26 July 2007

Tunneling through history!

I attended the Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies (LUCAS) 60th anniversary event recently. There was one attendee from the first year of the course, in 1947, and she cut the anniversary cake with one of the recent graduates, which was a nice touch. The weekend was very successful, despite the fact that it rained almost constantly. One of the excursions was to see the Williamson Tunnels. These are the curious creation of an eccentric Victorian gentlelman, a labyrinth of tunnels and caverns constructed in the early 1800's. Joseph Williamson, a rich merchant, seems to have decided to offer work to local unemployed men to build these tunnels from altruistic motives. But the real reason for building them is not clear, and there is no documentation to tell us. A group of us archivists were taken round by one of the Friends of the Tunnels. He talked about the bricks used for the tunnels and we suggested that the source of the bricks could be traced - being archivists we were inevitably thinking about possible sources to help put together the history of the tunnels. However, I got the feeling that our guide preferred the sense of mystery to remain, and didn't really want to know about documentary sources! You can find out more at http://www.williamsontunnels.com/ We also enjoyed a fascinating talk by Professor John Belchem on the history of Liverpool. He has recently edited a book, Liverpool 800: Culture, Character and History, which charts the history of the city from 1207. One of the points he made that struck me was how Liverpool had built its reputation as a city of commerce and tended to look out to the sea, the source of wealth and status, rather than looking inward to England, which has in some ways been responsible for the sense that Liverpool is rather isolated. When the fortunes of the city started changing for the worse, there was a reluctance within Liverpool to label it as an industrial city, because it still saw itself as a city of commerce and empire, and this meant that when the government was giving out aid to struggling industrial centres, Liverpool was largely by-passed. As well as excursions and talks, we also took advantage of a table tennis room (croquet was out unfortunately). Margaret Procter, LUCAS Course Director, and I, were the table tennis champions, hence the rather odd picture of us with some garishly coloured ping pong balls!

17 July 2007

In defence of blogs

I have just read an entry on the e-Foundation blog referring to Jakob Nielsen's alertbox entry 'Write Articles, Not Blog Postings' where he relates an incident where he advised a 'world leader in his field' to invest time in writing articles rather than starting a blog, which Nielsen seems to define (erroneously I would say) as posting numerous short comments on blogosphere discussions. It may be true that blog entries do not always represent highly detailed, top quality, innovative thinking, but I think that many blogs are well worth reading and perform a useful function. As Andy Powell says on the e-Foundation blog, Nielsen does seem to be assuming that a blog entry is always superficial and derivative. It is true that we started the Archives Hub blog without any real in-depth analysis of the cost and benefits of doing so, and that we weren't thinking of posting ground-breaking content, but maybe the material point is that we started it with the notion that we could just try it out and see how it goes. I suppose this is one of the underlying drivers of Web 2.0, and we felt that at the very least it would be useful to post news, with hopefully some ideas and comments that would be useful to archivists and others working in similar areas. Whilst the pressure to blog can sometimes be kind of intimidating, there is no doubt that a blog entry is often forthcoming where an article for a peer reviewed journal would never materialise. I am sure that we are not alone in this situation. Apart from the fact that we are not strictly research staff, and could not find the time to write in-depth articles of this nature, we also want to be immediate and current and we see great advantages in the immediacy of a blog. Nielsen says that weblogs are useful for business projects and for sites that sell cheap products. Well, I beg to differ. Whilst many blogs are not terribly useful for my work, I have feeds for a few dozen that I think are well worth casting my eye over. I can just read the posts that seem most relevant and interesting to me. I am generally more likely to do this than to search out articles in academic journals. P.S. I should say that I have generally found Nielsen's alertbox to be useful and worthwhile. I well remember his top 10 mistakes in Web design providing invaluable advice, back in the days when I had little idea about usability and accessibility.

11 July 2007

Researchers want better access to and personal control over resources

The recent Research Portals for Arts and Humanities (RePAH) study found that ‘researchers are more concerned with access to content than functionality’. Additionally, it found that greater personal control over digital resources is seen as a priority. Developments such as RSS, advanced bookmarking features and personal editing features can be seen as part of this preference. The implication is that we shouldn't be thinking so much in terms of providing sophisticated functionality as providing content and enabling users to access the content in flexible ways that suit their methods of working. In this environment, researchers may place less value on the information professional as the gatekeeper and interpreter of resources. The whole question of authority becomes a very interesting one. Many people seem to be happy to use ‘unauthorised’ sources for their research (citing Wikipedia is one such example) but many researchers continue to feel that peer review is an essential process within research publication. The impression given by the report is that arts and humanities researchers (and most probably researchers in other disciplines) want better linkage between resources and the ability to search across distributed data. Ahhh, we come back to interoperability, which is something that the Archives Hub, and indeed the Society of Archivists' Data Standards Group (which I am the training officer for) both promote whenever we get the chance. Do have a look at the portlet demonstrator if you get the chance. It provides a good illustration of the idea of user control within a portal environment.