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Posts Tagged ‘ugc’

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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The National Archives and The Royal Historical Society
Gerald Aylmer Seminar, 21st April 2010

There was no doubting an enthusiasm for collaboration amongst the (appropriately diverse – archivists, academic historians, community activists, outreach professionals) audience at the stimulating ‘Diverse Histores – One Archive‘ seminar (#1arc) organised jointly by The National Archives and the Royal Historical Society, and held at University College London last week.  Early in the day, Dr Tony Murray identified what he characterised as the mutually beneficial relationship which exists (or should exist) between community knowledge shared in exchange for capacity-building support from ‘official’ archival organisations.

But I am not sure that anyone was quite expecting another ‘C’, consensus, which emerged from the discussions surrounding the kind of language used in archival description and indexing.  Of course, it may be – as Dr Matt Houlbrook pointed out – that there is a greater tolerance for potentially offensive terminology used in archives contexts amongst academics than in the wider community.  Nevertheless, participants at the seminar seemed clear that diversity will not be served by sanitizing the prejudices of the past.  Or, as the LGBT staff group at The National Archives have commented on Your Archives,  “the documents…whilst showing obvious [intolerant attitudes] also reveal to us the vibrancy and diversity of social life… Many valuable resources…still need to be identified and surfaced…and when we find them, make sure people record them in cataloguing projects, with accurate terminology that doesn’t change the meaning of the document, but that doesn’t reiterate [bigotry] found within them”.  S.I.Martin commented that the archivist’s role is to clarify, not censor; whilst Beth Brooke from TNA neatly concluded the day’s discussion by calling for two-way learning: the archivist to clarify the language, and the user to ‘read’ the archive.

Pondering further, I wondered how far the day’s outcomes reflected:

  1. The specific types of communities represented at the seminar (for ‘diverse’ read ‘traditionally marginalised’ or ‘persecuted’) and/or
  2. An assumption of archival/historical context

To elucidate, firstly, does the campaigning sense of social justice which often underpins historical research into marginalised or persecuted communities make for more willing user-archives collaborators, with greater resilience against potential controversy?  In a twist upon conventional archives’ outreach wisdom that equates increased archives access with greater user-empowerment, Dr Jeevan Deol suggested that increased access to historical sources would expose the prejudices of the past to a wider audience, and consequently to greater public dispute.  He commented that it is important that archives consider in advance how to deal with the fall-out of such wrangling.  This would also seem to require the archivist to relinquish some control over the archives in his or her care, something which (if the delegates’ tales of over-zealous archival gatekeeping are to be believed) the researchers of ‘diversity’ histories may feel to be somewhat overdue.  These communities are not likely to be mourning the demise of archival (or indeed any other traditional form of) authority (sorry, an ‘A’!).  Consequently, I suspect, such researchers might be more disposed to help enrich archival description with new perspectives and alternative readings – aka user generated content – than the researchers of more mainstream histories.

This said, however, I was struck by how the audience appeared to assume that the user’s introduction to archival sources would come solely (or at least primarily) via the catalogue – see, for example, the quote above, “make sure people record them in cataloguing projects“. Of course, this was a seminar sponsored by The National Archives, which specifically invited delegates to critique cataloguing and indexing in the archive.  But I wondered how many of the audience had considered how easily historical records can become decoupled from their archival descriptive context in an online world, surfacing again on facebook, blogs, flickr and web mashups.  Surely it is not the language of the catalogue and other archival finding aids which is significant here, so much as conventions of citation which tie the historical record back to its archival context.  In the analogue world, citations have not been something that have concerned archives professionals too much¹.  A gentleman’s agreement over publication permission has helped to preserve some illusion of control over the contexts in which archival materials are re-used, but on the whole we have been happy to let authors and publishers set their own conventions for referencing our collections.  The archivist could concentrate on the catalogue; citation was the historian’s responsibility.

It should be self-evident that collaboration is not a one-way street.  User engagement methodologies such as Revisiting Archives invite the user into our descriptive world; social media applications may help to boost the audience for archives and permit greater transparency for our documentation processes.  But perhaps as archive professionals, we have not yet begun to look beyond our own established roles to see how we need to adapt our functions to support our users’ worlds.

¹ See http://archives30.wikidot.com/citations-in-the-wild-a-collection-of-preferred-formats which begins to illustrate some of the problems with archival citations by gathering together the myriad ways in which different Archives suggest their collections should be referenced.  See also Tim Sherratt ‘Emerging Technologies for the Provision of Access to Archives: Issues, Challenges and Ideas‘ 2009, pp.24-26. A thank you to Tim for pointing me again towards this report, which pre-empts many of my thoughts here on collaboration, control and context.

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