21 July 2008

Where next for the National Archives Network...?

Joy and I went to a meeting last week at The National Archives to discuss the issues surrounding the National Archives Network, and the possible future directions that the archive community might take. We came away with our heads full of ideas and issues to take forward - so a job well done I think. The National Archives Network as a concept really began after the 1998 seminal report by the National Council on Archives, 'Archives On-line: The Establishment of a United Kingdom Archival Network' (PDF file). The vision was to create a single portal to enable people to search across UK archives. However, it is not really surprising that this never materialised given the resources and technical support necessary to make such a huge concept work. The landscape has changed since the report came out, and this solution seems to be less relevant nowadays. However, the concept of a network and the importance of collaboration and sharing data have continued to be very much on the agenda. The meeting was initiated by Nick Kingsley and Amy Warner from TNA National Advisory Services. It included representatives from The Archives Hub, AIM25, SCAN, ANW, Genesis and Janus, as well as a number of other interested archivists from various organisations. The morning was dedicated to brief talks about the various strands of the network, and it quickly emerged that we had many things in common in terms of how we were working and the sorts of development ideas that we had, and therefore there would clearly be an advantage in sharing knowledge and experience and working together to enhance our services for the benefit of our users. In the afternoon we formed into 3 groups to talk about name authority files, searching and sharing data and also hidden archives. A number of broad points came out of these break out groups and also the discussion that followed: We need to ensure that our catalogues are searchable by Google (no surprises there) - it looks like some of us have tackled this more successfully than others, and obviously there are issues about databases that are not accessible to Google. It is important for contributors that services like the Hub and AIM25 are available via Google, and this provides an additional motivation for contributing to such union catalogues. We really need to come together to think more carefully about name authority files - how these are created, who is responsible for them, how we can even start to think about reaching a situation where there is actually just one name authority file for each person! It is important to progress on the basis of exposing our data so that it can be easily shared. This means working together on various options, including import/export options and Web Services that allow machine-to-machine access to the data. There are also issues here about the format of some of the catalogues. Some work has already taken place on exporting EAD data from DS CALM and AdLib, two major archive management systems. The Archives Hub and AIM25 have also been working together with the aim of enabling contributors to add the same description to both services. We talked about other areas where sharing our experiences and understanding would be of great benefit, including Website design and how to present collection and multi-level finding aids online. We also recognised the importance of gathering together more information about our users - what they want, what they expect, what would be of benefit to them. In the end, this is one of the keys to producing a useful and rewarding service. The meeting was very positive, and there are plans to take some of these issues forward through working groups as well as meeting again as a whole group, maybe sharing some of the specific projects that we have been involved with and collaborating on future initiatives.

Labels: , , ,

04 July 2008

Historians' use of archives

I have recently read an interesting article by Wendy Duff, Barbara Craig and Joan Cherry in Archivaria (58), published by the Canadian Society of Archivists in 2004 (sorry, I have a tendency to get to some articles a bit late!). It looked at historians' use of archives (using 173 responses to a questionnaire). Whilst the study was carried out in a Canadian context, many of the observations and conclusions have wider resonance. Here I just draw out some of the points made in the study that are relevant in some way to the Archives Hub. Historians were chosen for this survey because 'their work has an impact far beyond their own academic communities, saturating text books used in public education and influencing new generations of undergraduate and graduate students'. I think this point is worth making more often because sometimes the academic users of archives are not recognised as a substantial group, but if we measure that level of use in terms of their overall influence, their impact would be seen as far greater. A study in 2003 (Helen R. Tibbo, American Archivist 66, no.1) surveyed 700 historians and found that 43% used the Internet to locate material. The survey suggests that historians may be characterised as users who consult a number of archival repositories rather than maybe just visiting one or two. The study also suggested that 'university archives play a vital role in historical research' and went on to say: 'Perhaps what university archives lose in breadth [compared to government and local archives] they make up in availability, or their collections may be particularly valuable to the study of social history'. One of the points that caught my attention was the observation that 'historians tend to depend upon an informal network for finding material for their research.' This network may include archivists as well as colleagues, but certainly if it is the case that this observation carries over to the UK (which I believe it does) then it does highlight one of the difficulties of making academics and historians aware of the resources that are available to them, such as the Archives Hub. One of the questions asked about barriers to archival research. This threw up the lack of a finding aid as the second largest barrier (47%), the lack of detail of a finding aid (31%) and problems with finding aids being out of date (19%). In terms of formats, 92% liked the original format the most, so no surprises there, and only 2% liked digital reproductions the most. Indeed, there is a continuing tendency to print out documents for use. However, the conclusion to the study certainly emphasises that historians would benefit from not only having speedy access to good, detailed finding aids from their computers, which appears to be pretty much the main priority of the respondents, but also having links to digitised historical documents. It does point out that the historian's preference for completeness 'suggests that the digitization of selections of materials might meet some of their needs, but only if such selections are provided with explicit descriptions of what has been selected and why.' This sort of study, examining use and user needs, raises the question in my mind of whether we should give people what they say they want or what we think they want...or maybe even what we think they will start to want at some point. Let's face it, how many of us would have actually asked for many of the features that we now get from sites like Amazon? We may not have explicitly wanted them, but once they are there many of us certainly do use them and find them valuable. So maybe its a careful balance of understanding and anticipation when it comes to meeting the needs of the user.

Labels: ,