29 May 2007

Google in the dog house?

An article in saturday's Times (26/05/07) warns us about the Big Brother nature of Google: http://tinyurl.com/ynuovl David Rowan warns that Google holds a great deal of personal information about us, and yet this is only the beginning of its campaign to monitor our likes, dislikes and motivations. As soon as you sign up for any Google service, the data accumilation process begins. As Rowan suggested, I logged onto iGoogle (personalised Google web page) and looked at my web surfing history, which includes searches, sites and clicks. Curiously, top of the 'movers' which is described as 'recent top queries related to your searches' was 'Crufts'. Seeing as my searches included conference venues, educational institutions and The National Archives, I found this a little surprising. When Google started we all thought it was rather quirky and friendly and took us away from the global dominance attitude of Microsoft. Now it is becoming increasingly dominant in a way that may be rather more unhealthy. You may be happy for Google to build up a psychological profile of you, in order to make useful suggestions about what you might want to buy, to wear, to do, to think...Its not as if this approach isn't something many of us take advantage of - I have bought items from Amazon following suggestions of 'if you like that you might like this'. But it does seem to be important for us to be aware that this is happening and think about how confident we are that Google will guarantee to keep our information private. It is also interesting to think about the nature of this personal data from the point of view of archiving. Google may be looking to 'organise the world's information' rather than store it, but in the end it is still eagerly gathering personal information. How is this information held and what will happen to it in the future?

24 May 2007

Mass Observation Archive in the news

Britain, by Mass ObservationFollowing on from Victoria Wood's success at the Bafta awards for writing and starring in the drama Housewife, 49, the BBC have published an article on Mass Observation, including mention of the archive at the University of Sussex.

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21 May 2007

Job vacancy at Archives Hub

Archives Hub logoA new job opportunity has just been advertised on the University of Manchester's website. This senior management role will have particular responsibility for the strategic management of the Copac and Archives Hub services. The closing date for applications is 5th June.

18 May 2007

Exploring the hills and valleys of Web 2.0

Paul Anderson’s excellent review of Web 2.0: ‘Web 2.0: Ideas, technologies and implications for education’ investigates the substance behind the hype and sets out six big ideas that lie behind Web 2.0, essentially signalling a change in the way people interact. The Web, according to Tim Berners-Lee, was always intended to be an interactive space and the original assumption was that everyone would be able to view and edit within this space, and it was intended that people would have the ability to edit through the Web. However, this feature was omitted during Web browser developments. Therefore, it could be said that Web 2.0 is really a manifestation of what the Web was always intended to be about and simply builds upon the technologies of ‘Web 1.0’. Many of us associate the term Web 2.0 with types of services, and Anderson gives a summary of many of these: blogs, wikis, tagging and social bookmarking, multimedia sharing, rss and syndication. He then moves on to look at the big ideas behind Web 2.0. The first of these is user generated content. One example of this is the way that the media are now using viewer’s clips and images of news events. Another interesting initiative was the BBC Creative Archive pilot which made content available for download to enable people to share, watch, listen and re-use this content under the terms and conditions set out in the Creative Archive Licence. This all seems to herald a shift from the idea of an information provider and receiver to more of a ‘conversation’ approach. But there do appear to be dangers inherent in moving away from a structured and authoritative approach to one that embraces the idea of a ‘collective intelligence’. One issue with this is that it appears to equate intelligence with information rather than thinking about intelligence as intellectual ability. In addition, the will to participate does appear to be a fickle thing. Anderson points out that of the 13 million blogs in Blogger, a major blog provider, 10 million are considered to be inactive. However, it does seem clear that there advantages to be gained by following the principle of acting independently but collectively, as a crowd. A service such as Wikipedia demonstrates very effectively the advantages of this approach. Whilst expanding on the implications of ‘the power of the crowd’, Anderson clarifies the definition of the term folksonomy, emphasising that it was originally defined as personal free tagging – it is not collaborative and it is not a form of categorisation. This may give some comfort to archivists who shudder at the idea of collaborative categorisation! Obviously value can be created by aggregating the results of folksonomy production, but in essence people are simply tagging information for their own retrieval. Anderson points to a comparison of these links to sheep paths, paths that have formed over time as many animals and people have just happened to use them. It may be that the value of folksonomies comes from combining these socially created tags with existing formal ontologies – the best of both worlds perhaps? Or there is the possibility of developing a ‘collabulary’, where domain users and experts work together on a shared vocabulary. Anderson goes on to look at Web 2.0 within the academic environment and does make the point that we tend to assume that students are wedded to MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, etc. etc. but in fact it may be that many learners are not interested in accessing, manipulating and broadcasting material in this way. We need more understanding of the ways that students learn and the social dimensions of social software. As far as the archive community is concerned, we may well wonder whether these new technologies (services) will allow archives to serve their users in better ways. It does seem that we have an opportunity to increase user participation and creativity and bring in new audiences. But do users want a ‘you looked at this archive, you might also be interested in that one’ kind of service? Whilst such services might work well on sites such as Amazon, we need to think carefully about what is appropriate within an archives environment. One thought that came to me whilst reading the report concerns the concept of the long tail. This supports the notion that everything, no matter how seemingly niche or specialised, is going to be of interest to some people somewhere in the world, and the Web breaks down the old barriers to access for this type of information. This should be of benefit to archivists in so far as archival material that may seem to have a very specialised audience, and therefore may in the past have barely been used, should now reach that audience…as long as we catalogue effectively and make decriptions available online. Of course, there is also the whole challenge of collecting and preserving the Web. The Internet Archive and UK Web Archive have made major strides in this arena. But Anderson points out the problems of the transient nature of the Web and the problems raised by the many complexities of Web technologies. He discusses the characteristics of Web 2.0 content and the implications for preservation and archiving in the context of the main underlying principles of Web 2.0. Certainly one of the conclusions must be that traditional collection and archiving methods are not suitable for the Web, and that we need to think about how to rise to this challenge. We also need to re-think our definition of archives. Anderson writes: “A developing trend will be the growth of people’s personal catalogues-digital collections of music, photographs, videos, list of books, places visited, etc….These collections will become extremely important to people, developing into a form of personal archive of a lifetime.” One thing is for sure, we will need to be willing to learn more about Web 2.0 services, about the ideas behind them and about how people are using them in order that we can have an informed discussion on the merits and pitfalls of these developments and in order that we can take best advantage of them to improve our services and increase levels of access and awareness. Image of the Lake District (which i put there just because it looks nice and because it represents the slightly murky but nevertheless interesting future of technologies.)

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08 May 2007

Overwhelmed by your cataloguing backlog?

Depressed manThe 'Lone Arrangers' blog alerted me to this excellent PowerPoint presentation by Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner (on the Twin Cities Archives Round Table blog) about cutting down the time it takes to provide access to modern archival collections. It has some highly sensible recommendations, including:
Don’t perform conservation tasks at a lower hierarchical level than you perform arrangement and description
i.e. don't worry about getting rid of every staple and paper clip - your environmental controls should be taking care of any potential problems there. I also liked the recommendation from the experiences of Yale's Beinecke Library:
All collections should have basic descriptions before any receive more detailed description
That was the original premise behind the funding for collection-level descriptions on the Archives Hub. This is echoed elsewhere in the slides:
See every collection as a potential work in progress Let future events drive further work
I remember cataloguing the papers of Sir Cecil Clementi along these 'minimal processing' lines when I was working at Rhodes House Library and we were under pressure from the donors to produce a finding aid. I felt like I was cutting corners and hadn't done a 'proper' job, not having numbered every single piece of paper (or removed every single paper clip), but recall that his daughter was delighted with the end product. So perhaps archivists are too perfectionist at times and should be concentrating more on getting at least a minimal level of description out there for our users.

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04 May 2007

Advocacy alert - archive service at risk

The Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists has organised a great campaign in support of the City of Regina Archives, currently under threat of extreme budget cuts as it has been identified as a "discretionary item that is not a core service for the City of Regina". Councils Come And Go: Archivists Make Them Last ForeverThe website allows you to send an e-postcard to the City Council's Finance and Administration Committee, which meets on 8th May to debate the report. It only takes a couple of minutes to do and you can personalise the message. Please consider supporting our Canadian colleagues by sending a postcard or an email - I'm sure international interest in this issue will be a huge help.