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Archive for the ‘Conferences’ Category

Day 3 of ECDL started for me with the Query Log Analysis session.  I thought perhaps that, now the papers were getting heavily into IR technicalities, I might not understand what was being presented or that it would be less relevant to archives.  How wrong can you be!  Well, ok, IR metrics are complex, especially for someone new to the field, but when the first presentation was based upon a usability study of the EAD finding aids at the Nationaal Archief (the National Archives of the Netherlands), it wasn’t too difficult to spot the relevance.  In fact, it was interesting to see how you notice things when the test data is presented in a foreign language, that you wouldn’t necessarily observe if they were in your mother tongue.  In the case of the Nationaal Archief, I was horrified at how many clicks were required to reach an item description.  Most archives have this problem with web-based finding aids (unless they merely replicate a traditional format, for instance, a PDF copy of a paper list), but somehow it was so much more obvious when I wasn’t quite sure exactly what was being presented to me at each stage of the results.  This is what it must be like to be an archival novice.  No wonder they give up.

The second paper of the morning, Determining Time of Queries for Re-ranking Search Results, was also very pertinent to searching in an archival context.  It discussed ‘temporal documents’ where either the terminology itself has changed over time or time is highly relevant to the query.  This temporal intent may be either implicit or explicit in the query.  For example, ‘tsunami + Thailand’ is likely to refer to the 2004 tsunami.  These kinds of issues are obviously very important for historians, and for archivists making temporal collections available in a web environment, such as web archives and online archival finding aids.

Later in the morning, I was down to attend the stream on Domain-specific Digital Libraries.  One of these specific domains turned out to be archives, with an (appropriately) very philosophical paper presented by Pierre-Edouard Portier about DINAH [in French].  This is “a philological platform for the construction of multi-structured documents”, created to enable the transcription and annotation of the papes of the French philosopher, Jean-Toussaint Desanti, and to facilitate the visualization of the trace of user activities.  My tweeting of this paper (limited on account of both the presentation’s intellectual and technical complexity and the fact that I’d got to bed at around 3am that morning!) seemed to catch the attention of both the archival profession and the Linked Data community;  it certainly deserves some further coverage in the English-speaking archival professional literature.

In the same session, I was also interested in the visualization techniques presented for time-oriented scientific data by Jürgen Bernard, which reminded me of The Visible Archive research project funded by the National Archives of Australia.  The principle – that visual presentations are a useful, possibly preferable, alternative to text-based descriptions of huge series of data – is the same in both cases.  Similarly, the PROBADO project has investigated the development of tools to store and retrieve complex, non-textual data and objects, such as 3D CAD drawings and music.  There were important implications from all of these papers for the future development of archival finding aids.

In the afternoon, I found myself helping out at the Networked Knowledge Organization Systems/Services (NKOS) workshop.  I wasn’t really sure what this entailed, but it turned out to involve things like thesauri construction and semantic mapping between systems, all of which is very relevant to the UK Archives Discovery (UKAD) Network objectives.  I was particularly sorry I was unable to make the Friday session of the workshop, which was to be all about user-centred knowledge system design, and Linked Data, however the slides are all available with the programme for the workshop.

Once again, my sincere thanks to the conference organisers for my opportunity to participate in ECDL2010.  The conference proceedings are available from Springer, for those who want to follow up further, and presentation slides are gradually appearing on the conference website.

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Since it seems a few people read my post about day one of ECDL2010, I guess I’d better continue with day two!

Liina Munari’s keynote about digital libraries from the European Commission’s perspective provided delegates with an early morning shower of acronymns.  Amongst the funder-speak, however, there were a number of proposals from the forthcoming FP7 Call 6 funding round which are interesting from an archives and records perspective, including projects investigating cloud storage and the preservation of context, and on appraisal and selection using the ‘wisdom of crowds’. Also, the ‘Digital Single Market’ will include work on copyright, specifically the orphan works problem, which promises to be useful to the archives sector – Liina pointed out that the total size of the European Public Domain is smaller than the US equivalent because of the extended period of copyright protection available to works whose current copyright owners are unknown. But I do wish people would not use the ‘black hole’ description; its alarmist and inaccurate.  If we combine this twentieth century black hole (digitised orphan works) with the oft-quoted born-digital black hole, it seems a wonder we have any cultural heritage left in Europe at all.

After the opening keynote, I attended the stream on the Social Web/Web 2.0, where we were treated to three excellent papers on privacy-aware folksonomies, seamless web editing, and the automatic classification of social tags. The seamless web editor, seaweed, is of interest to me in a personal capacity, because of its WordPress plugin, which would essentially enable the user to add new posts or edit existing ones directly into a web browser without recourse to the cumbersome WordPress dashboard, and absent mindedly adding new pages instead of new posts (which is what I generally manage to do by mistake). I’m sure there are archives applications too, possibly for instance in terms of the user interface design for encouraging participation in archival description.  Privacy-aware folksonomies, a system to enable greater user control over tagging (with levels user only, friends, and tag provider), might have application in respect of some of the more sensitive archive content, such as mental health records perhaps.  The paper on the automatic classification of social tags will be of particular interest to records managers interested in the searchability and re-usability of folksonomies in record-keeping systems, as well as to archivists implementing tagging systems into the online catalogue or digital archives interfaces.

After lunch we had a poster and demo session.  Those which particularly caught my attention included a poster from the University of Oregon entitled ‘Creating a Flexible Preservation Infrastructure for Electronic Records’ and described as the ‘do-it’ solution to digital preservation in a small repository without any money.  Sounded familiar!  The authors, digital library expert Karen Estlund and University Archivist Heather Briston, described how they have made best use of existing infrastructure, such as share drives (for deposit) and the software package Archivists Toolkit for description.  Their approach is similar to the workflow I put in place for West Yorkshire Archive Service, except that the University are fortunate to be in a position to train staff to carry out some self-appraisal before deposit, which simplifies the process.  I was also interested (as someone who is never really sure why tagging is useful) in a poster ‘Exploring the Influence of Tagging Motivation on Tagging Behaviour’ which classified taggers into two groups, describers and categorisers, and in the demonstration of the OCRopodium project at King’s College London, exploring the use of optical character recognition (OCR) with typescript texts.

In the final session of the day, I was assigned to the stream on search in digital libraries, where papers explored the impact of the search interface on search tasks, relevance judgements, and search interface design.

Then there was the conference dinner…

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I am extremely lucky to have been offered a student place helping out at ECDL 2010, the European Conference on Research and Advanced Technology for Digital Libraries. The following are the highlights from day 1 of the conference for this archivist let loose in the virtual stacks:

Susan Dumais‘ keynote presented recent Microsoft research into the temporal dynamics of the web, analysing both changes to content and how people revisit web pages, checking for new content or looking for previously found information. She argued that the current generation of web browsers offer only a static, snapshot view, and went on to illustrate a browser plugin called DiffIE which highlights what has changed on a web page since the user’s last visit. She also presented some initial evaluation of this tool, which indicated that although perceptions of revisitation frequency remained constant, in practice users of the plugin increased their revisitation rate. There are lots of potential applications for this kind of tool for archives – from the presentation of web archives to the user interactions/annotations/ratings examples that Dumais herself gave. She also spoke about the implications of her research to the ranking and presentation of search results, illustrating how the pertinency and hence relevancy of certain terms can decline over time – for example, a user searching for ‘US Open’ this week is more likely to looking for information on the tennis grand slam than the golf tournament. Again, there are some interesting implications here for archival catalogue and document search systems.

Christos Papatheodorou from the Ionian University on Corfu spoke about the mapping of disparate cultural heritage (archives, museums, libraries) XML-based metadata schema to the CIDOC CRM ontology, and went on to describe the transformation of XPath queries submitted to a local (XML) data source into equivalent queries suitable to be submitted to other data sources, via the CIDOC CRM ontology. Having travelled up to Glasgow on the sleeper, arriving at 7 in the morning, I confess I got a bit lost in the technicalities from this point onwards, but the basic idea is to use CIDOC CRM as a mediator between disparate cultural heritage sources marked up in different XML schema. There was an extended worked example using EAD, which was nice to hear. In general, it has been interesting to observe a large number of papers at this conference which report experiments based upon data from cultural heritage rather than scientific domains. All of which tends to reinforce my thoughts after the Society of Archivists’ Conference about attracting technology experts to work in the archives sector: cultural heritage data is complex and thus, it seems, fascinating and intrinsically motivating to work with. We should be more proactive about promoting archival data to this kind of digital research community.

I’d been particularly looking forward to the paper on User-Contributed Metadata for Libraries and Cultural Institutions, although this turned out to be a Drexel University re-working of the Library of Congress flickr Commons experience, albeit concentrating more on user comments and less upon tagging. I was not quite comfortable anyway with the a priori categorization of comments described in the paper (into 1. personal and historical 2. link out (eg to wikipedia) 3. corrections and translations 4. link in (eg adding images to flickr groups) – seems to me that category 1. includes a particularly wide range of possible comment types), plus all the things I wanted to ask about seemed to be listed as ‘future research’. These include a fuller categorization, exploring motivations for adding comments, the presentation of comments in the user interface, and librarians’ (or archivists’) role in moderating user interaction.

I also enjoyed a couple of papers which presented ideas to do with improving information visualisation and user judgement using colours, layout and social navigation, all of which have some potential relevancy to the question of how best to present user-generated content.

Research and Advanced Technology for Digital Libraries, Proceedings of the 14th European Conference, ECDL 2010, Glasgow, UK, September 2010 is published as Lecture Notes in Computer Science 6273, available via SpringerLink, for those of you who have access.

And I have travelled twice on Glasgow’s baby underground train 🙂

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I had a day at the Society of Archivists’ Conference 2010 in Manchester last Thursday; rather a mixed bag. I wasn’t there in time for the first couple of papers, but caught the main strand on digital preservation after the coffee break. It’s really good to see digital preservation issues get such a prominent billing (especially as I understand there few sessions on digital preservation at the much larger Society of American Archivists’ Conference this year), although I was slightly disappointed that the papers were essentially show and tell rehearsals of how various organisations are tackling the digital challenge. I have given exactly this type of presentation at the Society’s Digital Preservation Roadshows and at various other beginners/introductory digital preservation events over the past year.  Sometimes of course this is precisely what is needed to get the nervous to engage with the practical realities of digital preservation, but all the same, it’s a pity that one or more of the papers at the main UK professional conference of the year did not develop the theme a little more and stimulate some discussion on the wider implications of digital archives.  However, it was interesting to see how the speakers assumed familiarity with OAIS and digital preservation concepts such as emulation. I suspect some of the audience were left rather bewildered by this, but the fact that speakers at an archives conference feel they can make such assumptions about audience understanding does at least suggest that some awareness of digital preservation theory and frameworks is at last crawling into the professional mainstream.

I was interested in Meena Gautam’s description of the National Archives of India‘s preparations for receiving digital content, which included a strategy for recruiting staff with relevant expertise. Given India’s riches in terms of qualified IT professionals, I would have expected a large pool of skilled people from which to recruit. But the direction of her talk seemed to suggest that, in actual fact, NAI is finding it difficult to attract the experts they require. [There was one particular comment – that the NAI considers conversion to microfilm to be the current best solution for preserving born-digital content – which seemed particularly extraordinary, although I have since discovered the website of the Indian National Digital Preservation Programme, which does suggest that the Indian Government is thinking beyond this analogue paradigm.]  Anyway, NAI are not alone in encountering difficulties in attracting technically skilled staff to work in the archives sector.  I assume that the reason for this is principally economic, in that people with IT qualifications can earn considerably more working in the private sector.

It was a shame that there was not an opportunity for questions at the end of the session, as I would have liked to ask Dr Gautam how archives could or should try to motivate computer scientists and technicians to work in the area of digital preservation.  Later in the same session, Sharon McMeekin from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland advocated that archives organisations should collaborate to build digital repositories, and I and several others amongst the Conference twitter audience agreed.  But from observation of the real archives world, I would suggest that, although most people agree in principle that collaboration is the way forward, there is very little evidence – as yet at least – of partnership in practice. I wonder just how likely it is that joint repositories will emerge in this era of recession and budget cuts (which might be when we need collaboration most, but when in reality most organisations’ operations become increasingly internally focused).  Since it seems archives are unable to compete in attracting skilled staff in the open market, and – for a variety of reasons – it seems that the establishment of joint digital repositories is hindered by traditional organisational boundaries, I pondered whether a potential solution to both issues might lie in Yochai Benkler‘s third organisational form of commons-based peer-production: as the means both to motivate a community of appropriately skilled experts to contribute their knowledge to the archives sector, and to build sustainable digital archives repositories in common.  There are already of course examples of open source development in the digital archives world (Archivematica is a good example, and many other tools, such as the National Archives of Australia’s Xena and The (UK) National Archives DROID are available under open source licences), since the use of open standards fits well with the preservation objective.  Could the archives profession build on these individual beginnings in order to stimulate or become the wider peer community needed to underpin sustainable digital preservation?

After lunch, we heard from Dr Elizabeth Shepherd and Dr Andrew Flinn on the work of the ICARUS research group at UCL’s Department of Information Studies, of which my user participation research is a small part.  It was good to see the the twitter discussion really pick up during the paper, and a good question and answer session afterwards.  Sarah Wickham has a good summary of this presentation.

Finally, at the end of the day, I helped out with the session to raise awareness of the UK Archives Discovery Network, and to gather input from the profession of how they would like UKAD to develop.  We asked for comments on post-it notes on a series of ‘impertinent questions‘.  I was particularly interested in the outcome of the question based upon UKAD’s Objective 4: In reality, there will always be backlogs of uncatalogued archives.” Are volunteers the answer?  From the responses we gathererd, there does appear to be increasing professional acceptance of the use of volunteers in description activities, although I suspect our use of the word ‘volunteer’ may be holding back appreciation of an important difference between the role of ‘expert’ volunteers in archives and user participation by the crowd.

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A write-up of the second Archival Education Research Institute which I attended at  from 21st to 25th June.

The scheduled programme (or program, I suppose!) was a mixture of plenary sessions on the subject of interdisciplinarity in archival research, methods and mentoring workshops, curriculum discussion sessions, and research papers given by both doctoral students and faculty members.  We also experienced two fascinating and engaging, if slightly US-centric, theatrical performances by the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning Theatre Program (ok, now I’m confused – why would it be ‘center’ but not ‘theater’?).

Most valuable to me personally were the methods workshops on Information Retrieval and User Studies.  IR research is largely new to me, although I was aware that current development work at The National Archives [TNA] includes a research strand being carried out at the University of Sheffield’s Information Studies Department which uses IR techniques to investigate information-seeking behaviour across TNA’s web domain and catalogue knowledge base.  I was interested to see whether these methods could be adapted for my research interests in user participation.  User Studies turned out to be more familiar territory, not least because of many years’ responsibility coordinating and analysing the Public Services Quality Group[PSQG] Survey of Visitors to UK Archives across the West Yorkshire Archive Service‘s five offices.  I hadn’t previously appreciated that the PSQG survey is unique in the archival world in providing over a decade’s worth of longitudinal data on UK archive users (despite what it says on the NCA website, the survey was first run in 1998), and it seems a shame that only occasional annual reports of the survey results have been formally published.

Of the paper sessions, I was particularly interested in several examples of participatory archive projects.  The examples given in the Digital Cultural Communities session – in particular Donghee Sinn’s outline of the No Gun Ri massacre digital archives and Vivian Wong’s film-making work with the Chinese American community in Los Angeles, together with Michelle Caswell’s description of the Cambodian Human Rights Tribunal in the session on Renegotiating Principles and Practice – reinforced my earlier conviction that past trauma or marginalisation may help to promote user-archives collaboration, and provide greater resilience against (or perhaps more sophisticated mechanisms for resolving) controversy.  However, Sue McKemmish and Shannon Faulkhead, in their presentations about another previously persecuted grouping, Australian Aboriginal natives (the Koorie and Gundjitmara communities specifically), gave me hope that the participatory attitudes of the Indigenous communities are just an early precursor to a much wider social movement which puts a high value upon co-creation and co-responsibility for records and record-keeping.  [Incidentally, if you have access, I see that Sue and Shannon’s Monash colleague Livia Iacovino has just published an article in Archival Science entitled Rethinking archival, ethical and legal frameworks for records of Indigenous Australian communities: a participant relationship model of rights and responsibilities, which looks highly pertinent – it’s currently in the ‘online first’ section]  I was also interested in Shannon’s comments about developing a framework to incorporate or authenticate traditional oral knowledge as an integral part of the overall community ‘archive’ (I’m not quite sure I’ve got this quite right, and would like to chat to her further about it).  William Uricchio has remarked of contemporary digital networks that “Decentralized, networked, collaborative, accretive, ephemeral and dynamic… these developments and others like them bear a closer resemblance to oral cultures than to the more stable regimes of print (writing and the printing press) and the trace (photography, film, recorded sound)”¹.  What can we learn from oral culture to inform our development of participatory practice in the digital domain?

Carlos Ovalle gave a useful paper on Copyright Challenges with Public Access to Digital Materials in Cultural Institutions in the Challenges/Problems in Use, Re-use, and Sharing session, which was interesting in the light of the UK Digital Economy Act and recent amendments to UK Copyright legislation, and some of my own current concerns about digitisation practices and business models in UK archives.

I cannot say I particularly enjoyed the plenary sessions and ensuing discussions.  I found the whole dispute about whether archival ‘science’ could, or should, be considered inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary, and which disciplines are core or which are peripheral, somewhat sterile and frankly rather futile.  Some of the arguments seemed to stand as witness to a kind of professional identity crisis, undermining any claim that archival research might have to a wider relevance in the modern world.  I was particularly surprised at how controversial ‘collaboration’ seemed to be in a US research context – a striking contrast I felt to the pervasive ‘partnership’ ethos that is accepted best practice in fields with which I am familiar in the UK.  Not just, I think, because I worked for what is in many ways a pioneering partnership of local authorities at West Yorkshire Joint Services; the current government policy on archives, Archives for the 21st Century similarly emphasises the benefits and indeed necessity (in the current economic climate) of partnership working in a specific archives context.

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to have been much blogging about AERI, but you can read one of the Australian participant’s Lessons from AERI Part I (is there a part II coming soon, Leisa?!).  I’ll link to any further blog posts I notice in the comments.

Finally, nothing to do with AERI, but I’ve finally got round to registering this blog with technorati and need to include the claim code in a post, so here goes: CF2RCBCUPWQC.

¹Uricchio, W. ‘Moving Beyond the Artifact: Lessons from Participatory Culture’ in Preserving the Digital Heritage Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO, 2007.  <http://www.knaw.nl/ecpa/publ/pdf/2735.pdf>

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Under the avuncular eye of fellow Pembrokian William Pitt the Younger, I was presented with my Churchill Fellowship Medallion by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall at the City of London Guildhall on Friday 21st May.  Unfortunately, I can’t blog the picture of me receiving my medallion; partly because its locked down by some horrible DRM system, partly because it looks as if my head has been stuck on at the wrong angle.  I also couldn’t find a decent picture of Mr Pitt’s Guildhall monument (slightly naff, it has to be said – with Britannia riding a sea-horse – apparently the design was chosen for its cheapness rather than its artistic merit).  So here instead is a picture of the much nicer Pitt statue at Pembroke, although I have often worried that a toga is really not the best costume for sitting outside on a cold Cambridge day.  No wonder his toes are blue:

;

Pitt the Younger, Pembroke College, Cambridge. Photo by James UK on flickr

I was amused by the text of the inscription¹ at the Guildhall:

HE REPAIRED THE EXHAUSTED REVENUES, HE REVIVED AND INVIGORATED
THE COMMERCE AND PROSPERITY OF THE COUNTRY;
AND HE HAD RE-ESTABLISHED THE PUBLICK CREDIT ON DEEP AND SURE FOUNDATIONS;

Sounds like he’d be a handy chap to have as Prime Minister right now really, although I’m less sure about this part (just about pulls it back in the last line):

HIS INDUSTRY WAS NOT RELAXED BY CONFIDENCE IN HIS GREAT ABILITIES;
HIS INDULGENCE TO OTHERS WAS NOT ABATED BY THE CONSCIOUSNESS 
OF HIS OWN SUPERIORITY;
HIS AMBITION WAS PURE FROM ALL SELFISH MOTIVES;

Joking aside, it was a suitably grand occasion to celebrate the incredible variety of all the recent Churchill Fellowships.  After the award ceremony, 2009 Fellow Michael Kernan sought me out.  Michael is the Honorary Historian and Archivist at the Fire Service College in Gloucestershire, and wanted advice on digital preservation with regard to the Fire Service College’s collection – both for digitised archive documents and born-digital oral histories of firemen’s exeriences of the Blitz.  So further proof, if proof were needed, of the ongoing relevance of the central tenet of my Fellowship – that we need to develop digital preservation solutions which scale down to the local level, as well as scale up to the (inter-)national.

I was able to point Michael towards the work in both digitisation and digital preservation taking place locally to him at Gloucestershire Archives.  This would not have been possible when I first put my Churchill Fellowship application together back in 2007.  Last week I also heard from a colleague at Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archives, where similarly they are now taking some real, practical steps towards addressing digital preservation at a local level.  I would like to think that my Churchill Fellowship has played a small part in encouraging local archivist colleagues in the UK and giving them the confidence to take up the digital archives challenge.

Coincidentally, as I was picking up my Churchill medallion at the Guildhall, Viv Cothey, the developer at Gloucestershire Archives, was speaking at the seminar, ‘Practical Approaches to Electronic Records: the Academy and Beyond‘, organised by Chris Prom and held at the University of Dundee.  I was very sorry indeed to have to miss this event, but fortunately it has been covered in the blogosphere by Sue Donnelly of the LSE Archives and Simon Wilson from the University of Hull, representing another new digital preservation project, AIMS – Born Digital Collections: An Inter-Institutional Model for Stewardship.  Chris Prom will shortly be returning to Illinois at the end of his Fulbright scholarship.  I am sure that the following sentiments were expressed copiously on the day at Dundee, but I would also like to add my own personal vote of thanks to Chris for the huge contribution his project has made over the last year in discovering, developing and disseminating practical digital preservation methods and tools for ‘real’ archivists.  Safe journey home!

Edit: to add a link to Peter Cliff’s presentation from the Dundee seminar on Developing and Implementing Tools to Manage Hybrid Archives (slideshare).

¹ Copyright, apparently, George Canning – why do these people follow me about?

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On 27th March (yes, I know, Easter got in the way) I attended the Rewired Culture unconference at The Guardian in London.  I’d not been to an unconference before, let alone one associated with a hackday, but I’d followed similar intiatives, such as the THATCamp series at a distance via twitter and blog postings.  So I was intrigued – if a little nervous – to find out from the inside how such an event worked. [Coincidentally, there has been the most extraordinary flame today on the UK Records Management listserv about the concept of an unconference, which is obviously unfamiliar (excuse pun) to many records professionals in the UK.  I hope this blog post goes a little way towards demonstrating the potential value of this type of event to the archives and records sector.]

The day’s events were organised jointly by DCMS and Rewired State, a not-for-profit company whose mission is neatly summed up in their tagline ‘geeks meet government’.  Rewired Culture, which also masqueraded under the twitter hashtag #rsrc, aimed to bring together cultural ‘data owners’ (such as Museums, Libraries and Archives) with Britain’s “vibrant developer community” and “growing and active entrepreneurial base”.  The half day unconference strand (which was free, incidentally – thank you) offered an opportunity to discuss how cultural creators (ie record creators in an archive context), curators (read archivists), developers (IT professionals) and entrepreneurs can collaborate to exploit the potential of cultural content and promote innovation in a participatory web2.0 world:

How do we ensure that the exciting work already underway in a number of organizations is shared more generally, so even smaller bodies and SMEs can learn from best practice and find workable routes to market? What are the cultural content business models for the 21st century? …for data owners, entrepreneurs, data users and communites to discuss business models, funding mechanisms and challenges.

Encouraged by the promise that at an unconference, “everybody’s voice is as valid as everyone else’s”, I went along nevertheless expecting to be the only archivist in a room full of people from the big national museums.  I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find that fellow participants included a bunch of colleagues from The National Archives, as well as a number of other people who for a variety of reasons had an interest in smaller cultural organisations.

My own attendance was also prompted by a somewhat vaguely thought-through idea that techie/geek mashups making use of cultural content could be viewed as one extreme of a user-collaboration continuum (disclaimer: these are very much thoughts-in-progress, and need a lot more mashing!):

During Rewired Culture, I was pointed towards the work of one of the current Clore Fellows, Claire Antrobus, who is researching user-led innovation in art galleries.  There are some interesting parallels and contrasts with the archives domain here, and I like the ‘user-led innovation’ concept.

Each unconference session lasted for an hour (possibly a little too long – at times I felt the discussions would benefit from more focus, but this perhaps depends on the participants in each group and anyway, you are at liberty to ‘vote with your feet’ and join another session if you wish, something which is not usually possible in a formal conference setting).  The first session I attended discussed institutional barriers to opening up cultural data.  Some familiar themes emerged, including language barriers between ‘techies’ and ‘curators’, business drivers for engaging in new, potentially risky, areas of work at a time of significant budget cuts in the public-sector, and identifying external funding streams for technological innovation (I wondered specifically whether the regional structure of the principal archives-sector grant funder, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the emphasis they place upon localised community outcomes for projects they support, inhibits innovation in the re-use of archival content on the internet, which is by definition global in its reach).  The session also surfaced what I felt was a misunderstanding of the positivist, Jenkinsonian theory of the archivist as passive custodian (as opposed to active interpreter) of archival content, which one museum professional present had taken as a particular reluctance amongst archivists to open up archival data.  My former employer, West Yorkshire Archive Service, has had its full electronic catalogue freely available on the internet for over ten years, which is more than can be said, even now, of many local museum services.  Admittedly there is plenty of work still to be done in making this catalogue data available in re-usable, developer-friendly formats, and there is a definite need for better data aggregators in the archives sector – the UK Archives Discovery Network may have an important role to play here.  But it would be wrong to fail to recognise the achievements of the sector in making archival catalogue data available, and consequently to miss out on opportunities for its re-use (particularly where it is even now held as easily harvested and re-purposed Encoded Archival Description, as with the ArchivesHub and A2A federated collections).  Equally, there is perhaps a need to bring postmodernist trends in archival theory to greater prominence within the UK archives practitioner community, and to explore how such concepts might support the kind of technology- and user-mediated innovation under discussion at the Rewired Culture unconference.

Following on from this, the second session I attended considered what would make  the ideal API for a cultural organisation.  Here we seemed to be back in ‘If we build it, will they come?‘ territory, or to be more precise, ‘If we release open data, what do we expect developers to do with it?’.  Indeed, I agree, it would be very useful to know what use has been made of existing cultural sector APIs and datasets made available, such as that provided by the V&A Museum, or, to give an archives example, what use has been made of the NARA catalogue data that has been made available for download?  As a non-geek archivist (albeit with geek-like tendencies), I also freely admit I do not altogether understand what data formats are optimal to maximise potential for re-use, nor do the developer community seem to articulate clearly what ‘open data’ might mean in practical terms.

Finally, at the end of the afternoon, we came to the hack presentations.  I was slightly disappointed that only two of the creations (HMRC Artworks and LandingZone) made any use of actual cultural content (as opposed to information about special events or the geographical locations of cultural organisations).  Nor, as far as I know, was any use made of archives sector data (although I do not know what data was provided, and it may be that there was no suitable archive data to hand).  So the hackers had maybe breathed new life into the discoverability of collections, whereas the real promise of user-led innovation in the cultual sector, it seems to me, is to enhance meaning and understanding of collections.  However, I left thinking that a hackday with archival data could prove an interesting experiment – and something of a technical challenge, presumably, given the contextual richness and complexity of archival catalogue data, in comparison to the discrete object record of the typical museum or library catalogue.

Incidentally, for an alternative view of the same sessions, Brian Kelly has written up his impressions of the day here and here (I have similar thoughts about Saturday events!).

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On Monday I attended an event at the British Library – Digital Researcher: Managing your networks and building your profile.  I hadn’t intended to blog about it here, since the subject seemed somewhat tangential to the focus of this blog (or at least to the focus of this blog hitherto – on which more, possibly, later).

However, about halfway through the day it suddenly struck me that the communities I know best – archives, digital curation, libraries – appear to be well ahead of the crowd when it comes to using social media and exploiting the best of web2.0.  There was an enthusiastic response to Adrian Arthur’s presentation on current work at the British Library, which highlighted several archives initiatives, including @PeggyRamsay and user collaboration features in the Sound Archive, such as tagging, adding metadata and the google maps mashup.  “Cool stuff” said the tweeters in the room (despite the dodgy wifi), “sounds great” thought several of my followers, as I was re-tweeted across in the U.S. and in Australia.  Later in the day, the discussion moved on to the pros and cons of using institutional repositories, and there was even a question on how to cite a tweet, with a response pointing to JISC PoWR.  There is a twapperkeeper archive of #DR10 tweets at http://twapperkeeper.com/dr10, if you want to explore further, and some (not yet all – hopefully that’ll be fixed soon) slides are available on the Vitae website.

[Edit: to say that all the slides are now available at http://www.vitae.ac.uk/dr10]

Much of my early dabbling with social media platforms was prompted by my interest in digital preservation:  I finally caved in and joined facebook when a group was established following the DELOS Summer School I attended in 2008.  I started this blog to document my journeys around digital archives in Australia and the USA on my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship.  I joined twitter to enable me to keep up with conferences across the world on the subject of digital curation, that I couldn’t get to, and to follow digital preservation people, that I wouldn’t dare talk to (then!).  The purpose of a feed reader finally became evident to me when the number of people blogging about things which interested me grew to such proportions that I could no longer keep up by visiting favourite websites.  Just this morning (as a result of #DR10), I have registered for FriendFeed, and discover – surprise, surprise – that most of the digital curation community are already there.

Until Monday, I suppose I took most of this activity for granted.  The open ethos which informs much code development in the digital curation field also pervades its scholarship, so that I, an ordinary archivist working for an average county record service in the north of England, could grasp the opportunity not only to find out about the latest research in the field, but also to engage in a dialogue with many of its leading figures.  Only on a few occasions can I remember encountering some peer-reviewed, subscription journal wall I could not find a way to circumnavigate.  The same is broadly true of the wider archives and library communities, and for my current research interest in user collaboration – the best example I can think of here would be the Smithsonian’s experiences with Flickr, which were published as an article in Archival Science, but also made available as a pre-print in the Smithsonian’s own research repository.

I guess I just assumed that this was how academia worked in the modern world.  But it seems that sometimes it isn’t.  Nor are my own communities of practice entirely immune to attacks of scepticism about what has been called the democratisation of knowledge production.

But the next time somebody opines in my hearing (as happened to me only last week) that libraries and archives “haven’t really got to grips with the virtual world”, I’ll be asking them what an RSS feed is.

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Just a quick place-marking type post to point people towards the presentation slides from today’s Edinburgh Digital Preservation Roadshow, particularly those from Jane Brown on the National Archive of Scotland’s Digital Data Archive.  NAS has written an in-house workflow tool for ingest in .NET, and, interestingly, are proposing to follow the Australians in an up-front normalisation to open-source strategy, rather than the migration model favoured by The National Archives in London. Local archivists may be particularly interested because NAS are users of the Calm collections management system, which is in widespread use across the sector in the UK. I wondered during the presentation why I’d not encountered the Digital Data Archive before, but apparently this was its first public outing.  It looks an impressive achievement, considering that they estimate the total staff resource on the project to approximate to only one full time equivalent over the last four to five years.  I am due to visit the NAS soon, so hopefully more to follow…

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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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