27 August 2007

Archives in the internet age and in the media

A second instalment from the ICA Conference in Dundee, July 2007.

Maygene Daniels from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC talked about archives and users in the internet age. She made the point that simply moving finding aids from paper to the internet may not be the most effective option, and gave some examples of this. She then proceeded to compare search strategies using the website of the National Union Catalogue of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) and the Google search engine. One of the points that she made was how the results were ordered in a fairly meaningless way in the NUCMC system, whereas Google ranks in order of relevance, and seems to do this pretty effectively. She pointed out that barriers of language are lowered by Google, which provides options to search in different languages and also brings back results written in different languages. However, broader subject areas are maybe more difficult to search for using search engines like this and we also have no guarantee that these sorts of search engines will remain open and unbiased.

Maygene went on to talk about standards, referring to MARC AMC (Archival and Manuscripts Control), which was introduced in 1994 as the first attempt at standardisation and following established forms. The ISAD(G) then came along and seemed to make a great deal of sense, but she felt that with more open models of searching things have changed and she put forward the controversial opinion that ISAD(G) may no longer be relevant. She posed the question of whether the new standard for archive creators (ISIAH) is really needed at all. She wondered whether rules are sometimes created where none are really necessary and suggested that often using HTML can achieve the same results.

I pretty much entirely disagree with this opinion as I think that we need to make data open, accessible, flexible and easy to import and export into different applications. This is something that we can achieve fairly well using XML. Whilst it is not perfect, it enables us to store finding aids as text only documents, which is important for their long-term preservation, and it means that we can create XHTML for the Web, PDF for print, and use the data in all manner of ways. I certainly would agree with her that we are still learning about the online environment, which is still in its infancy, and about how best to present data.

Turning to the media, Nick Barratt, the historian of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' fame, gave a most stimulating talk on archives and the media. From his experienced viewpoint he talked about how the media treat research and archives. The BBC have tended not to appreciate that research should actually involve trips to archive repositories. When a programme is first conceived, a pitch is made and a short and glossy pilot is usually made. At this point the minimum resources are used, the budget is often very tight and no thought is given to how archive resources might be employed. There is generally a great ignorance of what archives are and TV producers tend to want to dress the set with pretty, colourful documents and ensure that PCs are hidden from view so that they can perpetuate the romantic antiquated view of archives. They do not have an appreciation of the ways that archives inter-relate and the importance of context. They also give the impression that genealogical and other archives-based research is easy and the enquirer will get quick results. Nick stressed that it is up to us as archivists to stand up to this type of approach and be more determined to present archives in ways that we see as positive and accurate. One of the points Nick made is something that I hadn't thought about before: the way that online searching and presenting everything as seamlessly as possible leads to the danger of research skills being eroded. On the positive side, he felt that broadcasters are improving their understanding of archives and he gave a recent example of a TV programme where research into the history of a house started with a tithe map, moved to the census returns and on to look at wills, which gives a more realistic impression of how archives are interrelated.

I enjoyed the conference and wished that I could have stayed for the whole event, especially the grand evening in Fingask castle. Still, I talked to some interesting folk and took away some good ideas, and also a very useful 'rain mate' (see pic), which is particularly useful in a country where it rains frequently (and I live in Manchester, so useful at home as well)!

20 August 2007

The long arm of the pen

I've just been reading about a technology that was apparently conceptualised by the author Margaret Atwood. It allows authors to sign copies of their books remotely...and the signature is legally valid. LongPen, operated by the company Unotchit (you no touch it) is a pen that operates over the Internet. The book is be placed down on the machine and the author, sitting in the comfort of their own home, can sign the book from where they are. The LongPen moves over the book as if by magic. In addition, there is a video link so that they can talk to their fans. The advantages are clear, not least the reduction in travel. This is certainly the greener way to enjoy book signings, and of course it has many other applications. What I find particularly interesting is that this kind of traditional, but actually truly digital signature, is legally valid. I wonder if LongPen signatures will fetch the same price in the decades to come that the signatures on old documents fetch now? And does a LongPen signature on a digital document make the document unique?


16 August 2007

From whisky to war: tales from university archives

I attended the ICA/SUV Conference in Dundee this week - that is, the International Council on Archives Section on University and Research Institution Archives. This is my first report of the event.

The conference began with an entertaining keynote by George McKenzie of the National Archives of Scotland, who opened by explaining, for the benefit of those from other countries, the rather unusual set up within the UK. We have a British Olympic team but if you went into a local pub in Dundee and asked how the British football team were doing you would not get a very good reception! So although we are all British, in many ways we have separate identities and histories. There are important legal and administrative differences between England and Scotland that impact on archives management. George talked about the National Register of Saisines, which is a Scottish property register, and how it has gone through six different formats, from handwritten to xerox and through to digital, whilst retaining the same content. The changes have all been in reaction to user demand, so the motivations for the move from handwritten to typescript were really the same as the move from Xerox to digital: it is always about satisfying user demand for access.

I found George's description of the ScotlandsPeople service interesting, because as well as an online source the initiative has included the creation of a centre in Edinburgh, partly with a view to 'genealogical tourism'. Studies show that 5% of visitors to Scotland are interested in family history, and they are often the visitors who stay longest and spend the most. This does seem to contrast with the approach in England, as the Family Records Centre in Islington, which is fairly central London, is closing down and operations are moving to The National Archives in Kew, which is a little way out of London (and on the infamous District Line!). A particular remark that drew my attention was his assertion that maybe it is no bad thing to compete with the private sector in the field of family history, as it means that the public sector has to be focussed and ensure that it delivers a good service that can compete effectively with others.

George's talk ended with reference to the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, which was a formal Declaration of Independence and is one of the most famous records in the National Archives. He also showed us an image of a most important document with the first known reference to the distilling of whisky!

Megan Sniffin-Marinoff of Harvard University also gave a keynote which looked at emerging trends within the higher education sector. Whilst acknowledging the great diversity of university archives and contexts across the globe, she did draw out some common themes that are likely to affect many of us. Amongst other things, she referred to life-long learning and the increase in students outside of the typical 18-21 year old range. She looked at some of the reasons for this change, such as the need for people to re-skill in a fast changing world and the increasing demands of employers. She also raised issues surrounding distance learning and new innovations in teaching and proposed that we might have to think differently about our outreach activities as a result of this changing student body.

There were a number of enlightening talks from archivists of different countries, and I thought the contrast between Latvia and Lebanon was particularly striking, because they are both very different from the typical UK experience. Gatis Karlsons explained to us that the University of Latvia has 28,000 students (the country has a population of 2 million). The way that the archives are managed is influenced by Soviet theories, because of the occupation of Latvia until the declaration of independence in 1991. One obvious difference to me (which caused some confusion until I realised) was that the term 'archives' is used to refer to records in their current, semi-current and non-current states. Whilst Gatis talked about the 'archive' where he works, the records for long-term preservation are in fact transferred to the state archives, so in UK terms his place of work would probably be seen more as a records centre and a place practising records management. There seemed to be a very integrated and rigorous approach to record keeping, with boards of experts to appraise the records, consisting of archivists, academics, legal and financial representatives. The archives have very few visitors, only about 10 per year, although the records are doubtless a rich source, so this does seem to be a shame. They therefore have no purpose-built search room.

Unfortunately Samar Mikati Kaissi from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon was not able to attend the conference and so Susanne Belovari from Tufts University in Boston gave her presentation. It was a sobering experience to hear about a situation where war has played such an all-pervasive part in the functioning of the archive. In fact, when Susanne originally asked Samar about the effects of war Samar said that they were not that significant, but as they talked what emerged was that the effects are ever-present and society has simply adjusted to them. The archive has managed to continue to function and is the only academic institution with a fully fledged archive programme and it has carried out some digitisation projects, but the numbers of researchers has been affected by the war and political upheavals (it is generally around 1,000 per year). Also, the war has affected staff morale and staff attendance, as people are often more preoccupied with the welfare of their families. There is some national archives legislation, which would not apply to the University as it is a private institution, but Samar said that no-one knows exactly what it is anyway! Rather ironically, the archive has no disaster preparedness plan, but when the archive was set up the decision was taken to put it in the basement because this offered the best protection from bombings. There are no archival suppliers in Lebanon so they are dependent on getting boxes, folders, etc, from outside. They also suffer from an intermittent electricity supply, which compounds the inadequate environmental situation.

Image from Flickr (Creative Commons licence)

08 August 2007

Putting things into perspective

There are times when you realise that the worries and concerns that you have about your work are really very small fry. I've just read a message posted on the archives-nra list from Saad Eskander of the Iraqi National Library and Archives (INLA). He and his staff are constantly facing threats and intimidation simply by trying to do their jobs and protect the country's cultural heritage. Yesterday he reported that a group of Iraqi national guards had broken into the National Library and Archive's main building by force, claiming that they had orders from their superiors and the Americans to occupy the INLA. He says that this is not the first time that such an incident has happened. Having put so much time and effort into the reconstruction of the library and archives since the destruction caused during the fighting a few years ago, it looks like there is still no end to the dangers facing the materials, as well as the staff themselves. He asks for the support of archivists across the world and maintains that he will continue to fight and expose the wrong doings of the National Guard and the US authorities. You can read the full message on the archives-nra list, it is entitled 'Urgent moral support needed'.


Training Day

Early Morning Exercises The Archives Hub is holding a training day for contributors and potential contributors on Tuesday 25 September here at the University of Manchester. The day is free and will run from 10.30 to 16.00 with a free lunch provided. This is a great opportunity for anyone who would like to know more about EAD and about creating descriptions and indexing entries for the Hub. If you would like to attend please email us. Illustration: Woodcraft Folk photo copyright © National Co-operative Archive.

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