27 June 2006

Left on the shelf?

I listened to a really interesting talk yesterday 'Ontology is Overrated' by Clay Shirkey - http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail470.html.

His main point was that we are sticking to old habits of classification in an online world, even though these habits were brought about by the physical constraints of the shelf, which are no longer applicable. In a physical environment our real goal was to optimise the physical storage and not the intellectual aspect. In reality, ideas can be all over the place, but a book (or archive) has to be one place. He compared the approach of Yahoo to Google: Yahoo persisted with categories and limited cross-references, and Google gave up on the idea of classifying by subject and just went with the principle 'you stick in your search terms and we'll find relevant stuff', and Google has now practically taken over the search engine world. Clay believes that ontologies only work well if you have a limited amount of stuff, if it is clear and if it is stable. Classification schemes effectively mean that we describe something and then ask users to guess how we've described it. We should be moving away from all or nothing categorisations. The reality of folksonomies, used in popular services such as del.icio.us, is that each individual categorisation scheme is worth less, but there are many many more of them. If we can find way of creating value by rolling them up over time they will come to outpace professional categorisation schemes, particularly re. robustness and costs. "Does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world?" He concluded that if we are to make sense of the world, then there are many points of view and we shouldn't privilege one version. We can try to make sense of rolling up what is out there to get an aggregate value, but without having an ontological goal and without trying to get a perfect view of the world.

Well, its all food for thought. I do believe that we need to think differently in an online world, and we are going to have to embrace the interactive nature of the Web - many users like services where they have control and they can tag their own content. However, I think that doing away with the idea of professional categorisation is going too far the other way. We need to find imaginative ways to work with both approaches and get the best for all types of user.

Both a spôcs

Had a meeting in Aberystwyth yesterday with some archivists who work for higher education institutions in Wales. Some are interested in using the Spokes software to host their multi-level finding aids. It soon became clear that the attitude of their respective IT departments had a lot of influence on the likelihood of their adopting the software. One institution faced a long wait before the software could be installed, while another's IT section was willing to set a machine up almost immediately, happy to give their team more practice with setting up a Linux server. Much of the discussion revolved around the problem of obtaining funding for creating those multi-level descriptions. It is widely felt that getting money for cataloguing projects is increasingly difficult, despite the widespread need for the backlogs to be tackled. Catalog Cymru is a project that has recently started in Wales to assess the significance and extent of uncatalogued materials held in 22 repositories in the country. Another point of discussion was whether the Archives Network Wales would be able to host full finding aids in the future, as this is a purely collection-level service at present. Again, the answer will depend on the availability of future funding. I think that the title to this entry reads 'Hub and Spokes' in Welsh, but please let me know if that's wrong!


19 June 2006

End of an era

Elizabeth Danbury, responsible for training generations of archivists in the UK, at the University of Liverpool and, more recently, at University College London, announced her retirement during a presentation at the FARMER conference for archival educators in Aberystwyth last week. Elizabeth gave a very entertaining presentation at the conference about the changes in archival education in the UK over the last thirty years, ending with the observation that the future is 'promising and challenging - Good Luck!'.