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Posts Tagged ‘British Library’

Digital Connections: new methodologies for British history, 1500-1900

I spent an enjoyable afternoon yesterday (a distinct contrast, I might add, to the rest of my day, but that is another story) at the Digital Connections workshop at the Institute of Historical Research in London, which introduced two new resources for historical research: the federated search facility, Connected Histories, and the Mapping Crime project to link crime-related documents in the John Johnson collection of ephemera at the Bodleian Library in Oxford to related external resources.

After a welcome from Jane Winters, Tim Hitchcock kicked off proceedings with an enthusiastic endorsement of Connected Histories and generally of all things digital and history-related in Towards a history lab for the digital past. I guess I fundamentally disagree with the suggestion that concepts of intellectual property might survive unchallenged in some quarters (in fact I think the idea is contradicted by Tim’s comments on the Enlightenment inheritance and the ‘authorship’ silo). But then again, we won’t challenge the paywall by shunning it altogether, and in that sense, Connected Histories’ ‘bridges’ to the commercial digitisation providers are an important step forward.  It will be interesting to see how business models evolve in response – there were indications yesterday that some providers may be considering moves towards offering short-term access passes, like the British Newspapers 1800-1900 at the British Library, where you can purchase a 24 hour or 7 day pass if you do not have an institutional affiliation.  Given the number of north American accents in evidence yesterday afternoon, too, there will be some pressure on online publishers to open up access to their resources to overseas users and beyond UK Higher Education institutions.

For me, the most exciting parts of the talk, and ensuing demonstration-workshop led by Bob Shoemaker, related to the Connected Histories API (which seems to be a little bit of a work-in-progress), which led to an interesting discussion about the technical skills required for contemporary historical research; and the eponymous ‘Connections‘, a facility for saving, annotating and (if desired) publicly sharing Connected Histories search results. The reception in the room was overwhelmingly positive – I’ll be fascinated to see if Connected Histories can succeed where other tools have failed to get academic historians to become more sociable about their research and expertise.  Connected Histories is not, in fact, truly a federated search platform, in that indexes for each participating resource have been re-created by the Connected Histories team, which then link back to the original source.  With the API, this will really open up access to many resources which were designed for human interrogation only, and I am particularly pleased that several commercial providers have been persuaded to sign up to this model.  It does, though, seem to add to the complexity of keeping Connected Histories itself up-to-date: there are plans to crawl contributing websites every 6 months to detect changes required.  This seems to me quite labour intensive, and I wonder how sustainable it will prove to be, particularly as the project team plan to add yet more resources to the site in the coming months and welcome enquiries from potential content providers (with an interesting charging model to cover the costs of including new material).  This September’s updates are planned to include DocumentsOnline from The National Archives, and there were calls from the audience yesterday to include catalogue data from local archives and museums.

Without wishing to come over as dismissive as this possibly sounds, David Tomkins’ talk about the Mapping Crime project was a pretty good illustration of what can be done when you have a generous JISC grant and a very small collection.  Coming from (well, my working background at least) a world of extremely large, poorly documented collections, where no JISC-equivalent funder is available, I was more interested in the generic tools provided for users in the John Johnson collection: permanent URIs for each item, citation download facilities, a personal, hosted user space within the resource, and even a scalable measuring tool for digitised documents.  I wonder why it is taking archival management software developers so long to get round to providing these kinds of tools for users of online archive catalogues? There was also a fascinating expose of broadsheet plagiarism revealed by the digitisation and linking of two sensationalist crime reports which were identical in all details – apart from the dates of publication and the names of those involved.  A wonderful case study in archival authenticity.

David Thomas’ keynote address was an entertaining journey through 13 years of online digitisation effort, via the rather more serious issues of sustainability and democratization of our digital heritage.  His conclusions, that the future of history is about machine-to-machine communication, GIS and spatial data especially, might have come as a surprise to the customary occupants of the IHR’s Common Room, but did come with a warning of the problems attached to the digital revolution from the point of view of ordinary citizens and users: the ‘google issue’ of search results presented out of context; the maze of often complex and difficult-to-interpret online resources; and the question of whether researchers have the technical skills to fully exploit this data in new ways.

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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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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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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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All UK local archives hold collections of ‘personal papers’ – diaries, correspondence, working papers and notes scribbled by dignitaries and officials, local people ‘made good’, and even the average person-in-the-street can provide a rich seam of historical content for social history.  For many local authority archive services, personal digital archives – perhaps a few floppy disks or CDs in amongst a bigger deposit – will be the first kind of digital content they will encounter, the foundation of a future digital archives programme.

In 2007, the British Library in partnership with University College London and the University of Bristol launched the Digital Lives Project to study personal digital archives.  The project conference, held on 9-11 February, aimed to examine how libraries and archives can offer support and advice to individuals who wish to organise, preserve and transfer their personal digital archives.  

The highlights for me of the two days I attended included two presentations from Emory University.  Naomi Nelson described Emory’s born-digital personal records programme as “trying to work the problem at both ends: building the collection and developing new ways of providing access.”  This is a relatively unusual approach for the preservation community, which tends to think about preservation first, and access only second.  I was particularly interested in her ideas for facilitating social networking amongst researchers, capturing researcher annotations, or by using tags or GIS analysis.  The presentation struck a chord with me, as I’ve been looking at some similar ideas with the aim of promoting greater exploitation and use of catalogue records of our traditional collections at WYAS.  But, as Naomi pointed out, in the digital realm, it is possible to capture and share research access in ways previously not imaginable.

The second Emory presentation from Erika Farr concerned the processing of Salman Rushdie’s literary papers, which included an early Macintosh desktop, 3 laptops and an external hard drive.  I was particularly interested in the overlaps of content between successive generations of Rushdie’s computer hardware, and how the archivists at Emory had approached the resulting archival appraisal issues.  There are similarities here with the MLA Yorkshire archives we have accessioned at WYAS, where the last server operated by the organisation contained duplicate records inherited from previous systems and from former members of staff.  Also some useful ideas for providing basic access in the reading room via a network port disabled laptop.

Further case studies were presented by John Blythe, on digital ingest at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, using a processor tool from Duke University – and their aspirations for more integrated workflow in the future.  And Gabriella Redwine from the Harry Ransom Center, on the processing, arrangement and description of the Michael Joyce papers.

I also enjoyed the panel discussion on the potential monetary value (or lack of it) of digital personal papers – do records survive because they are valued?  Or is value related to scarcity, in which case endlessly replicable digital materials might be largely value-less?  Annamaria Carusi’s philosophical paper on value in the digital economy drew out the relationship between value and trust.  She suggested that since all new technologies (for example, the printing press) are disruptive of our normal practice, we should look to learn lessons from the gradual acceptance of other new technologies into society.

The Digital Lives Project  research has revealed some insights into personal digital information management, with the hope of helping repositories guide future depositors into good information management practices.  However, like the Harry Ransom Center, we have found the response to pro-active guidance to be limited, and I felt some of the ‘educating users’ suggestions from members of the Digital Lives team to be somewhat unrealistic, at least for the kinds of local personalities likely to deposit their personal records with a local authority record office.  I am interested in the potential for technological ‘memory aids’, like the Self-Archiving Legacy Toolkit from Stanford University, and for forensic discovery of linked digital content, but suspect (hope?) on a local level, there is likely to be continuing need for retrospective detective work on description by archivists.

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