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Posts Tagged ‘local authority archive services’

A round-up of a few pieces of digital goodness to cheer up a damp and dark start to October:

What looks like a bumper new issue of the Journal of the Society of Archivists (shouldn’t it be getting a new name?) is published today.  It has an oral history theme, but actually it was the two articles that don’t fit the theme which caught my eye for this blog.  Firstly, Viv Cothey’s final report on the Digital Curation project, GAip and SCAT, at Gloucestershire Archives, with which I had a minor involvement as part of the steering group for the Sociey of Archivists’-funded part of the work.  The demonstration software developed by the project is now available for download via the project website.  Secondly, Candida Fenton’s dissertation research on the Use of Controlled Vocabulary and Thesauri in UK Online Finding Aids will be of  interest to my colleages in the UKAD network.  The issue also carries a review, by Alan Bell, of Philip Bantin’s book Understanding Data and Information Systems for Recordkeeping, which I’ve also found a helpful way in to some of the more technical electronic records issues.  If you do not have access via the authentication delights of Shibboleth, no doubt the paper copies will be plopping through ARA members’ letterboxes shortly.

Last night, by way of supporting the UCL home team (read: total failure to achieve self-imposed writing targets), I had my first go at transcribing a page of Jeremy Bentham’s scrawled notes on Transcribe Bentham.  I found it surprisingly difficult, even on the ‘easy’ pages!  Admittedly, my paleographical skills are probably a bit rusty, and Bentham’s handwriting and neatness leave a little to be desired – he seems to have been a man in a hurry – but what I found most tricky was not being able to glance at the page as a whole and get the gist of the sentence ahead at the same time as attempting to decipher particular words.  In particular, not being able to search down the whole page looking for similar letter shapes.  The navigation tools do allow you to pan and scroll, and zoom in and out, but when you’ve got the editing page up on the screen as well as the document, you’re a bit squished for space.  Perhaps it would be easier if I had a larger monitor.  Anyway, it struck me that this type of transcription task is definitely a challenge, for people who want to get their teeth into something, not the type of thing you might dip in and out of in a spare moment (like indicommons on iPhone and iPad, for instance).

I’m interested in reward and recognition systems at the moment, and how crowdsourcing projects seek to motivate participants to contribute.  Actually, it’s surprising how many projects seem not to think about this at all – the build it and wait for them to come attitude.  Quite often, it seems, the result is that ‘they’ don’t come, so it’s interesting to see Transcribe Bentham experiment with a number of tricks for monitoring progress and encouraging people to keep on transcribing.  So, there’s the Benthamometer for checking on overall progress, you can set up a watchlist to keep an eye on pages you’ve contributed to, individual registered contributors can set up a user profile to state their credentials, chat to fellow transcribers on the discussion forum, and there’s a points system, depending on how active you are on the site, and a leader board of top transcribers.  The leader board seems to be fueling a bit of healthy transatlantic competition right at the moment, but given the ‘expert’ wanting-to-crack-a-puzzle nature of the task here, I wonder whether the more social / community-building facilities might prove more effective over the longer term than the quantitative approaches.  One to watch.

Finally, anyone with the techie skills to mashup data ought to be welcoming The National Archives’ work on designing the Open Government Licence (OGL) for public sector information in the U.K.  I haven’t (got the technical skills) but I’m welcoming it anyway in case anyone who has hasn’t yet seen the publicity about it, and because I am keen to be associated with angels.

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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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Last Thursday I was delighted to attend the culminating workshop for the Society of Archivists‘ (SoA) funded digital curation project at Gloucestershire Archives.  As Viv Cothey, the developer employed by Gloucestershire Archives, has noted, “Local authority archivists may well be fully aware of the very many exhortations to do digital curation and to get involved but are frustrated by not knowing where to start”.  Building upon previous work on a prototype desktop ingest packager (GAip), the SoA project set out to create a proof of concept demonstration of a ‘trusted digital store’ suitable for use by a local government record office.  The workshop was an important outreach element of the project, aiming to build up understanding and experience of digital curation principles and workflow amongst archivists in the UK.  I have been involved with the management board for the SoA project, so I was eager to see how the demonstration tools which have been developed would be received by the wider digital preservation and archivist professional communities.

Others are much better qualified than me to evaluate the technical approach that the project has taken, and indeed Susan Thomas has already blogged her impressions over at futureArch.  For me, what was especially pleasing was to see a good crowd of ‘ordinary’ archivists getting stuck in with the demonstration tools – despite the unfamiliarity of the Linux operating system – and teasing out the purpose and process of each of the digital curation tools provided.  I hope that nobody objects to my calling them ‘ordinary’ – I think they will know what I mean, and it is how I would describe myself in this digital preservation context.

Digital preservation research has hitherto clustered around opposite ends of a spectrum.  At one end are the high level conceptual frameworks: OAIS and the like.  At the other end are the practical developments in repository and curation workflow tools in the higher education, national repository, and scientific research communities.  The problem here is the technological jargon which is frankly incomprehensible to your average archivist.  Gloucestershire’s project therefore attempts to fill an important gap in current provision, by providing a set of training tools to promote experimentation and discourse at practitioner level.

I’ll be interested to see the feedback from the workshop, and it’d be good to see some attendee comments here…

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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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Presentations from the successful open consultation day held at TNA on 12 November on digital preservation for local authority archivists are now available on the DPC website – including my report on my Churchill Fellowship research in the US and Australia.  Also featured were colleagues from other local authority services already active in practical digital preservation initiatives – Heather Needham on ingest work at Hampshire, Viv Cothey reporting on his GAIP tool developed for Gloucestershire Archives, and Kevin Bolton on web archiving work at Manchester City. 

Heather and I also reported back on the results of the digital preservation survey of local authorities and a copy of the interim report is also now available on the DPC site.   A paper incorporating the discussion arising from the survey, from the afternoon sessions of the consultation event, will be published in Ariadne in January 2009.

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