19 December 2006

Review of 2006

Archives Hub Christmas CardIt's been an eventful year for the Archives Hub, so I thought I'd take this chance to select a few highlights. Development work has been proceeding fast on the Spokes software. John Harrison (over in Liverpool), Jane and Steve have put a lot of energy into this and we're also grateful to all the 'early adopters' who've given us so much useful feedback. I'm sure that 2007 will see widespread uptake of this software, which gives institutions a low-cost way of presenting their EAD files online. ELGAR is the Spoke installation at the John Rylands University Library here in Manchester, which has not been live for long, but which is already appearing in search engine results for searches on the names of John Rylands collections. The Hub's collections of the month have been brilliant this year: I think my favourite one was June's look at Romanies and Gypsiologists, which is a great example of the way that services like the Archives Hub can bring together related collections from a range of archive-holding institutions. Thanks to Paddy for all the work that he does on this aspect of the service. We've had a couple of interruptions to the Archives Hub's service this year: a major power cut to Manchester Computing's building in May and a hard disk failure in October. Steve ensured that the interruptions were as brief as possible! We are a small team here, with five of us sharing an office, but all three of the men became fathers during 2006, so best wishes to all the new families for their first Christmas. In the last week a complimentary review of the Archives Hub and other MIMAS services was published in the Guardian newspaper (scroll down the article to 'The MIMAS Touch'), which was an excellent way to end the year. We wish all our users, contributors and colleagues a happy Christmas and a fulfilling 2007. The image is of the 2006 Archives Hub Christmas card, in case you didn't get a hard copy version. Snowflakes were made using the Make a Flake site.

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15 December 2006

Thanks for the memories

Amanda and I attended an excellent colloquium this week, 'Memories for Life'. This was the culmination of a project that sought to bring together a diverse range of academics with the aim of understanding more about how memory works and developing the technologies to enhance it: http://www.memoriesforlife.org/ The expert and very excellent panelists covered aspects of device engineering, computer science, psychology and neuroscience as well as ethical and legal issues. The stuff of our digital life may be created and controlled by us or it may be held externally, evidence of our interactions with the world around us. The colloquium looked at ways this stuff is growing, questioned how it is being used and how it might be used and looked at the implications for us as individuals and as a community. As a magician in a former life, Professor Richard Wiseman showed us how magic tricks illustrate the sleight of hand that can fool us into certain beliefs that are not in fact true. To some extent magic actually manipulates memory and shows us that we can't necessary trust what we see (or think we see). Similarly, Richard explained how psychological experiments that he has been involved with show just how open we are to suggestion. One example he gave was a séance that was set up as an experiment. The medium (an actor) was asked to suggest that as well as some of the objects on the table moving (they were moved with a stick whilst in a pitch black room), the table itself moved. This had not in fact happened, but when questioned later about a third of the participants believed the table had moved, although most of them did not recollect that it was the medium who had suggested this to them. It seems that the smallest and most seemingly insignificant of comments can lead people to recall the improbable and maybe the impossible! So much for the trust that we place in memory... Professor Yorick Wilks introduced us to the 'Companion', rather endearingly referred to by him as the furry handbag. This is currently a rather blue skies concept for a digital friend that will help organise an individual's memories. It will learn what the individual likes and dislikes and deal with their vast digital memories. For example, the person may show the Companion some family photos and talk about who is who, what they are doing and when things took place, and the Companion will learn and piece things together. The idea would be to build up a relationship of trust and maybe even a kind of friendship which would in reality be based on effective machine learning and the use of natural language...and of course furry handbags would also be able to talk to eachother and this may help people who are isolated, particularly elderly people who may live by themselves. For more about this fascinating project see http://nlp.shef.ac.uk/companions. Coming back to ground that archivists are maybe more familiar with, Anna Sebba, a biographer, talked about the sources that have particular value for her, and especially the importance of physical evidence such as tear-stained love letters and even letters smeared with mud from wartime trenches. The challenges of digital material are great, but the same process of skilled selection will apply. A biographer inevitably shapes a person's life, and of course the person may shape their own life to some extent by what they select to keep and what they throw away. However, it is now much more likely that records relating to an individual will be strewn throughout the digital environment, so the control that an individual can exercise over how they are represented is diminishing. This idea was developed by Professor Jonathan Zittrain, who gave a very entertaining talk about ubiquitous data and the madness of crowds. He portrayed very effectively the fact that we have gone beyond big brother watching you to a situation where everyone is effectively watching everyone else, albeit without any particular controlling or malevolent motivation. You may think you are pretty much an anonymous individual, but who knows where your picture or parts of your life story might end up. Web sites like Flickr and MySpace offer the opportunity for everyone to represent themselves and their friends and families, but people may also find themselves represented in the lives and events of strangers. In the world we now live in anything out of the norm is likely to be recorded by someone on their phone or digital camera and likely as not posted to a site like YouTube. There does seem to be a fascination with watching the ordinary and maybe even the mundane: Texas Border Watch is a great example of a US federal authority benefiting from this. Texans were prepared to watch hours of video footage of the border fence in order to report any suspicious activity - http://www.texasborderwatch.com/ (currently closed for a revamp). We may have baggage from our life that we would rather drop, but this will become increasingly difficult when so much of life is now digitally recorded. Your faux pas or misdemeanors may end up being posted to the world. On the other hand, the rise of social software has created communities and enabled people who may feel isolated to make connections. The 'long tail' also allows people to find others all over the world who may share the most obscure and minority interests. For more about this concept see http://longtail.typepad.com/. The ethical issues surrounding this whole area are complex. The point was made that we often do things because we can, but maybe we should be asking whether we really want to, who will benefit from it and whether it is actually ethical.The structure that is put around data may have profound implications for selection and access in the future, and this is something that we as archivists need to think about. There was mention of XML, in relation to the People's War site, which is being preserved for the future - http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/. This is the practical side of thinking about preserving data for the future, but it also behoves us to think more about all of these complex and fascinating wider issues, and that is exactly what this colloquium did so well. The colloquium left me with a brain full of ideas (which have now become memories of course). I was left with the curious idea that in a way we are increasingly outsourcing memories into the environment, and we may soon take for granted the idea that our memories are stored both in our brains and in the digital environment.

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08 December 2006

Irish blues

The library of Trinity College Dublin was featured in Material World this week on BBC Radio 4. The programme discussed the use of Laser Raman spectroscopy, which is a non-destructive way of analysing the contents of the pigments in the illustrations of the 9th-century Book of Kells. It had originally been thought that the blues in the paintings were made from lapis lazuli, causing elaborate theories of very early trade links between Ireland and Afghanistan to be developed. The new technique showed that the blue was in fact created from woad, which is slightly less exotic and exciting, but much more easily explained. Keeper of manuscripts Bernard Meehan and keeper of conservation Susie Bioletti both featured in the programme, which is available online until next Thursday.

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05 December 2006

A selection of Collections of the Month

This December's Collections of the Month feature, Somerville and Ross, is the fourth time now that we've highlighted the description for their Manuscript Collection held at Queen's University Belfast. It's an interesting collection! The yellow jersey though goes to John Ruskin, whose manuscript collection at The University of Manchester, The John Rylands University Library has made a total of six appearances in Collections of the Month. Several collection descriptions appear three times, including those for papers of Robert Donat and Nikolaas Tinbergen, and for the records of Penguin Books.


03 December 2006

Henry Blogg

Coxswain Henry Blogg (1876-1954) was the RNLI's most decorated lifeboatman. As well as RNLI medals for gallantry, he was awarded the George Cross and British Empire Medal. In 53 years of service, Henry Blogg and his crew helped to save 873 lives. There is now an RNLI Henry Blogg Museum in Cromer, Norfolk.


01 December 2006

Death again

I was going to post about the mention of the Cumbria Archive Service on Radio 4's The Today Programme yesterday morning, but then two pieces of news about the National Archives and Library in Iraq caught my attention. One was a posting by Jeffrey B. Spur on the History News Network stating that the institution has been closed, the other was Patricia Sleeman's message to the JISCmail archives-nra list, inviting archivists to read the diary entries of the institution's Director, Saad Eskander, which have been mounted on the Society of Archivists' website. These items put PR triumphs by UK archivists into perspective, but you can hear Anne Rowe (Cumbria's County Archivist) talking about the more mysterious seventeenth century deaths in Cumbria in The Today Programme until next Thursday.