29 June 2007

No need to go to an archive!

I've just been reading Taking Part: The National Survey of Culture, Leisure and Sport Annual Report 2005-2006. Well, i've been reading the conclusions and then reading the archive bits, as its rather long and i'm less interested in those taking part in active sport and gambling. Anyway, it seems that '6 percent of all adults attended an archive at least once during the past twelve months.' That's about 2.4 million, which is a respectable number. Almost all of these had engaged in other cultural or sporting activities. With my Archives Hub bias I am immediately struck by the fact that this survey is about physical visits to archives and so misses out on satisfied users who have got the information that they needed from online resources. I was a little surprised that the majority had visited (I can't use the word 'attended' - it doesn't sound right) just once or twice (80%). I would have thought a larger proportion would have visited several times in a year. I was pleased to see that though attendance by ethnicity showed that adults from white ethnic backgrounds had higher rates of attendance, there were still significant proportions from other ethnic groups visiting archives. The figures for attendance by qualification showed the majority of visitors had A-levels or above and the age range was pretty much as expected. We are of course always keen to attract more people to use archives, but not so encouraging was the fact that the largest majority who had not visited one said they had 'no need to go'. I think there will always be a significant proportion who are not, at least on the surface, interested in documented history, but having said that, through exhibitions and interactive events we might persuade some of these people that archives can be relevant to them, even if they are not interested in sitting in a reading room. There were 14% who said that visiting an archive had not occurred to them, so this is a potential group to tap into. From the point of view of the Hub, the 14% who felt that they might visit an archive if there was better information on how to find material are a significant group, as our mission is really to enable users to find archive materials more easily. The survey collected data from 28,000 people, so 14% is pretty significant. However, we can't do much about the 30% who would visit if they had more free time!

25 June 2007

Pick 'n' Mix: Flora

Brambles The final installment of June's Pick 'n' Mix feature has a botanical theme. Our Digital Artist in Residence, Aileen Collis, has created a design based on an image of an illustration of wild rose haups in Illustrations of Scottish Flora (1912-1913) by David R. Robinson, part of the Kinnear Collection, held at University of Dundee Archive Services. And, above, here's a detail of another of another illustration "Types of Bramble. Rubus Fructicocus (Rosaceæ). From Woods Strathmigle to Falkland road, July 29th, 1913". Photograph copyright © University of Dundee Archive Services.


23 June 2007

I thought she'd left...

My last job for the Archives Hub has been to attend the conference of the Association of Canadian Archivists here in Kingston, Ontario (I know, it’s a tough life). Of course it’s been a wonderful networking opportunity for me too! The presentations were of such a consistently high quality and were so varied in nature that it’s difficult to come up with a summary of the conference as a whole, so I’m just going to mention some of the sessions that particularly stood out for me. On Thursday I was impressed by the reports of outreach work (known as ‘public programming’ here) from Lisa Singer of the Archives of Ontario and Jessica King of the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Obviously these are both relatively well-resourced institutions, but there were plenty of tips there that would also work for smaller institutions, including making a fuss of donors with hand-written thank-you notes or invitations to events, and getting involved with local historical and educational events and organisations. Yesterday there was a session on ‘Selective Memory, Archives and Society’, where Katherine Lagrandeur gave a fascinating talk about the relationship between testimony and archives in Art Spiegelman’s book Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, which chronicles his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew and was written in the form of a graphic novel. This was followed by Marcel Barriault’s look at the survival of records of gay male pornography and erotica, which was also, well, graphic! The session on ‘Archivists and Archives through the lens of Popular Culture’ yesterday afternoon was entertaining and had me scribbling down titles of books and films that I need to catch up on. Tania Aldred reported on her research into archivists in film. No fewer than 19 movies have featured archivists in the period between 1941 and 2004, and Tania pointed out that by far the most positive image was in the film National Treasure, with Diane Kruger in the role of Abigail Chase, but that the word ‘archivist’ was never used to describe her. There is a sequel being filmed now though, so there's still hope... The role archives can play in forming a sense of community was the subject of the session I attended this morning, which was very interesting. Anne Foster described the role of the archives in Bute, Montana, where the community was in decline, but an active oral history project undertaken by high school students was instrumental in rebuilding a sense of pride in the town’s past. In the afternoon I was presenting in a session on technology (my slides are on SlideShare), so I had to miss the session on eliciting user feedback, which included a presentation by Geoff Pick of London Metropolitan Archives. Geoff and I had been sitting next to each other for five hours on the way over on the plane on Sunday before we twigged that we were both archivists and both going to the same conference.


17 June 2007

Pick 'n' Mix: Beside the seaside

Punch and Judy booth by Aileen Collis The latest installment of June's Pick 'n' Mix feature has a seaside theme. Our Digital Artist in Residence, Aileen Collis, has created a design based on a seaside image. Aileen previously created digitally-printed fabric from a photo of Southport rock, and this fabric was used in constructing a Punch 'n' Judy booth - pictured here on Southport beach in Summer 2005. The Punch 'n' Judy booth also made an appearance at the Archives Hub's To Boldly Go! event that July. Photograph by Shaw + Shaw, courtesy of Aileen Collis. Design copyright © Aileen Collis.


15 June 2007

Arts and Humanities: research patterns and needs

I attended a very stimulating, thought-provoking and exhausting event yesterday, to discuss the possible implementation of an e-information infrastructure for arts and humanities. It was organised by the Research Information Network (RIN) and Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). E-information infrastructures include all kinds of digital content resources and the infrastructure than underpins them.

The day was so full, and covered so much, that it is difficult to summarise. A number of projects were presented, including Research Portals in the Arts and Humanities (RePAH), Gathering Evidence: Current ICT use and Future Needs for Arts and Humanities Researchers, Peer Review of Digital Resources and Log Analysis of Internet Resources (LAIRAH). I thought I would just list some of the key points that were made, areas that were discussed and general conclusions reached. This is not a comprehensive record of the discussion but just my impression of the points that came up:
  • The arts and humanities research community is diverse heterogeneous and complex and so it is very difficult to characterise and to come up with a set of needs and wants.
  • The question was raised as to whether we can really talk about an arts and humanities community at all
  • Libraries and archives play a critical role but the library focus will need to extend beyond books and journals
  • Institutional repositories will come to play a key role
  • We are not really clear where we are at present in terms of the research landscape, let alone where we are going. There is currently no clear direction.
  • We would benefit from a clear map of resources available and the various organisations that provide data, advice and support
  • We do not think enough about issues of re-usability of resources
  • Interoperability is of paramount importance
  • Sustainability is a key issue. We do not continue to care for, update and generally make the most of many research outputs. Not enough attention is paid to the benefits of a project after the funding has finished
  • Evidence of use and evidence of value are different things, and should be treated separately. We do not have enough information about either, especially evidence of value
  • The gathering and analysis of evidence is key
  • An e-information infrastructure must be user-driven, though it was acknowledged that users do not always know what they want or need (and cannot predict what might be available to them in the future)
  • Amalgamated resources are hugely important
  • Researchers will take up and use digital resources when they are readily available
  • It may be that we don’t need more resources but we need to enhance and connect together what we have to make them more effective
  • Levels of skill in arts and humanities computing vary widely
  • The European Digital Library was started at the same time as YouTube: which one has been the most successful..?
  • It is worthwhile to look at ‘resource curation’ rather than focusing on resource creation, encompassing how data is used and how the infrastructure enables reuse
  • Social infrastructure is just as important as technical infrastructure
  • It is important to remember that scholarship is often integral to actual resource creation
  • A good, well designed website is a key part of a quality, well-used resource
  • Whilst we may have data on resource discovery, access and even use to some extent, we do not know the outcome and impact of use of the resource
  • Some projects may be intellectually sound but have a shaky technical foundation: the technical foundation should be seen as a integral part of the project
  • Exciting ‘blue skies’ projects often get filtered out in the applications for funding when they may actually lead to more innovation and have greater impact.
  • It is important not just to think about resource discovery but also supporting researchers beyond this. Sometimes discovery is just the beginning (the easy part).
  • It would be useful for scholarly journals to review relevant resources. Resource providers might think about asking editors to review their resources.
  • Personally managed work environments may be a useful way forward, reflecting the ways in which researchers work. This requires greater interoperability from service providers.
  • Funding for an e-information infrastructure is, of course, a major issue. However, it is worth noting that there is a great deal currently available, but it is not joined up and people are not necessarily connected to it.
  • A federation of digital humanities centres may be the best way forward
  • The infrastructure will inevitably continue to be highly distributed and within that we need a clear picture of the roles and responsibilities in service provision, processes and support
  • There is no such thing as a 'lone researcher' (This was the general conclusion of those round the table: collaboration can take many forms and maybe in the arts and humanities it is different from the strong structures and formal collaboration in the sciences but there is still collaboration - researchers do not work in isolation.)
The intention is to put a summary of the day on the RIN website.

11 June 2007

Pink 'n' Mix

Tartan For the latest installment of this month's Pick 'n' Mix feature, our Digital Artist in Residence Aileen Collis has created a design based on a digital image of a pattern book in the collection of E Y Johnston, Textile Manufacturer, Galashiels, held at Heriot-Watt University. So here's a photo of some colourful fabric from another Heriott-Watt collection, that of Alan Paterson (died 1986), who collected and researched Highland dress and tartan. The photo shows a woman's silk stole in Jacobite tartan. See also: Collections of the Month: Wabsters an shewsters. Photo courtesy of Heriot-Watt University Archive, Records Management and Museum Service. To receive copies or permission to reproduce please write to Ann Jones, University Archivist


10 June 2007

Creating a well-used resource for the arts and humanities

Log Analysis of Internet Resources in the Arts and Humanities (LAIRAH) was ‘a study to discover what influences the long-term sustainability and use of digital resources in the humanities’ based at University College London’s School of Library Archive and Information Studies. It undertook deep log analysis of the resources made available through Intute (previously Humbul and Artifact), as well as the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) portal. One of the key findings that drew my attention was that the title of the resource is important in take up, that it should be clear and unambiguous, and that the scope and content of resources must be made very clear. (And so say all of us on the Archives Hub team). Whatever the context, titles are absolutely crucial, and maybe becoming more so, as there is so much information out there and users will often use the title as the only indication of whether the resource is worth actually looking at. There was evidence that user testing is highly valuable, with the most well-used projects often being those that carried out user testing, as well as ensuring that there was effective dissemination of information about the resource. It is surprising how few projects carry out systematic user testing and surveys. Maybe this is largely a problem of a lack of resources, as it would seem likely that most information professionals would want to ensure that their users are fully on board and consulted. But maybe it is partly an indication that we can easily get bound up with our own plans and priorities, and become less user-focused. I also can’t help thinking that attempts at user surveys often fail because it is difficult to actually get people to participate in them. The fact that ‘few projects realised the importance of ensuring their resource remained sustainable’ is maybe surprising. I was under the impression that sustainability was moving more towards the forefront of thinking when setting up projects, but maybe not…and maybe this is largely down to the fact that sustainable projects require a funding model that has long term maintenance and updating built in, which is not the norm. It may be that the AHDS was seen as a safe home for the future of many resources, but the fact that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is ceasing funding for the AHDS illustrates one of the problems of preservation for the long-term. (AHDS are currently looking to ‘to develop a strategy for the future direction…that ensures this expertise remains available…for the long-term’.) The findings of the project suggested that around 30% of digital resources remain unused, which is disappointingly high, though apparently comparable to the number of scientific articles that remain un-cited. The recommendations of the report are well worth reading, particularly the recommendations listing the components of a well-used resource, which act like a checklist, and if more widely adhered to may help to increase use of said under-used resources. As well as said titles, user testing and dissemination, there is the importance of making server logs available (subject to confidentiality), keeping full documentation, having an interface that is designed for a wide variety of users and is actively maintained and updated, having staff with subject expertise and having good technical support. Ending my blog on a positive note, the report makes the point that information resources, including libraries, archives and research centres ‘have not been replaced by digital resources’ and that both require continued funding.

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08 June 2007


'Bye Manda!' says the Archives Hub service team Farewell and bon voyage to Amanda Hill, the Archives Hub's Service Manager, who leaves the Hub today to head for Canada. We wish Manda and her family all the best.

04 June 2007

Sharing made simple

Tomorrow Jane and I will be taking part in a course for archivists who want to find out more using technology to interact with users and colleagues in new ways. Jane has organised the event with Brian Kelly, who works for UKOLN and maintains the UK Web Focus blog. I'm looking forward to hearing more about The National Archives' wiki, which has recently been launched to the public. Jane and I went along to its internal launch in Kew last year and were very impressed. It'll be interesting to see how many contributions have been submitted from members of the public. If you are attending the event, feel free to post comments here to let us know what you thought of the day and whether you plan to implement any of the technologies that we'll be looking at.


01 June 2007

Syllabub extraordinary

Detail of manuscript For the first installment of this month's Pick 'n 'Mix feature, our Digital Artist in Residence Aileen Collis has created a design based on a digital image of an eighteenth century manuscript recipe book, probably compiled by a Mary Bennet. Here's a detail of the page showing recipes for "a whipp'd syllabub extraordinary" and pancakes. The John Rylands University Library has another book which includes "an excellent cake my mother's way which never fails", but unfortunately the paper was too fragile to scan. Image courtesy of The John Rylands University Library. See also: Collections of the Month Stuff the diet!


New and personal insights into archive collections

At the recent Data Standards Group meeting of the Society of Archivists, Jon Newman from MLA London gave a talk on a current project that he is working on called Revisiting Archive Collections. This project involves recataloguing archives whilst, at the same time, increasing community awareness of and engagement with archives. The intended outcome is to add value, creating more relevant archive descriptions, whilst at the same time reaching new audiences and maybe getting archivists to think differently about approaches to cataloguing and about the audiences they are trying to reach.

Focus groups of diverse groups of people, generally unfamiliar with archives, were set up in three different London institutions. They were asked to look at and provide feedback on specially selected archives that were chosen because they might resonate with the groups, having relevance to their lives and experiences. For example, a Tanzanian women's group was commenting on photographs and manuscripts relating to Tanzania and a group of cleaners and security staff, many of west African origin, were looking at Somalian and Nigerian material. The groups gave feedback through questionnaires, and the project is looking at adding this feedback to the archive descriptions in some way, either to the catalogue descriptions or to the index terms or as new associations or observations about the archive.

This approach does raise questions surrounding issues of reliability, authenticity, whether archivists should moderate or authenticate information provided by users, and intellectual property rights (the possibility of contributors claiming the ownership of their feedback). There are also questions about how exactly to integrate the information into the descriptions and finding aids.

The traditional view of archivists being the gatekeepers is to some extent challenged by this approach, but it surely can only be a good thing to recognise the value of expertise held within the community and work with the community to draw this out and use it to benefit others. It certainly does appear to have been very successful in providing new insights into archive materials from the perspectives of those who have a real and personal connection with the materials.

The sustainability of this type of project is uncertain. Jon Newman pointed out that the project depended on a well chosen selection of archives that were engaging and would resonate with the focus groups. It may not be practical from a funding and resource perspective to undertake this sort of project routinely, but there might be value in repositories carrying similar activities out intermittently, as this kind of approach helps to engage new audiences, provide new insights and furthermore it may change the approach that the archivist takes to thinking about, researching and cataloguing archives.

Image: Pics4Learning