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Posts Tagged ‘archives’

It’s been a busy summer for me – lots of stimulating conferences and events.  Here’s my (eclectic) roundup of highlights:

No.1 spot has to go to the fabulous VeleHanden project, a collaborative digitisation and crowdsourcing project initiated by Amsterdam City Archives, with numerous archival partners from all over the Netherlands. I was lucky enough to be invited to the inaugural meeting of the user test panel for the pilot project, militieregisters (militia registers), in Amsterdam at the end of June.

Why do I never get to work in buildings like this?

The testing phase of the project is now well underway, and the project is due to go live in October.  VeleHanden interests me for a number of reasons: Firstly, it has an interesting and innovative private-public partnership funding model and project structure.  Participating archives have to pay to have their registers scanned by a commercial digitisation company, but the sheer size of the consortium has enabled the negotiation of a very low price per page digitised.  Research users of the militieregisters site will pay a small fee to download a digitised image (similar to Ancestry), thus providing an ongoing revenue stream for the project.  The crowdsourcing interface is being developed by a private company; in future the consortium (or individual members of the consortium) will hire the platform for new projects, and the developers will be free to sell their product to other crowdsourcing markets.  Secondly, I’m interested in the project’s (still evolving) approach to opening up archival metadata.  Thirdly, I’m interested in the way the project is going about recruiting and motivating volunteers to undertake the indexing of the registers – targeting the popular family history community; offering extrinsic quasi-financial rewards for participants in the shape of discounted access to digitised content; and promoting and celebrating competition between participants.

In fact, I think one of VeleHanden‘s great strengths is the project’s user-focused approach to design and testing, the importance of which was highlighted by Claire Warwick in a ‘How To’ session on Studying Users at Interface 2011, “a new international forum to learn, share and network between the fields of Humanities and Technology”.  Slides from the keynote and workshop sessions at this event are available on the Interface 2011 website; all are worth a look.  I particularly enjoyed the workshop on Thinking Through Networks and the practical tips on How to Get Funded should resonate with a much wider audience than just the academic community.  All the delegates had to give a lightening talk about their research.  Here is mine:

View more presentations from 80gb
I also spoke at the Bloomsbury Conference on e-Publishing and e-Publications, and attended a couple of conferences I also went to last year – Research2, the Loughborough University student-organised conference on data analysis for information science, and AERI, the Archival Education and Research Institute, this year at Simmons College in Boston, MA.  It was interesting to note an increased interest in online participation and Internet-based methods at both events.  Podcasts of the AERI plenary sessions are available at the link above.

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A round-up and some brief reflections on a number of different events and presentations I’ve attended recently:

Many of this term’s Archives and Society seminars at the Institute of Historical Research have been been on particularly pertinent subjects for me, and rather gratifyingly have attracted bumper audiences (we ran out of chairs at the last one I attended).  I’ve already blogged here about the talk on the John Latham Archive.  Presentations by Adrian Autton and Judith Bottomley from Westminster Archives, and Nora Daly and Helen Broderick from the British Library revealed an increasing awareness and interest in the use of social media in archives, qualified by a growing realisation that such initiatives are not self-sustaining, and in fact require a substantial commitment from archive staff, in time if not necessarily in financial terms, if they are to be successful.  Nora and Helen’s talk also prompted an intriguing audience debate about the ‘usefulness’ of user contributions.  To me, this translates as ‘why don’t users behave like archivists’ (or possibly like academic historians)?  But if the aim of promoting archives through social media is to attract new audiences, as is often claimed, surely we have to expect and celebrate the different perspectives these users bring to our collections.  Our professional training perhaps gives us tunnel vision when it comes to assessing the impact of users’ tagging and commenting.  Just because users’ terminology cannot be easily matched to the standardised metadata elements of ISAD(G) doesn’t mean it lacks relevance or usefulness outside of archival contexts.  Similar observations have been made in research in the museums and art galleries world, where large proportions of the tags contributed to the steve.museum prototype tagger represented terms not found in museum documentation (in one case, greater than 90% of tags were ‘new’ terms).  These new terms are viewed an unparalleled opportunity to enhance the accessibility of museum objects beyond traditional audiences, augmenting professional descriptions, not replacing them.

Releasing archival description from the artificial restraints imposed by the canon of professional practice was also a theme of my UCL colleague, Jenny Bunn’s, presentation of her PhD research, ‘The Autonomy Paradox’.  I find I can balance increased understanding about her research each time I hear her speak, with simultaneously greater confusion the deeper she gets into second order cybernetics!  Anyway, suffice it to say that I cannot possibly do justice to her research here, but anyone in north America might like to catch her at the Association of Canadian Archivists’ Conference in June.  I’m interested in the implications of her research for a move away from hierarchical or even series-system description, and whether this might facilitate a more object-oriented view of archival description.

Last term’s Archives and Society series included a talk by Nicole Schutz of Aberystwyth University about her development of a cloud computing toolkit for records management.  This was repeated at the recent meeting of the Data Standards Section of the Archives and Records Association, who had sponsored the research.  At the same meeting, I was pleased to discover that I know more than I thought I did about linked data and RDF, although I am still relieved that Jane Stevenson and the technical team behind the LOCAH Project are pioneering this approach in the UK archives sector and not me!  But I am fascinated by the potential for linked open data to draw in a radical new user community to archives, and will be watching the response to the LOCAH Project with interest.

The Linked Data theme was continued at the UKAD (UK Archives Discovery Network) Forum held at The National Archives on 2 March.  There was a real buzz to the day – so nice to attend an archives event that was full of positive energy about the future, not just ‘tough talk for tough times’.  There were three parallel tracks for most of the day, plus a busking space for short presentations and demos.  Obviously, I couldn’t get to everything, but highlights for me included:

  • the discovery of a second archives Linked Data project – the SALDA project at the University of Sussex, which is extract archival descriptions from CALM using EAD, and then transform them into Linked Data
  • Victoria Peters’ overview of the open source archival description software, ICA-AtoM – feedback welcomed, I think, on the University of Stathclyde’s new online catalogue which uses ICA-AtoM.
  • chatting about Manchester Archive + (Manchester archival images on flickr)
  • getting an insider’s view of HistoryPin and Ancestry’s World Archives Project – the latter particularly fascinating to me in the context of motivating and supporting contributors in online archival contexts

Slides from the day, including mine on Crowds and Communities in the Archives, are being gathered together on slideshare at http://www.slideshare.net/tag/ukad.  Initial feedback from the day was good, and several people have blogged about the event (including Bethan Ruddock from the ArchivesHub, a taxonomist’s viewpoint at VocabControl, Karen Watson from the SALDA Project, and The Questing Archivist).

Edit to add Kathryn Hannan’s Archives and Auteurs blog post.

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Today I have a guest post about my research on UKOLN‘s Cultural Heritage Blog.

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I’ve noticed before that in all the excitement over Web2.0 tools for user participation, archivists tend to make one big assumption: that textual descriptions of archives will remain the primary access channel to archival material in the electronic age.  This is despite all the evidence (when we bother to look for it, which isn’t really often enough) that users find archival finding aids difficult to navigate, and an ongoing blurring of boundaries between previously separate descriptive products (catalogues, indexes, calendars, transcripts etc.) in online contexts.

In the context of user participation, this assumption is particularly significant, since adding considerable quantities of user-contributed metadata – comments, tags, and word-for-word transcripts of documents – can surely only amplify the existing difficulties of user interface design and add to the complexities of using archival descriptive systems.  And that’s not to mention the possibilities suggested by ongoing improvements in optical character recognition and data mining technologies.  Even given the assistance of sophisticated search algorithms, that’s a hell of a lot of text for the poor researcher to have to wade through.

Then of course, many archivists – and many of our users – would subscribe to the view that there is something extra special about the touch and feel of original archive documents, and consider the digitised surrogate to be an inevitably impoverished medium because of it.  Despite advances in digital tactility devices this one’s probably quite hard to crack for remote access to archives, however!

One really promising alternative is visual representation, which is particularly effective for very large datasets – see, for example, Mitchell Whitelaw’s ‘visual archive‘ research project for the National Archives of Australia.

And on Tuesday, I was introduced to another – searching by sound, soon to be implemented as one of the three access routes into the archive of the artist John Latham (it’ll be under the ‘AA’ link shortly; in the meantime you can browse a slideshow the archive or interrogate its contents in more traditional, textual fashion by clicking on either of the other two letter codes from the homepage).  Fascinating stuff, although one potential problem is that you would need to know quite a substantial amount about John Latham and his ‘flat-time’ theories before you can make sense of the soundtrack and the finding aid itself – so in that sense, the sound search tool might be as much as barrier as a facilitator of access.  But then again, the same can be said of certain textual finding aids: fonds, anybody?

Anyone fancy devising an olefactory finding aid?

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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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The buzzword ‘crowdsourcing’ is beginning to make itself heard in archives circles. Yesterday (via @tondelooijer on Twitter) I came across this Dutch partnership project to index militia records [the website’s in Dutch, but you can still spot the word ‘crowdsourcing’!]; the Archivist of the United States has traced crowdsourcing back to Aristotle; and the ArchivesNext Best Archives on the Web Awards have introduced a new category for ‘Best use of crowdsourcing for description’.

Two’s company, three’s a crowd, goes the saying. But my mental picture of a crowd is something more like this:

Crowd by James Cridland on flickr

What do we really mean by ‘crowd’-sourcing, and can we legitimatally claim any examples in the archives world? Your Archives has nearly 29000 registered users (as of 1 May 2010) – is this a crowd? It’s certainly a lot of people – or at least it sounds like it is until you consider the quarter of a million individuals involved with Galaxy Zoo.

Galaxy Zoo is an interesting comparison, because taking part turns out not to require very much knowledge of galaxies at all. As the tutorial says, the job is very simple – just match slightly fuzzy pictures of galaxies against the most likely option in a finite list of feature categories. The task reminds me of those shape games for children:

Compare the Galaxy Zoo task to the knowledge required to contribute to Your Archives, or even to add a substantive comment or tag an image in Flickr Commons.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to knock the archives examples – I think they’re great (I particularly wish we could get going on a UK version of the Dutch project). But I just wonder whether they can truly be described as ‘crowdsourcing’. Or whether the archives examples merely represent a slight extending of the definition of ‘expert’. Conceding perhaps that the professional archivist is not the fount of all authoritative knowledge, but nevertheless adopting a fashionable term to describe a technology-facilitated adaptation of informal knowledge sharing between archivist and historian.

Of all the projects in the archives domain, the one that actually seems closest to my picture of the crowd is Ancestry’s World Archives Project – fairly trivial pattern-matching short tasks, with the answers from several contributors computationally cross-matched.

How many people does it take to make a crowd?

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