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Archive for August, 2009

Last week I goaded a couple of male colleagues into posting a (deliberately provocative) thread on the archives2.0 ning forum linking the high proportion of women in the archives profession (at least this is the case in the UK) with a slow take-up of web2.0 technologies.  From the ensuing discussion, it appears nobody really agrees with this premise, so maybe we need to change the title of the thread! 

However, it did catch the attention of a colleague who works at the Dutch Institute of Women’s History, and hence has a particular interest in gender issues.  She points out that my blog header includes a picture of a woman with an early computer.  Indeed, there are two women in the header pictured with computers – so I thought as an August bank holiday kind of post, I would tell you a little about both of them.

As it happens, I know quite a lot about the woman in the oldest photograph:

Miss Rowena Wilby with the West Riding County Council's 'Electronic Brain' 1957

Miss Rowena Wilby with the West Riding County Council's 'Electronic Brain' January 1958

Her name is Rowena Wilby, and she was just 18 when this photograph was taken for a press call to announce the arrival of the West Riding County Council’s new ‘Electronic Brain’ in January 1958.  In 1955, (a full two years before a government grant provided Leeds University with its first computer), the Council had resolved “that an order be placed immediately with the British Tabulating Machine Company Ltd. for a Hollerith Electronic Computer, at an estimated cost of £28,000”[1].  The West Riding was the first local authority to order a HEC-4 (Type 1201) computer, which was duly delivered in December 1957.

As well as photographs of the new computer, which was used primarily for payroll and the occasional calculation for the Highways Department, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield also holds a diary which documents the installation of the new computer at County Hall, Wakefield.  It appears to have been something of a temperamental beast, frequently ‘jumping out of programme’ and requiring constant attention:

Diary recording the installation of the West Riding County Council's first electronic computer, 1958

Diary recording the installation of the West Riding County Council's first electronic computer, 1958

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Miss Wilby played a major part in the arrival of computing to West Yorkshire.  The Council minutes record the names of those chosen for special training at the premises of the British Tabulating Machine Co., and none of them are women.  It is more probable that Rowena Wilby was recruited as a photogenic candidate from amongst the ranks of a small army of female card punchers and tabulating machine operators who had been employed in the West Riding Treasurer’s Department since before the second world war:

Punching cards at County Hall, Wakefield.  Annoyingly, I can't quite read the date on the calendar in the room!  Probably 1940s or 1950s.

Punching cards at County Hall, Wakefield. Annoyingly, I can't quite read the date on the calendar in the room! Probably 1940s or 1950s.

Woman with a Holllerith Machine at County Hall, Wakefield.  Not dated. 1940s or 1950s.

Woman with a Holllerith Machine at County Hall, Wakefield. Not dated. 1940s or 1950s.

About the second woman in the blog header, I know rather less, except that this was one of a series of posed photographs taken sometime in the 1980s to illustrate the history of computing at West Yorkshire Police.  The West Riding Constabulary was one of the first departments to book computer time on the County Council’s Type 1201, and in time their needs grew to the extent that the police acquired their own computer.  This photograph shows a civilian police officer using the UNIVAC computer which was in use in the 1980s:

Civilian police officer with UNIVAC computer, 1980s

Civilian police officer with UNIVAC computer, 1980s

All images reproduced by permission of West Yorkshire Archive Service.


[1] West Riding County Council minutes 19 October 1955 – West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield: WR/52 p.242.  The ‘Purchasing Power’ calculator at http://measuringworth.com/calculators/ppoweruk/ estimates £28,000 in 1955 to be the equivalent of just over half a million pounds in today’s terms.

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Digital Innovation?

Stumbled across this (anonymous – I have my theories!) posting, Getting to Grips with Digital Preservation, on the Collections Trust’s OpenCulture blog, and the point about abandoning the phrase ‘digital preservation’ has struck something of a chord.  “Digital Preservation sounds like a tautology anyway – Digital is fast-moving, energetic, ever-changing, Preservation is, well, it’s dull, isn’t it?”

One of the most alarming pieces of feedback I’ve read from the recent Society of Archivists’ digital preservation roadshow series said something along the lines of ‘its a difficult subject to make interesting, but the speakers did quite well’.  Why should it be a difficult subject to make interesting?  Digital curation is a an innovative, fast-moving discipline, with a vibrant international research base, and nobody – if they’re really being honest – knows what the right answers are.  Or at the most, they may have a few potentially right answers to a small subset of the questions.  We’re living through the greatest revolution in recorded information creation and use since probably the invention of the printing press, and a professional archivist doesn’t find that interesting?!

One of the points I make in my roadshow presentation is that all the propaganda surrounding digital preservation – all that stuff about digital black holes in history – has actually been very effective.  Only not perhaps, where we hoped it would hit home, amongst users and record creators, as amongst recordkeeping professionals ourselves.  And then there’s the problem with digital preservation theory – unfortunately, you can learn to use all the jargon in the world but  it won’t actually preserve anything. 

If the digital preservation marketing strategy is working so well amongst archives and records professionals, then god help us when it comes to trying to persuade information creators and users to take an interest!

As campaigning organisations of various other kinds take a deliberate step away from thundering scare stories towards softer advocacy strategies promoting the benefits of their chosen cause, I agree with the OpenCulture blogger that the digital preservation community needs to become much more sophisticated in the way seeks to promote itself in the quest for longer-term sustainability of digital content. 

Did you hear about the amazing success story of the re-created BBC Domesday project?

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Finally getting around to posting a little something about the web archiving conference held at the British Library a couple of weeks ago.

From a local archives perspective, it was particularly interesting to hear a number of presenters acknowledge the complexity and cost of implementation and use of currently available web archiving tools.  Richard Davis, talking about the ArchivePress blog archiving project, went so far as to argue that this was using a ‘hammer to crack a nut’, and we’ll certainly be keeping an eye out at West Yorkshire Archive Service for potential new use cases for ArchivePress’s feed-focused methodology and tools.   ArchivePress should really appeal to my fellow local authority archivist colleague Alan who is always on the look-out for self-sufficiency in digital preservation solutions.

I also noted Jeffrey van der Hoeven’s suggestion that smaller archives might in future be able to benefit from the online GRATE (Global Remote Access to Emulation Services) tool developed as part of the Planets project, offering emulation over the internet through a browser without the need to install any software locally.

Permission to harvest websites, particularly in the absence of updated legal deposit legislation in the UK, was another theme which kept cropping up throughout the day.  So here is a good immediate opportunity for local archivists to get involved in suggesting sites for the UK Web Archive, making the most of our local network of contacts.  Although I still think there is a gap here in the European web archiving community for an Archive-It type service to enable local archivists to scope and run their own crawls to capture at-risk sites at sometimes very short notice, as we had to at West Yorkshire Archive Service with the MLA Yorkshire website.

Archivists do not (or should not) see websites in isolation – they are usually one part of a much wider organisational archival legacy.  To my mind, the ‘web archiving’ community is at present too heavily influenced by a library model and mindset, which concentrates on thematic content and pays too little attention to more archival concerns, such as provenance and context.  So I was pleased to see this picked up in the posting and comments on Jonathan Clark’s blog about the Enduring Links event.

Lastly in my round-up, Cathy Smith from TNA had some interesting points to make from a user perspective.  She suggested that although users might prefer a single view of a national web collection, this did not necessarily imply a single repository – although collecting institutions still need to work together to eliminate overlap and to coordinate presentation.  This – and the following paper on TNA’s Digital Continuity project – set me thinking, not for the first time, about some potential problems with the geographically defined collecting remits of UK local authority archive services in a digital world.  After all, to the user, local and central government websites are indistinguishable at the .gov.uk domain level, not to mention that much central government policy succeeds or fails depending on how it is delivered at local level.  Follow almost any route through DirectGov and you will end up at a search page for local services.  Websites, unlike paper filing series, do not have distinct, defined limits.  One of the problems with the digital preservation self-sufficiency argument is that the very nature of the digital world – and increasingly so in an era of mash-ups and personalised content – is the exact opposite, highly interdependent and complex.  So TNA’s harvesting of central government websites may be of limited value over the long-term, unless it is accompanied by an equally enthusiastic campaign to capture content across local government in the UK.

Slides from all the presentations are available on the DPC website.

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