22 November 2007

In the end, its the story that counts

In the spirit of cross-domain thinking, I am going to depart from the archives domain because I'd like to blog about the The Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture by Anthony Lilley, Chief Exec of Magic Lantern entitled The Me in Media which was on the TV last week. I just thought it was quite an interesting take on television and where communication and 'conversation' is going - very relevant to the world that us information professionals now inhabit. Anthony Lilley talked about three main features of media: networks and interactivity, which are both changing radically, and also the power of narrative, which is eternal. I can't say that I've got any great insights into how archivists fit into all of this but certainly our role is about communication and about preserving stories and narratives for the future. A child of today will become the 'still centre of their own web of media', choosing what to create, when and where, and most of this will be interactive. We will all still be making sense of the world and constructing stories, but this will have a great deal less to do with the mass media and very little of what there is will be broadcast in the traditional sense. In the future we may look back at the arrival of TV as an incremental change to broadcasting, whereas we are now at start of change in type, not in scale. Lilley suggested that TV has not got to grips with the magnitude of this change. It is vital that TV starts to engage more fully with the interactive world, going well beyond the ‘red button’ of the remote control and really thinking imaginatively about being interactive. In the early days of television the elite was very much in control, but now that is becoming a thing of the past. We can now create and share media ourselves so that we are in control: we are in the age of social media. For media companies this may be worrying and threatening, and Lilley believed that only a few are really seeing the opportunities. For the public, we are going beyond traditional broadcasting and it all feels pretty exciting. But whatever the means, we still need shared stories to bond us together. The important thing is making meaning, not the technology required, and the broadcasting media need to remember this. In the beginning broadcasting was formal, and the audience was almost deferential. But then ordinary people started to appear on the screen in fly-on-the-wall documentaries such as ‘The Family’(1970s). Lilley referred to Swap Shop (a personal nostalgic TV trip for me!) as a precursor to eBay, which does kind of make sense when you think about it. Equally, Tony Hart's art programme Hartbeat (or the great Vision On if you are old enough to remember it) , which each week showed a gallery of art sent in by children, might be seen as a precursor to sites like Flickr. Of course, the Web now enables anyone to share their masterpieces of art with everyone at anytime. So there were some early participatory shows and TV has continued this idea of people participation, especially in the form of game shows and laterly reality TV shows, with audiences voting for who stays and who goes on a huge scale (although this has gone rather sour of late for the BBC with the scandals about faking winners and so on). And meanwhile computers have been getting in on the act. Lilley showed an excerpt from a programme about one of the earliest computer games (the earliest one?), known in the UK as ‘Ping’ but apparently called ‘Pong’ in the US. This incredibly simple (to us now) tennis type game was very popular at the time. Basic as it was, the user was in control of what happened on the screen. We moved through PacMan and the like to games that you could actually play on your own TV! This shift in the uses to which screens are put has changed our relationship to TV Its status has become more another domestic appliance rather than something at the heart of the home. Lilley said that TV has tried to cross breed with computers with mixed results. He gave the example of The Adventure Game (1980s) which I think he thought didn't work that well, although I really liked it at the time (I seem to remember an old man who was an aspidistra and a vortex that they the contestants had to try to cross). By the standards of 1980s pretty much everone is computer savvy now. Many of us have broadband and most children have a great deal of experience of using computers and see themselves as in control of their media. Lilley felt that the concept of the channel is out of date. ‘Channel controllers’ have the power over the channel, but maybe both channels and control are on the way out. Interactivity and the power of the web go way beyond trying to emulate TV, but still it is important to remember that the Internet is a communication network first and a content delivery network second, which again comes back to stories and conversations. The importance of broadcasters to new creative work, ideas and stories is still very strong. But broadcasting is a one-way technology and now we have a network where everyone can communicate and also form an infinite number of groups within a massive network. Broadcasters need to help this happen and not inhibit it. Lilley concluded that programme makers need to think about what really makes programmes resonate with the audience and his recommendation was to make less TV but make better TV. Broadcasters need to get to grips with the way that stories come together in the networked interactive world. We are on the brink of a revolution that will see how we communicate ideas re-balance itself again the mass media world that most of us have grown up with. We will probably look back at the mass media age as the exception. New technologies are creating an adaptive, complex network of conversations, much like real social life! Social media presents great opportunites and new challenges. How we make sense of the world, how we create stories, how we share our ideas are all being turned upside down. And they are being turned upside down by us – the people formally known as the audience!

20 November 2007

Some are weather wise...

Guy and Phyllis Callendar November's Collections of the Month looks at G.S. Callendar, the amateur meteorologist who established the link between carbon dioxide and climate change - 70 years ago. We also look at British scientists who were researching solar energy more than fifty years ago. Above: Guy and Phyllis Callendar, around 1960. Photo courtesy of the G.S. Callendar Archive, University of East Anglia.


13 November 2007

Mr and Mrs Fonds...?

Notes from an article by W. Duff and P Stoyanova: Transforming the Crazy Quilt: Archival Displays from a Users' Point of view. Archivaria 45 (Spring 1998)

Although this study is quite old now, I think it provides very useful information that I thought was worth writing about in case people hadn't come across it before. This is a summary written mainly from our point of view as the Hub Team, so thinking really about what we can learn from the study and apply to display on the Archives Hub.

If anyone has any pointers to other useful information about user testing and users' opinions on archival display we'd be very interested to hear from you!

This study used focus groups to obtain users’ opinions on the content and format of displays in archival information systems. It used six sample displays of fonds level descriptions, all based on the Canadian Rules for Archival Description (RAD). So, the elements were not necessarily those used in ISAD(G) and therefore not entirely as we might use them in the UK, or more specifically for the Archives Hub. However, there is a great deal of similarity and the findings are very useful for us in terms of thinking about how we display descriptions. The study did not focus on multi-level descriptions, and certainly this is an area where more research is needed.

The study used a group of 27 participants, divided into 5 focus groups. All but two of the participants had university degrees, seven had a masters degree and 8 were enrolled on a PhD. Most were frequent users of a variety of archives for a variety of different research purposes.

Each group discussed the six different displays of a fonds level description, completed a questionnaire asking them to evaluate the displays and rank 32 data elements and discussed the design of an ideal description. I don't think the specific software used was so important - the thing was to have six different displays that used different formatting and layout.

Four of the six displays were created by different archives from different systems, one came from an EAD project and one was created specially and based on a prototype display that was constructed according to design guidelines (following on from a study by Annie Luk that looked at the bibliographic elements that users find more or less useful in a bibliographic display). The evaluation was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that participants looked at printouts of the displays rather than actual computer screens, and also by the particular content of the description that was used, which was for the well-known Canadian writer Margaret Laurence. The particular font type used and size of type may also have influenced the preferences of the participants. However, the finding are certainly useful and provide valuable feedback from real users of archives that we can take and feed into our own user evaluation work.

The findings

Whilst full consensus was inevitably not achieved, a number of preferences were generally agreed and they are reflected in this summary.

General points on the text

It was felt that abbreviations, repetition and excessive information can make displays difficult to read.

For some participants, too much information was felt to interfere with the reading of the description, but views on this seemed to vary and partly depend on the research being undertaken. It seems that the layout was more important than the length of the record in terms of usability.

Formatting and Layout

There was a general preference for element headings to be right justified with bolded labels as this is easy on the eye and helps with quickly browsing displays to find relevant information.

White space and extra lines were felt to make displays easier and faster to read. Lists were considered essential as a means to locate information quickly and efficiently and improve understanding of the content of the collection.

Use of bold typefaces, labels, white space and justification were felt to be very useful means to improve the readability of display.


Some of the labels were felt to be confusing. Preferred terms included ‘scope and content’ over ‘abstract’, ‘additional materials’ over ‘associated materials’ and ‘access conditions’ over ‘access restrictions’. Some of the other terms mentioned are generally not used in ISAD(G) displays.

The term ‘fonds’ caused greatest confusion. It seems that in this example it was used in the title: ‘Margaret Laurence Fonds’ (presumably this is a RAD thing). Some people thought that ‘fonds’ was part of the name. The article includes some funny commentary on this, and one participant had enquired at an archive repository as to why so many people had the same last name!


Glossaries, online help functions, electronic finding aids and indexes were suggested as useful additions to the descriptions.

Order of elements

When ranking the elements, the title, reference number and scope and content were considered to be the most important elements. Name of creator was not ranked very highly but this may be because the name of creator was included in the title for the example description. The majority of participants ranked the title as most important, but some ranked the reference number (call number) as most important. Many participants wanted the reference number right at the beginning of the display.

In general, participants seemed to prefer the order of elements resembling that prescribed by ISAD(G). The only major difference was that some participants wanted scope and content to be part of a ‘what is it about’ section in the display (sections suggested by one group were: what is it about? who is it about? how do I access it? where do I go from here?).

Element headings (labels) and content

The authors of the study felt that more research is probably needed on this area, as there has been very little analysis of archival terminology (much more on library terminology).

Access: More detailed information on how to get the archives themselves was considered to be very important and should be displayed near the beginning of the record.

Scope and Content: Rated as the third most important element in the display. Some participants wanted the dates of creation to be in the Scope and Content. Some liked the narrative approach and felt this could provide more useful information than would be given within a succinct list. Other participants preferred to just have a list of contents. Literary scholars wanted more complete information under scope and content than some other types of researchers (possibly this was partly because the example was for a writer). The conclusion seemed to be that a short narrative overview with a list of the content (series) would be the best option. Some users wanted the content list to link to more detailed information about each series.

Biographical information: Participants felt that it was odd to have a much longer biographical entry than scope and content and some found it too lengthy. Others commented that this section could contain information that was hard to find elsewhere and may therefore be very valuable. Some did not feel the biographical section was important at all as they could find the information elsewhere.

There seemed to be a difference of opinion about this section, although most did want the information included but did not want the display cluttered up with long biographical descriptions. It seemed that many participants wanted the biographical information to be at the end of the description so that people who wanted this additional information could scroll down to it, but the key information about the actual archive was at the top. A further option suggested was to have a short biographical section that linked to a longer text.

Finding aids: information on the availability of finding aids was rated very highly and participants wanted more detailed information on the type of finding aids that existed. If they have to travel some distance to the repository, they want to know exactly how useful the finding aids would be.

Extent: this was rated the fifth highest element in importance. Many participants were confused by linear metres and liked the use of the number of boxes.

Physical description: this was particularly important for those using special media (maps, drawings, etc.). Participants preferred information about extent and physical description to be together in the display.

Dates of creation: were felt to be very important, but some were unsure what they meant. Some thought the dates meant when the papers were assembled rather than when they were created, others thought they were the creator’s birth and death dates. The Splinder Pearce-Moses study found that only one third of users were able to interpret date information correctly, so we need to give a good deal of thought as to how to convey what the dates of creation are.

Ideal Display

The results indicated that the display created according to design guidelines was the preferred option. This display used right-justified labels, lists, white space and bold to facilitate readability. Whilst this type of layout might make the description longer, it was felt that this was not a problem as it actually made the description much easier to skim read.


Annie T Luk, Evaluating bibliographic displays from the users' point of view: a focus group study. University of Toronto Faculty of Information Studies. Available at http://www.fis.utoronto.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=733&Itemid=379

Robert P. Spindler and Richard Pearce-Moses, Does AMC Mean Archives Made Confusing? Patron understanding of US MARC AMC catalog records. American Archivist 56 (Spring 1993)

08 November 2007

Scientists have archives too!

We have been working on how to promote the Archives Hub more widely, emphasising its value to the whole research community. Whilst it is always likely to be historians in the front line when it comes to using archives, I think that sometimes people are not aware of the value that primary sources can have for a whole range of subject areas. The Archives Hub is funded by the JISC and our core descriptions are from UK universities and colleges and therefore we are very keen to promote the Hub to academic researchers. One way that we have come up with to do this is our new Intwine feature. The Archives Hub Collection of the Month (CoTM) feature already showcases the diversity of archives described on the Hub. We wanted to utilise this feature more effectively, and one of the ways to do this was to categorise it in some way. I thought that we might be able to use the Intute categories as a means to do this. Originally, we considered aligning the CoTM with Intute by picking future subjects according to the Intute categories, so that we might have so many CoTM's on arts and humanities, so many on social sciences, so many on science and technology and the same for health and life sciences. However, in some ways its useful to be flexible with the subjects picked for CoTM so that we can feature new collections that are on the Hub or collections that contributors are particularly keen to highlight. We therefore decided to categorise past CoTM features under these academic discipline areas, and also under the Intute sub-categories within this. Thus we came up with Intwine. A further feature that we have introduced is dynamic searches within Intwine, so that for example a user interested in astronomy can search for all descriptions that have this as an index term. This is particularly useful because one of the shortcomings of Intwine is that it does not reflect the entirety of the descriptions held on the Hub; it only reflects the descriptions included in Collection of the Month features. It is also a good way of getting someone into the Hub site to a page where they can see other similar subjects listed via the Hub's Subject Finder. We think this is a straightforward and, we hope, effective way to get across to our users the idea that the Archives Hub does indeed have archive descriptions relating to engineering, climate change, wartime operations research, scientific conferences and, of course, undulating railways.

07 November 2007


Woodcraft Folk: The Tom-tom beater Intwine is a subject guide to all of the Archives Hub's 'Collections of the Month' features, inspired by the Intute guide to web resources for education and research. Each of Intwine's subject headings also provides a link to search the Hub's Subject Finder, which will lead you to lots of extra material on the subject. Above: Photo of Woodcraft Folk, 1920s, copyright © National Co-operative Archive.


02 November 2007

Leading users towards user-led developments

After all of the fun pictures that Paddy has been posting as part of the Big Draw, its time to get back to the 'serious' (though never dusty) issues! I have been pondering what I think is a very engaging issue...of engaging with our audience. We are always keen, of course, to ensure that the Hub develops in line with what users want. For us the core audience is researchers in higher and further education, because we are funded for that purpose, but of course, we want the Hub to be useful and valuable to all researchers, and we hope that it fulfils that function reasonably well. So, we are currently thinking about user testing in order to more directly engage with users' requirements. We are in the early stages of putting together a plan for how to approach this. It seems to me that so often we (service providers) talk about the importance of developing services in line with user requirements, but don't necessarily fully engage users in this process. Having said that, we'll need to actually find willing users to give up an hour or so of their time - so we'll have to see how that goes. I wonder how many other online archive services have successfully engaged users in this way and how they went about it? When we had consultants employed to carry out a summative evaluation of the Hub (see 'Evaluation Reports' section) it was hoped to get 100 respondents, but the take-up was rather lower, with only 18 taking part in a phone survey and 15 in an online survey. The results were still useful and valid, but it does illustrate the problem of getting users to actually give constructive feedback. I'm just about to go through the National Archives Network User Research Group (NANURG) user evaluation that took place in 2001-2002. This evaluation was successful in involving sixth form students, family historians, librarians, professional researchers and a number of other users, but it took place before I joined the Hub so I'll be interested to read the report. One of the findings of the evaluation was that some users are hindered by 'their limited understanding of the function of archives, catalogue descriptions, and the language used'. The recommendations included more work on design, use of colour and graphics and interactive pages. On a related note, the HATII project, Multidimensional Visualisation of Archival Finding Aids, aims to address some of the issues surrounding the structuring and visualisation of finding aids, particularly those that are using EAD. The Hub team will be interested to see how this project progresses and what the outcomes are. For this project, the content of a finding aid is structured into cells which are linked together to form dimensions. For example, the Records of the Marketing Department are a cell, and they relate to Minutes, Agendas and Related Papers and also specifically to Academic Board minutes as well as to Publications, which link to Prospectuses. So, each cell relates to several other cells in different ways and relationships can be built up in visual ways that allow the researcher to see different contexts and follow different connections. I'm not sure how we'd implement something like this in practice for a service like the Hub, but it clearly addresses the importance to researchers of different relationships within archives other than the standard drill-down collection-series- sub-series- item type relationship. I found the system architecture and mapping diagrams rather hard to get my head round, but the first demo is good - it provides a clear visual representation of the principle. A small gripe about the HATII visualisation of finding aids project website is that the project start and end dates don't appear to be provided. There is a page last updated date, so that does give some help. It brings to mind a note I recently saw displayed in a shop window, 'back in 15 minutes'...but was the note put up 5 minutes ago or 5 days ago? Image 'Autofocus test' taken from sigsegv's photos on Flickr (Creative Commons)

01 November 2007

Elephants Never Forget

Pachyderm's posterior THE BIG DRAW. The Campaign for DrawingAbove: Drawing by Paddy of the Archives Hub, inspired by Trunks Meet Trunks. Submitted by Paddy. This October the Archives Hub took part in The Big Draw, inviting you to make drawings inspired by archives - or by elephants! The event is now closed - a big thank you to everyone who took part.

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