25 March 2009

Archives 2.0 Conference report

Archives 2.0: Shifting Dialogues between Users and Archivists was the culmination of a programme of events held by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, based at the University of Manchester. The Archives Hub were very happy to be co-organisers and I certainly got a good deal out of the four seminars that I attended and this two-day conference that drew together archivists, academics and other information professionals. The first session was called 'Whither Archives 2.0' (named in honour of ye olde archivists I feel!). Well, I'm not entirely sure that we could answer the ambitious question of where archives 2.0 may be going, other than in the general sense that social networks and user engagement in a broad sense is only going to gather momentum. I think that presentations on difficult subjects often have a tendency to provide a list of challenges and issues, without necessarily providing much else. There was a danger that we would all talk about the problems and challenges, which are of course important to think about, but in fact there was a good mixture of setting out the landscape, considering the broader philosophical implications and thinking about the issues as well as presenting practical projects that have really borne fruit. In my talk (slides available on Slideshare) I referred to Kate Theimer's Archives 2.0 manifesto that she published on her ArchivesNext Blog a while back. There were no radical dissenters from this idea of a more open, participatory and collaborative approach in principle, but I certainly felt that there were differing levels of acceptance. There were certainly assertions that professionalism and the rigour of standards are still appropriate and necessary, and so maybe the balance is difficult to achieve. There were also some references to control - the need for the professional to have a certain level of control over the archive and over the metadata - a fascinating area of debate. Interestingly, we didn't spend much time defining what we meant by 'Archives 2.0' (I think that I was the only one who did this to any extent). In principle I think this is a good thing, because it's too easy to get bogged down with definitions, but maybe there were differences between those who would define it in the broader sense of an open and collaborative mindset and those who were more focused on the current popular tools that are on offer - Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Michael Kennedy, presenting on Documents on Irish Foreign Policy was particularly resolute that for diplomatic archives such as those he has responsible for, integrity is uppermost. He was cautious of adopting an Archives 2.0 approach that might allow users to interfere with the text. He seemed to feel that this meant that he was to some extent rejecting an Archives 2.0 approach, but we don't want to end up taking a draconian approach to what Web 2.0/Archives 2.0 means for archives and archival finding aids - we don't have to let users add to the text just in order to tick the right box. One thing that struck me about some of the projects that were presented was that they seemed very self-contained and very much to operate within their own defined space. It reminds me of the 'walled garden' analogy that Ewan McIntosh talked about at the JISC Conference this week. We are still tending to build our own environment in our own space and asking people to come to it - to come to a destination that we prescribe for them. Ewan talked about VLEs and how students are forced to go to them for course materials, but usually dash in and out and then go back to more comfortable and happening environments. To me, Archives 2.0 is partly about thinking out of the box - maybe thinking beyond the confines of a project website and considering dissemination more broadly. Its hard though, because I think it brings us back to that thorny issue of control, or lack of it. It means considering dropping traditional practices and ways of doing things that we are comfortable and familiar with. It means venturing into other spaces and in these other spaces we aren't necessarily in control. But this can bring great rewards. I think that this is amply demonstrated by 'Revisiting Archive Collections' - an MLA project that Jon Newman spoke about and that I have referred to in a previous Hub blog. I will come back to this in another blog post, because I thought it threw up some interesting notions of context which will make this post just too long! Derek Law, from the University of Strathclyde, talked about re-framing the purpose of the library. He wasn't necessarily stating anything we haven't already heard, but he did effectively drum home the message that libraries (and archives??) are simply not meeting the current challenges that the online world is throwing up. It reminded me of a recent Horizon programme on the BBC about how people react to disasters. Whilst the threat to libraries may not be quite of that magnitude, Derek did paint a picture of librarians staying stubbornly rooted to the spot in the face of rapid changes going on around them that are going to change the very nature of librarianship and what a library is...if libraries exist at all in 10-20 years time. Whilst Derek was very convincing, I can't help reflecting that there is another more optimistic side to this. In the UK we apparently publish more books than in any other country (sorry, can't find the source for this, but I'm sure I heard it on good authority!). So, whilst the environment is changing and libraries do have to adapt, the 'paper free' world that has been predicted is not looking very likely to happen in our lifetimes. Brian Kelly from UKOLN talked to us about the risks associated with implementing Web 2.0 type features (talk on Slideshare), and emphasised that there are risks in everything and sometimes it's worth taking a certain level of risk in order to gain a certain level of benefit. We need those who are prepared to be early implementers and early adopters, but if we take a measured approach we can avoid the all to familiar trough of despair that often follows excessive levels of expectation. Brian referred to a framework that could be used to consider and manage risk. This does seem like a sensible approach, although I guess that we started the Archives Hub blog, created Netvibes and iGoogle widgets and started Twittering without really analysing the purpose, benefits, risks and costs in any great detail. Maybe we should've done this, but then I like to think that we have an admirable sense of adventure, a sense of the missed opportunities that too much naval-gazing can bring about and also a general appreciation that if something takes relatively little time to do or to set up then it might be worth taking the plunge and seeing how it goes. I echo Brian's reference to the wonderful comic strip by Michael Edison - well worth watching.

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18 March 2009

Archives 2.0 -- If We Build It, Will They Come?

Tomorrow, Jane Stevenson and I will be presenting at "Archives 2.0: Shifting Dialogues between Archivists and Users" (along with Hub alumnus, Amanda Hill). The title of my talk is 'Archives 2.0: If We Build it, Will They Come?" Yes (sigh) it's a reference to the film, Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner builds a baseball field as a pure act of faith that They Will Come (including his dead dad) once he's done. It's one of those titles that you think was a good idea at the time when you submit a proposal, and then comes back to haunt you when it comes to pulling everything together. That said, there was method in my madness, and one the main issues I plan to talk about tomorrow is that of user participation. In other words, we might well be able to build the framework for Archives 2.0, but this does not mean that users will participate. At this present and very early moment in the history of Archives 2.0, are we in danger of being technologically deterministic? In other words, are we so beguiled by what is possible in this heady time of 2.0, where the Machine is Us/Using Us, that we place more emphasis on the technology than on the precise contexts in which we deploy that technology? While we might believe in the 'Wisdom of Crowds,' that wisdom is not necessarily translating into archives (or even necessarily library) 2.0. Why? Here's an overview of what I plan to discuss:
  • Archives 2.0 as 'Postmodernity meets 'Traditional' Archival Science
  • The problem of technological determinism (i.e. the story we tell ourselves where technology drives change)
  • The problem with the 'Wisdom of Crowds' approach to Archives 2.0
  • The promise of a 'Community of Practice' approach to Archives 2.0
I'll have my own slides on slideshare before the end of the week, along with Jane's. But for now, I invite your comment.

03 March 2009

Museums neglecting needs of researchers?

A recent RIN report 'Discovering Physical Objects' looks at how researchers find out about collections of objects relevant to their research. The report relates to museum objects rather than archives, but as ever, the Archives Hub feel that its always worth looking at library and museum studies, and seeing how they might apply to the world of archives. Well, the results don't seem to be very surprising. Researchers want online finding aids but are unaware of those that exist; they want contact with curatorial staff; and access to objects amongst museums is inconsistent. I was interested to see that access to online finding aids NOW is more important than access to 'perfect' descriptions. The report states "technological developments that allow researchers and others to easily add to and amend the content of these records have the potential to help all museums and other collections to improve the quality of their records." I assume the report is reflecting what researchers have actually said here, rather than making an assumption, although the wording doesn't make this explicit. On the whole, the report gives the impression that museums are really rather behind the archive community in providing online access to descriptions. I'm curious about the statement that 'only a few have the needs of researchers in mind' when they create their online finding aids - I'd like to know more about this and the the evidence for it. I'm surprised that curators apparently underestimate the value of online finding aids. It certainly seems that museum curators have not generally embraced technical possibilities and are not really into the spirit of collaboration and sharing. The ways forward that the report recommends fit in quite nicely with the Hub's ethos: to make museum descriptions open and interoperable so that people can create their own interfaces sourcing the data. We'll keep an eye on the progress of Culture24 with interest. Image from RIN report: Discovering Physical Objects (2009)

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02 March 2009

Special Feature: Manchester Histories Festival

This month 'Collections of the Month' highlights the Manchester Histories Festival. Manchester skyline The Manchester Histories Festival is being held in Manchester Town Hall on March 21st 2009, 10am - 5pm. The Festival aims to show that there are many stories woven through the city’s past and looks like it’s going to be a fun-filled day out for all the family. Nine Hub Contributors are involved in the Festival. This month's special feature highlights how they are involved and includes links to their collections on the Hub and to their websites. Contributors involved are: • Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, the University of Manchester • The John Rylands University Library, The University of Manchester • Labour History Archives • Manchester Museum • MMU Special Collections • National Co-operative Archives • Royal Northern College of Music Archives and Special Collections • University of Salford, Archives and Special Collections • Wellcome Library You can find links to their Hub contributors' pages from the March Collection of the Month page or from our link to the repositories. The page was created with input from all of the contributors involved and Mari Lowe from the Manchester Histories Festival. MHF website found at http://www.manchesterhistoriesfestival.org.uk/. Image: Photo of Manchester's skyline. Public domain image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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