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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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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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“I hope there always will be, room for the Amateur, and in large numbers….that our School will always find a place for the part-time student – the Local Official or other enthusiast whose Archives do not need and cannot claim the whole of his time; but who can find enough to undertake their listing or repair or photographing and wishes to acquire, within those limits, something of a professional technique.”

From The English Archivist: A New Profession, being an Inaugural Lecture for a new course in Archive Administration delivered at University College London, 14 October 1947 by Hilary Jenkinson, C.B.E., Deputy Keeper of the Records.

My italics.

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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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Today I am tired.  Last night I watched live proceedings from the House of Commons with increasing disillusionment, as the Digital Economy Bill was ‘washed-up’ with unseemly haste before the dissolution of parliament.  There are many reasons – political, ideological, personal, professional – why I am so dismayed by the passing of this deeply flawed piece of legislation. Archivally, the biggest disappointment is actually the government’s withdrawal of Clause 43, which would have permitted re-use of ‘orphan’ works (where no author or copyright owner can be traced).  But the potential repercussions upon collaborative creativity are even wider.

Clearly there will be some specific implications for user collaboration in archives contexts, but I need more time and a clearer head to consider them, away from the enraged, polarised rhetoric which has characterised many reactions to yesterday’s Commons debacle.  Commentaries which draw deliberate parallels with China are not helpful, but I am grateful to this blog post about the bill for drawing my attention to a great lecture by Larry Lessig about user generated content, the potential for the revival of what Lessig characterises as ‘read-write culture’, and the need to develop a new consensus over business models which will support such a culture of creativity.  Enjoy!

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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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A quick reminder to UK archivists that the consultation on amendments to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act draws to a close this coming Wednesday, 31st March 2010.  The proposals include some important provisions for digital preservation – including allowing the making of multiple copies of copyright works for preservation purposes – and extensions to the fair dealing provisions and to the library and archive copying regulations.

Apparently, the more responses the Intellectual Property Office sees the better, and personal responses are welcome (although obviously organisational ones with clout are even better), so if you haven’t responded yet, get writing!  You can respond by email to copyrightconsultation@ipo.gov.uk (detailed instructions are on page 7 of the consultation document).

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