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This should be the first of several posts from this year’s Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting in Chicago, for which I have received generous funding to attend from UCL’s Graduate Conference Fund, and from the Archives and Records Association who asked me to blog the conference.  First impressions of a Brit: this conference is huge.  I could (and probably will) get lost inside the conference hotel, and the main programme involves parallel tracks of ten sessions at once.  And proceedings start at 8am.  This is all a bit of a shock to the system; not sure anybody would turn up if you started before 9am at the earliest back home! Anyway, the twitter tag to watch is #saa11, although with no wifi in the session rooms, live coverage of sessions will be limited to those who can get a mobile phone signal, which is a bit of a shame.

The conference proper starts on Thursday; the beginning of the week is mostly taken up with meetings, but on Tuesday I attended an impressive range of presentations at the SAA Research Forum.  Abstracts and bios for each speaker are already online (and are linked where relevant below), and I understand that slides will follow in the next week or so.  Here are some personal highlights and things which I think may be of interest to archivists back home in the UK:

It was interesting to see several presentations on digital preservation, many reflecting similar issues and themes to those which inspired my Churchill Fellowship research and the beginning of this blog back in 2008.  Whilst I don’t think I’d recommend anyone set out to learn about digital preservation techniques the hard way with seriously obsolete media, if you do find yourself in the position of having to deal with 5.25 inch floppy disks or the like, Karen Ballingher’s presentation on students’ work at the University of Texas – Austin had some handy links, including the UT-iSchool Digital Archaeology Lab Manual and related documentation and an open source forensics package called Sleuth Kit.  Her conclusions were more generally applicable, and familiar: the importance of documenting everything you do, including failures; planning out trials; and just do it – learn by doing a real digital preservation project.  Cal Lee was excellent (as ever) on Levels of Representation in Digital Collections, outlining a framework of digital information constructed of eight layers of representation from the bit(byte-)stream to aggregations of digital objects, and noting that archival description already supports description at multiple levels but has not yet evolved to address these multiple representation layers.  Eugenia Kim’s paper on her ChoreoSave project to determine the metadata elements required for digital dance preservation reminded me of several UK and European initiatives; Siobhan Davies Replay, which Eugenia herself referenced and talked about at some length; the University of the Arts London’s John Latham Archive, which I’ve blogged about previously, because Eugenia commented that choreographers had found the task of entering data into the numerous metadata fields onerous: once again it seems to me there is a tension between the (dance, in this case) event and the assumption that text offers the only or best means of describing and accessing that event; and the CASPAR research on the preservation of interactive multimedia performances at the University of Leeds.

For my current research work on user participation in archives, the following papers were particularly relevant: Helice Koffler‘s report on the RLG Social Metadata Working Group‘s project on evaluating the impact of social media on museums, libraries and archives.  A three-part report is to be issued; part one is due for publication in September 2011.  I understand that this will include some useful and much-needed definitions of ‘user interaction’ terminology.  Part 1 has moderation as its theme – Helice commented that a strict moderation policy can act as a barrier to participation (a point that I agree with up to a point – and will explore further in my own paper on Thursday).  Part 2 will be an analysis of the survey of social media use undertaken by the Working Group (4 U.K. organisations were involved in this, although none were archives).  As my interviews with archivists would also suggest, the survey found little evidence of serious problems with spam or abusive behaviour on MLA contributory platforms.  Ixchel Faniel reported on University of Michigan research on whether trust matters for re-use decisions.

With my UKAD hat on, the blue sky (sorry, I hate that term, but I think its appropriate in this instance) thinking on archival description methods which emerged from the Radcliffe Workshop on Technology and Archival Processing was particularly inspiring.  The workshop was a two-day event which brought together invited technologists (many of whom had not previously encountered archives at all) and archivists to brainstorm new thinking on ways to tackle cataloguing backlogs, streamline cataloguing workflows and improve access to archives.  A collections exhibition was used to spark discussion, together with specially written use cases and scenarios to guide each day’s discussion.  Suggestions included the use of foot-pedal operated overhead cameras to enable archival material to be digitised either at the point of accessioning, or during arrangement and description; experimenting with ‘trusted crowdsourcing’ – asking archivists to check documents for sensitivity – as a first step towards automating the redaction process of confidential information.  These last two suggestions reminded me of two recent projects at The National Archives in the U.K. – John Sheridan’s work to promote expert input into legislation.gov.uk (does anyone have a better link?) and the proposal to use text mining on closed record series which was presented to DSG in 2009.  Adam Kreisberg presented about the development of a toolkit for running focus groups by the Archival Metrics Project.  The toolkit will be tested with a sample session based upon archives’ use of social media, which I think could be very valuable for U.K. archivists.

Finally only because I couldn’t fit this one into any of the categories above, I found Heather Soyka and Eliot Wilczek‘s questions on how modern counter-insurgency warfare can be documented intriguing and thought-provoking.

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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 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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I hinted in the post below that there might be some changes coming up on this blog.  This is because, as some of you will already know, I have moved on from West Yorkshire Archive Service, to start a PhD jointly supervised by UCL’s Department of Information Studies and The National Archives provisionally entitled ‘We Think, Not I think: Harnessing collaborative creativity to archival practice; implications of user participation for archival theory and practice‘.

This means that my interests are expanding beyond the original focus of Around the World in Eighty Gigabytes, which I originally set up to document my own voyages of discovery about digital preservation and how international initiatives in this field might be scaled down to apply within the small archives settings with which I was most familiar.  I have umm-ed and ah-ed for a bit about what I should do now – start a new blog or morph this one to cover aspects of user participation?  In the end, I have decided to continue with 80GB.  There are various reasons for this:

  • There are several common strands between digital preservation research and my current interests in user collaboration – they both relate to the impact of digital technologies on archival theory and practice, and many of the major issues (eg authority, context, trust, the cultural challenges of embedding technological change in operational settings) are debated in both areas of research.  I had been thinking that these common themes would make for a good posting on Ada Lovelace day, but I didn’t, er, quite get round to it!
  • I haven’t stopped being interested in digital preservation, or in the impact of digital technology on smaller archives, and I will continue to post on both themes when opportunities arise.
  • I want a space to express my own personal opinions on things which interest me and to explore ideas.  What I post here will not represent the views of The National Archives or UCL any more than my previous postings represented the official stance of West Yorkshire Archive Service.
  • I flatter myself to think there are a few people who read my ramblings, and know me as 80GB.  If they are interested in digital preservation and small archives, and are into following obscure blogs, I suspect they may be interested in reading about the implications of social media on archives too.
  • Putting everything together should mean that I actually update the blog rather more regularly.
  • To be blunt, there are a few events coming up that I think I will want to write about, and I can’t be bothered to set up a new blog…

However, if either of my current readers thinks that this is a really bad idea, they should please let me know in the comments…

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