covers or miss out the detail in the binding or not display the pages the right way up. This is crazy and insulting.

5. That history is a magical place and that this can be lost

Hunt writes that “when everything is downloadable, the mystery of history can be lost”. This is a lunatic statement. History can be unknown, open to interpretation, debated and discussed. It can be thrilling, exciting, sad, confusing and amusing. Above all, it can be discovered. But I think what Hunt is actually advocating here is a concept of history as something hard to attain. If anyone can just download copies of original documents, what happens to the excitement and adventure of discovery? It is no longer a quest. When history, and the raw ingredients of it, are experienced without the dust, is it really worthwhile? This question is irrational. Although the “wow” factor of holding original items exists, the excitement of discovery is not less when it happens online.

6. That the mystery of history is found only in objects and not text/meaning

Hunt writes: “it is only with MS in hand that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent”. There is something special about holding original documents but the meaning of the words is no different whether you read the original or a copy. This assumption implies a miraculous transference of meaning from the object to the holder not available outside of the sanctum of the holding repository.

7. That serendipity does not exist in the digital world

Proponents of this argument say that, in the physical world fortunate discoveries are found either through a reference in a catalogue (usually a card index) or hidden in a bundle of papers. Neither of these opportunities for discovery disappears simply because the catalogue is in a database and the bundle has been turned into a pdf document.

March 09, 2011

UK Archives Discovery Forum 2011

Last week I attended the UK Archives Discovery Forum 2011, held at The National Archives. What can I say? The presentations were interesting and relevant, if not strictly to my current position then to how I'm thinking about archival work in general; and the atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. I caught up with friends and former colleagues, which is always a bonus at these events, even though it's kind of to be expected. My compliments to the organisers.

November 16, 2010

Learning for the heck of it

Holly Fairhall posted a link to a youtube video of Stewart Lee eloquently explaining why university places and the arts should be government funded and the narrow minded thinking that motivates the decision makers. I haven't re-posted the link. You can access it on Holly's blog.

Lee's main point revolves around the belief that knowledge, learning and creativity are valuable for their own sake. He fears that the prospect of massive student debt will create a generation of people who appreciate education only for its money-making potential. Whether this is being done deliberately to rid most of Britain (all except Scotland) of independent thought or not, this is a chilling prospect. Personally, I love learning. Professionally, I need people who love to learn adn who appreciate the value of archives and of archivists. What will we do if people aren't encouraged to be interested in the world they live in?

November 15, 2010

Access and Accessibility

As a digital archivist I'm responsible for a lot of digital stuff. Records that I need to make available to the public. Preferably, this will happen in an on-line situation where multiple users can view the material from anywhere in the world. But “access”, it seems, is an ambiguous term. What do we aim to achieve when we set out to provide access? Are providing access and making our material accessible the same thing? I don't think so.

It's clear that access can be narrowly defined as "getting the stuff", whereas accessibility incorporates so much more. In order to make our collections accessible, we need to provide archival descriptions. That is, we must supply the means by which the records can be understood and appreciated in ways that allow users to make meaningful use of them. This is kind of a “well, duh” statement, and I was pleased to note that ISAD(G) clearly states that: “The purpose of archival description is to identify and explain the context and content of archival material in order to promote its accessibility.” Making records easily available (physically or electronically) is not the same as making them accessible.

RAD unpacks this a little by stating that archival description serves three specific aims: to provide access via retrievable descriptions; to promote understanding by documenting the content, context and structure of records; and to provide information relevant to establishing the authenticity of the records. I like these very much. Further on, RAD states that: “to ensure effective access to archival material, decisions related to description and the choice of access points should reflect the archivist’s obligation to all users.” This is great. An “all-user” focus demands that we think of different users – in-house, academic, genies, etc – and how we can meet all of their information needs.

DACS has a slightly different approach. For DACS the main purpose of archival description is “the creation of access tools that assist users in discovering desired records.” The foremost access tools DACS refers to are catalogues and inventories. So for DACS, archival descriptions lead to the creation of finding aids. This explanation of A&D emphasises discoverability and does not mention making the records understandable or meaningful to users. The rest of this section discusses different access points and how to incorporate them into your descriptions.

And what does all of this mean? It explains why providing access to the digital material is not enough. It also emphasises the importance of archival descriptions to the concept of access. Without context there is no understanding, and without understanding there is no meanngful use.