30 April 2007

Memories in Berlin

I was once told that written archives do not make good exhibition materials. My contention was that they did if they were displayed with care and due consideration for the audience and in conjunction with other more primarily visual materials. This was amply demonstrated to me by the exhibitions that I visited in Berlin last week. On a warm spring day I spent a few hours walking along the former line of the Berlin Wall and past fragments that remained standing in a peaceful and slightly unkempt cemetery, as well as a former watchtower standing incongruously amongst modern apartment buildings. I then arrived at the main Berlin Wall Memorial - a short length of the wall that has been maintained as a monument and, unlike most of the remaining fragments, is clean of all graffiti. Opposite the wall is the Information Centre. It is quite modest in size and has a simple layout, with one main exhibition area showing a small but effective display that mixes silent film footage (all the more effective for being silent), arresting and shocking photographs, audio reports and copies of archival material, including newspaper reports, personal testaments and postcards. An even more memorable and haunting experience was Peter Eisenmann's new Holocaust Memorial and the new information centre beneath. The memorial itself consists of 2,711 concrete blocks ('stelae') arranged in undulating rows with narrow gaps between them. The information centre is everything such a place should be. It has a sombre and quiet atmosphere and it tells the story of the Holocaust simply but very effectively. There are only a few rooms and they are themed, including one on families, one on individuals and one on locations. The first room consisted of illuminated areas on the floor that corresponded to the stelae above and displayed blown-up copies of archive materials, mainly personal letters, including one written in haste by a woman on a train who did not know its destination - it ended at a concentration camp. She flung the letter from the train and a local farmer found it and posted it on. The families room is deeply affecting, with the stories of 13 families brought to life through 13 panels showing photographs, archives, some film footage and short explanations of the plight of the families, with a record of those who died and those who survived. Much of the archive material comes from the families themselves and in fact one panel has very few photographs or documents, reflecting the reality that most families lost all of their personal possessions and for many people who perished in the concentration camps there may be no photographic or other personal evidence of their life before the War. The personal memorials room dedicated to individuals is a dark, empty space, illuminating one name on the wall at a time and telling a short history of that person, whether it be a 5 year old girl from Poland or a 75 year old man from Austria. For me the Holocaust Memorial and information centre were very moving and affecting. A great deal of thought and care must have gone into the design of the centre, and the exhibits were obviously chosen very carefully so that the rooms were not overfull of masses of information but kept largely empty, with the archive materials used to great effect and speaking volumes about the past. My only reservation is that this is not a memorial for all who died in the genocide and that Berlin appears to be ending up with a number of victims' memorials and a number of arguments over who should get what and where. For me, Berlin is a city where archives really do play a central and very noticeable role in telling the story of a city and particularly of the dark and difficult events of Second World War.


27 April 2007

Archives Gateways

Conference banner In yesterday's keynote at the International Standards for Digital Archives conference Bill Stockting took a retrospective look at the development and methodolgy of the A2A programme led by The National Archives (TNA) in the UK. A2A (Access to Archives) £4,000,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) since its inception in 2000. This money has been awarded to a wide range of content-creation projects in England, creating a database of over 100,000 EAD files, containing over 1,000,000 units of archival description between them. Bill went on to explain that the current phase of A2A (known as Access 4 All) would be the final content creation phase for the programme. This phase ends in March 2008 and Bill explained that the data would be transferred to another TNA system. Options for the future maintenance of the data are currently being investigated. The changing priorities of TNA itself and the main funding agency (HLF) were two of the reasons given by Bill for this change. It has become increasingly difficult for repositories to get funding for simple retroconversion projects from HLF in recent years. Bill also noted that many repositories are now actively converting their paper-based finding aids into electronic format themselves, so there was less of a requirement for a central team to co-ordinate such work. My concern is that it might become more difficult to update existing A2A descriptions and to add new ones as a result of this decision. The information in the database may then become increasingly divergent from the versions of the finding aids that are held in the repositories themselves and that the staff in those archives are continuing to improve and build upon. Stefano Vitali was the next speaker. He demonstrated the use of EAC and EAD in the online guide to the State Archives of Florence. The interface was impressive. One area that bothers me slightly about separating out the authority file information from the EAD is that it might become confusing to novice users. One moment you're looking at a collection description, with its own internal navigation, then if you follow a link to a separate authority file, you find yourself in a different record. This could be confusing for the uninitiated. Perhaps it is better to incorporate elements from both EAD and EAC within one display. Blanca Desantes Fernández showed us the Censo-Guía de Archivos de España e Iberoamérica. This is a top-level guide to institutions holding material relating to Spain and Latin America. An XML DTD for describing archival institutions was developed for this project: Encoded Archival Guide (EAG). Blanca explained that this is now being taken forward by the International Council of Archives as a new archival standard: International Standard for Institutions with Archival Holdings (ISIAH). Umweltforum (conference venue)The final session was a panel discussion about a proposed new European gateway to archives. This was interesting. It seems to be a response from European national archivists to The European Library, which is building a union catalogue of holdings of national libraries. The archive gateway's scope seems unclear at present and there does not appear to have been any attempt at establishing whether there is public demand for such a system. A seven-year timescale was mentioned, but no funding has yet been secured and the scope seems potentially limitless. I don't feel that the European archive world has the building blocks in place for such a project yet (unlike the national libraries). But if the project were to focus on making it possible to create those building blocks, then that would be a good place to start. Something like the Spanish project might be a sensible target for an initial project.

Labels: , , , ,

25 April 2007

Neuer Post

Umspannwerk Ost restaurantBlogger knows I'm in Germany - the interface is all in German. Neat. And just a teeny bit creepy. I'm here with Jane at the International Standards for Digital Archives conference. Lots of presentations about EAD, EAC, METS and related standards. I was talking about the Spokes software yesterday (the EAD day). The picture shows the inside of the Umspannwerk Ost restaurant where we had dinner last night. It used to be an electrical substation. The conference venue (the Umweltforum) used to be a church. They're good at recycling here. Daniel PittiToday was all about EAC and METS - Daniel Pitti was one of the speakers giving the background to EAC in the morning. Apparently there have been complaints about the complexity of the standard, so Daniel was asking for more details on this problem, as work is about to start on rebuilding it 'from the ground up'. I enjoyed his closing comment which was along the lines of "it doesn't matter what you do in the privacy of your own repository, but if you're going outside, please dress up in a standard" (or a nice hat, of course).

Labels: , ,

24 April 2007

If you want to get ahead ...

Paddy tries some headwear ... get a hat.

Labels: ,

22 April 2007

Archival Word of the Week: Access Points

FingerpostAlso known as index terms or keywords. We make sure that each archival description on the Archives Hub includes at least one of these. Access points help our search engine, especially our Subject Finder, which does very clever things with them. And each access point on the Hub is a link to other descriptions with the same access point. An index term points you to where you want to go. When you look at the access points for a particular description, you usually see indicating more descriptions of potential interest. So go on, try following an access point, see where it takes you. See also: Guided Tour: Access Points. See also: For Archivists: Creating access points.


17 April 2007

Researchers' Use of Academic Libraries

library book shelvesA new report has been published by the Research Information Network (RIN) and the Consortium of Research Libraries (CURL): Researchers' Use of Academic Libraries and their Services [pdf format]. This is based on information gathered from more than 2,000 UK researchers and 300 librarians. After being somewhat critical in an earlier post about the RIN's Researchers and Discovery Services report, I feel honour-bound to record here that this report is much more comprehensive and well-written. Its authors are Sheridan Brown and Alma Swan of Key Perspectives Ltd. The report covers a number of areas, including the impact of digital services, problems of attracting enough funding, communication between library staff and researchers, and changing patterns of use. Archive services within academic libraries get a number of mentions, with the interesting statistic that:
Archives are rated "very useful" by 50% of arts and humanities researchers and special collections by 46%. By comparison the figures for life science researchers are 10% and 8%.
Really? 10% of life scientists find archives "very useful"? Wow! The report also noted that:
Most researchers use digital finding aids to locate both digital and print-based resources. Print finding aids are used by very few researchers, and these are mainly in the arts and humanities. This highlights the need for libraries to ensure that they provide online high-quality metadata for their holdings, and that they address cataloguing backlogs. Information resources that cannot be found electronically may well be overlooked, since few researchers will invest the time required to track down items that cannot be quickly be identified using digital finding aids.
And in the same vein:
Libraries have made significant efforts to optimise the visibility and usage of their archival or special collection material through digitisation programmes. Feedback from researchers is very positive, but many information resources that could be useful to researchers remain under-used currently, mainly because they exist only in hardcopy or are inadequately catalogued.
...material that is digitised and for which there is easily-available and accurate metadata will be visible and usable by scholars. What remains in print may well be sought out, but probably only if it is digitally catalogued. Indeed, some researchers as well as librarians pointed out that more use would be made of library holdings overall – especially special collection materials – if they were all properly and accurately catalogued so that resource discovery tools could locate them effectively. Librarians acknowledge that there is much to be done in this area, but cite inadequate resources – time and staff expertise – as the cause of cataloguing backlogs and deficiencies.
I suppose that I would like to have seen the occasional mention of archivists in the report - especially as one of the 'key roles for future librarians' identified by all participants was to be custodians of archives and special collections. But that is only a minor gripe. What would be really good would be to see this recognition of the funding deficiencies and the importance of access to digital information about archives (even to life scientists) translated into a funding programme to help in the continuing task of converting hard-copy archive catalogues into electronic form and to start work on the huge backlog of uncatalogued materials. Or the community could just pay for another report to be written on the subject instead... ;-)

Labels: , , ,

15 April 2007

Archival Word of the Week: Calendar

Calendar with picture of terrierNot to be confused with calendar. Archivists use this word for an inventory of items in a collection listed chronologically. The items themselves haven't been re-arranged this way - a calendar is a description, or an interpretation, presenting another way of looking at the collection. But when calendars in either sense appear on the Archives Hub, they themselves tend to be items within an archival collection. Collections on the Hub are described with a hierarchical organisation, another interpretation but one providing more contextual information, and more likely to reflect the organisation of the materials. Illustration: terrier inspired by the Underdog Show.

Labels: ,

08 April 2007

Archival Word of the Week: Common-place book

'Twas fate,' they'll say, 'a wayward fate/Your web of discord wove;/And while your tyrants join'd in hate,/You never join'd in loveBit of a misnomer this one: common-place books are not printed books, they're manuscript, and they are not commonplace - each one is unique.That's why so many appear in archival collections described on the Archives Hub. From the 16th century and on into the 19th, many people preserved snippets of conversation and interesting excerpts from books, by writing them down in a notebook, collected in a 'common place' for future reference. Perhaps this blog sometimes resembles a digital common-place book, especially in the way the 'labels' organise our posts by theme, much as commonplace books were often organised. Illustration: excerpt from "Weep On, Weep On" by Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852). See also: Collections of the Month: Love letters.

Labels: ,

03 April 2007

Living a Second Life

Second Life screenshot I attended a talk on Second Life today by Andy Powell of Eduserv. Second Life is a 3-d virtual world that is currently being very hyped up and has received a great deal of interest from educators interested in its potential for e-learning. Second Life (SL) is free to enter and navigate around, but in order to really get involved you need to buy land, which effectively means buying server space with Linden Labs, the developer and owner of the software. The world is populated by avatars (residents) but Andy warned that those who are looking for a gaming environment would be disappointed - Second Life does not have a purpose as such; it is generally used to buy, sell, entertain and learn. In fact, you can (within acceptable limits) do what you like within SL, including building your own games, houses, galleries, offices and shops. The software does require a high spec machine, which is likely to limit its value to schools and colleges, but it does have potential as a useful learning environment. You could, for example, buy a plot of land, build a gallery and show an exhibition of archive materials, complete with notes about each exhibit and links to the online catalogues. You could also decide to have a lecture space where you run a slideshow - Andy had just such a space on 'Eduserv Island' where he was showing the PowerPoint slides for the day's session. You can also have an audio presentation as QuickTime is integrated with SL. The main drawback is that you can only have about 40 people in a space at any one time, but it is likely that this will change over time. You communicate in SL by chat, either public or private, which effectively means typing rather than true audio communication, though this is apparently proposed for future versions of SL. You create your own profile, which may include your interests and skills, and you can create groups of friends so that you are told when a friend is currently in SL. Andy had built himself a shoe shop and was designing and selling shoes for £99 Linden dollars (the SL currency) which is about 30p in real money. He isn't planning on retiring to the Bahamas just yet though! There certainly have been rumours of people making good money out of SL and there are apparently 'land barons' who go round buying up land and looking to make a profit. The statistics indicate that Second Life has typically something like 1.7 million users in 60 days and some big commercial companies and institutions have got involved, including the BBC and also Harvard Law School, who apparently have a court room for their students to carry out role playing. There are certainly limitations with an environment such as Second Life, and inevitably it does not match up to the hype that surrounds it, but this sort of virtual world may become more ubiquitous in learning and teaching, and maybe also in everyday life if people find their First Life falling short of expectations! Image: Copyright 2007, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

01 April 2007

Archival Word of the Week: Ephemera

Tonite onlyGeneric name for published documents which are designed to perform a specific task at a specific time, and expected to be forgotten or thrown away after use - although they might be retained for a striking design or as a souvenir of an event. Ephemera include posters, tickets, and leaflets. Does this blog count as ephemera? I don't know. These temporary documents tend to be littered with 'linguistic shifters' - relative terms such as 'tonight' or 'here' - which always require contextual information to make any sense at all. Link: ephemera Link: Carried away

Labels: ,