24 April 2008

The technology horizon(s)

The Horizon Report (2008) from the New Media Consortium provides a well-worth-reading and considered opinion on 'emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning or creative expression within learning-focused organizations.' It lists the six main technologies considered to be key emerging technologies within the next 1-5 years, as well as looking at some challenges and overall trends. The two technologies that are first on the horizon, likely to be in mainstream use in the next year, are grassroots video and collaboration webs. Grassroots video is something that anyone can do easily at very little cost. The feeling is that learning-focused organisations will want their content to be where the viewers are - so there will be more tutorials and learning-based content alongside music videos and the huge raft of personal content available on the vast number of video-sharing sites. Collaboration is now facilitated by flexible and free tools that use the Web 2.0 concept of the Web as the platform - so collaboration without the need for downloading an application. It is simple to edit documents, hold meetings and swap information whilst never leaving one's desk (although I'm not sure being even more desk-bound is such as good thing...). The second horizon, so to speak, heralding technologies that will be mainstream in two to three years, brings mobile broadband and data mashups. Mobiles are clearly going to become more important as a means to stay networked whilst on the go (so encouraging us away from our desks!). New displays and interfaces are being developed. Indeed, at Mimas, we have been involved in developing mobile hairdressing training - so students can learn to cut and style with their scissors in one hand and their phone in the other :0) The Horizon Report states that there is growing expectation to deliver content to mobile and personal devices. It seems clear that archival finding aids fit comfortably into this category - enabling people to use their mobile phones to search for archival sources, locate their whereabouts and find out about access and opening times. At the moment, i'm not sure that there are high expectations for this amongst researchers, but this may change over the next few years. Data mashups combine different sources of data in customised applications. Here, we can point to a fine archival example of this - the Archives Hub contributors map . This is something we would like to develop further - maybe adding images or large-scale maps for areas where we have a large number of contributors. It does seem clear to me that this sort of combining of data could really be of benefit for archives. Maps showing the location of repositories is a clear winner, and maybe also some kind of combining of travel or transport data. In four to five years, according to the report, the horizon will have brought us collective intelligence and social operating systems. I think that collective intelligence is certainly very pertinent for us. Wikipedia has been an outstanding example of success in this area and we now have some initiatives in the archives world, although it is early days yet. Archivopedia is the main example I can think of. When looking for this I found Archipedia - so I can only assume there will eventually be a 'pedia' for every subject (...yes, I just tried gardenpedia and there it was!). There must be some mileage in the idea of collective intelligence being applied to archives, and this is the sort of thing that we would like to look at in future in relation to the Hub. Social operating systems form part of that shift in focus that is happening from content to people. This chimes in with the whole concept of Web 2.0 as putting people at the heart of the Internet - a change from an emphasis on sharing files and applications to creating and sustaining relationships. Systems should be people-led, and not the other way around. Take a look at Katherine Gould's blog on The Social Catalog for an example of a potential social operating system. Experimentation in the use of these technologies and practices should reap benefits, but this needs to be supported by policy and given the proper resources. Clearly collaboration is key, enabling the risks and workload to be shared, as well as the outcomes. We need to be able to create meaningful content and relevant and valuable learning opportunities with the tools that are available to us. I believe that archivists need to embrace technology and appreciate the need to become technically literate to a level required for our work, just as for teachers and students. As the report says, 'fluency in information, visual and technological literacy is of vital importance...We need new and expanded definitions of these literacies that are based on mastering underlying concepts rather than on specialized skill sets'. I feel I should end on a pithy and insightful statement about new dawns and beautiful sunrises! But instead I'll take the opportunity to mention the photo, as for a change I've used one of my very own...Norfolk, county of flat land and huge skies, provides a sense of never-ending horizons, and here I am on my very own path to the horizon! (...ending in a very sociable and collaborative cream tea.)

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18 April 2008

People Power

I've been reading with interest some posts on the EAD list about user-generated content. Bob Kosovsky, Curator, of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts asks "It is possible to envision a platform where an EAD finding aid can be accepting of user-generated content? Could there ever be a more wiki-like interface with EAD?" At the Archives Hub we've been toying with this idea of enabling users to contribute to the site in some way, although we haven't really begun to actively explore the options yet. The Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections (http://polarbears.si.umich.edu) provides a good example of an interactive site, and there are certainly some useful comments provided that give users of the site additional information about the collections. I think the display could be improved - I'm not sure about the Link Paths section, which takes up quite a bit of room on each description page. This does raise the question of descriptions getting cluttered and maybe confused with different types of information or with too much information, but overall I think this is a great site. The discussion on the EAD list points to the great advantages of using EAD, which does provide the flexibilty to introduce new ways of viewing, sorting and finding information. At the Hub we are keen to really make the most of the fact that our descriptions are encoded in EAD. However, there is one particularly important question to ask, as Michele Combs from Syracuse University Library says: "What new capabilities will be truly useful to the researcher?" We ran a short online survey for the Hub last June in which we asked how interested people would be in having the ability to contribute comments. Whilst the results appeared to show that this was actually seen as a low priority, the way the survey was worded implied that the choice was between adding more descriptions, adding item-level descriptions, adding images or adding comments. Whilst in reality we can of course pursue any or all of these, it is worth remembering that with limited resources it is always the case that choices have to be made. Should we invest time and energy in creating a more interactive site when we could spend the time maybe promoting the site and getting more content and more users or improving the search and retrieve functionality? Many users of the Hub are not regular users but visit only once or intermittently, and therefore I wonder whether we would get an active "commenting community" going. And if we did get plenty of comments would this in itself be an issue - we wouldn't want to clutter descriptions and also we may find that comments are not always the sort of thing that would be helpful to others. For us, something like this would really have to be monitored and edited where necessary...again, a question of time and resources. In addition, it may be worth thinking about whether this sort of functionality is appropriate for something like an archival site. It works well for leisure sites like the Internet Movie Database (http://imdb.com) where people are happy to spend time browsing and have their own opinions on films, directors, etc. Also it could be argued that there is less of an issue about contributors adding incorrect information, though of course this is still going to happen. A post on the EAD list by Robert S Cox of the University of Massachusetts makes a pertinent point - they have a blog where users can supply comments (http://www.library.umass.edu/spcoll/umarmot/), but Robert says that "Thus far, the comments we've received have been restricted to spam, more spam, reference questions, spam, and pats on the back." ...oh dear! Maybe a Wiki that is for the archive community is a better option? Archivopedia (http://archivopedia.com/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page) is "open to collaborators who wish to write, edit, and create articles about primary source materials". I typed in 'fonds' and the disambiguation service suggested 'folders' (?) and most other articles I found were stubs (very basic and short). But its early days and something like this might take off if it gets a critical mass of archivists interested in contributing. (Please please get rid of the awful pulsing 'Archivopedia' that comes up at the top of a Google search page!). So, the jury is still out I think...and certainly at the Hub we would want to get more user feedback on the usefulness of providing user-generated content on the site, but we'll continue to monitor other examples of interactive sites and I do think that the UK National Archives Your Archives site does provide cause for optimism that users are often ready and willing to add worthwhile and valuable information - http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php?title=Home_page. Finally, there's a good post on next-generation finding aids by Merilee Proffitt at http://hangingtogether.org/?p=278 Image: GeekandPoke image on Flickr (Creative Commons Licence) http://www.flickr.com/photos/geekandpoke/

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03 April 2008


Fairground ride We had not one, not two, not three - we've had four new contributors last month, including the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield Library. Above: Turtle ride, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, circa 1955, from the Arthur Jones collection, donor Glyn Jones. Copyright © National Fairground Archive.