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8am on Saturday morning, and those hardy souls who have not yet fled to beat Hurricane Irene home or who are stranded in Chicago, plus other assorted insomniacs, were presented with a veritable smörgåsbord of digital preservation goodness.  The programme has many of the digital sessions scheduled at the same time, and today I decided not to session-hop but stick it out in one session in each of the morning’s two hour-long slots.

My first choice was session 502, Born-Digital archives in Collecting Repositories: Turning Challenges into Byte-Size Opportunities, primarily an end-of-project report on the AIMS Project.  It’s been great to see many such practical digital preservation sessions at this conference, although I do slightly wonder what it will take before working with born-digital truly becomes part of the professional mainstream.  Despite the efforts of all the speakers at sessions like this (and in the UK, colleagues at the Digital Preservation Roadshows with which I was involved, and more recent similar events), there still appears to be a significant mental barrier which stops many archivists from giving it a go.  As the session chair began her opening remarks this morning, a woman behind me remarked “I’m lost already”.

There may be some clues in the content of this morning’s presentations: in amongst my other work (as would be the case for most archivists, I guess) I try to keep reasonably up-to-date with recent developments in practical digital preservation.  For instance, I was already well aware of the AIMS Project, although I’d not had a previous opportunity to hear about their work in any detail, but here were yet more new suggested tools for digital preservation: I happen to know of FTK Imager, having used it with the MLA Yorkshire archive accession, although what wasn’t stated was that the full FTK forensics package is damn expensive and the free FTK Imager Lite (scroll down the page for links) is an adequate and more realistic proposition for many cash-strapped archives.  BagIt is familiar too, but Bagger, a graphical user interface to the BagIt Library is new since I last looked (I’ll add links later – the Library of Congress site is down for maintenance”).  Sleuthkit was mentioned at the research forum earlier this week, but fiwalk (“a program that processes a disk image using the SleuthKit library and outputs its results in Digital Forensics XML”) was another new one on me, and there was even talk in this session of hardware write-blockers.  All this variety is hugely confusing for anybody who has to fit digital preservation around another day job, not to mention potentially expensive when it comes to buying hardware and software, and the skills necessary to install and maintain such a jigsaw puzzle system.  As the project team outlined their wish list for yet another application, Hypathia, I couldn’t help wondering whether we can’t promote a little more convergence between all these different tools both digital preservation specific and more general.  For instance, the requirement for a graphical drag ‘n’ drop interface to help archivists create the intellectual arrangement of a digital collection and add metadata reminded me very much of recent work at Simmons College on a graphical tool to help teach archival arrangement and description (whose name I forget, but will add it when it comes back to me!*).  I was interested particularly in the ‘access’ part of this session, particularly the idea that FTK’s bookmark and label functions could be transformed into user generated content tools, to enable researchers to annotate and tag records, and in the use of network graphs as a visual finding aid for email collections.

The rabbit-caught-in-headlights issue seems less of an issue for archivists jumping on the Web2.0 bandwagon, which was the theme of session 605, Acquiring Organizational Records in a Social Media World: Documentation Strategies in the Facebook Era, where we heard about the use of social media, primarily facebook, to contact and document student activities and student societies in a number of university settings, and from a university archivist just beginning to dip her toe into Twitter.  As a strategy of working directly with student organisations and providing training to ‘student archivists’ was outlined, as a method of enabling the capturing of social media content (both simultaneously with upload and by web-crawling sites afterwards), I was reminded of my own presentation at this conference: surely here is another example of real-life community development? The archivist is deliberately ‘going out to where the community is’ and adapting to the community norms and schedules of the students themselves, rather than expecting the students themselves to comply with archival rules and expectations.

This afternoon I went to learn about SNAC: the social networks and archival context project (session 710), something I’ve been hearing other people mention for a long time now but knew little about.  SNAC is extracting names (corporate, personal, family) from Encoded Archival Description (EAD) finding aids as EAC-CPF and then matching these together and with pre-existing authority records to create a single archival authorities prototype.  The hope is to then extend this authorities cooperative both nationally and potentially internationally.

My sincere thanks to the Society of American Archivists for their hospitality during the conference, and once again to those who generously funded my trip – the Archives and Records Association, University College London Graduate Conference Fund, UCL Faculty of Arts and UCL Department of Information Studies.

* UPDATE: the name of the Simmons’ archival arrangement platform is Archivopteryx (not to be confused with the Internet mail server Archiveopteryx which has an additional ‘e’ in the name)

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Friday had a bit of a digital theme for me, beginning with a packed, standing-room-only session 302, Practical Approaches to Born-Digital Records: What Works Today. After a witty introduction by Chris Prom about his Fulbright research in Dundee, a series of speakers introduced their digital preservation work, with a real emphasis on ‘you too can do this’.  I learnt about a few new tools: firefly, a tool which is used to scan for American social security numbers and other sensitive information – not much use in a British context, I imagine, but an interesting approach all the same; TreeSize Professional, a graphical hard disk analyser; and several projects were making use of the Duke Data Accessioner, a tool with which I was already familiar but have never used.  During the morning session, I also popped in and out of ‘team-Brit’ session 304 Archives in the Web of Data which discussed developments in the UK and US in opening up and linking together archival descriptive data, and session 301 Archives on the Go: Using Mobile Technologies for Your Collections, where I caught a presentation on the use of FourSquare at Stanford University.

In the afternoon, I mostly concentrated on session 401, Re-arranging Arrangement and Description, with a brief foray into session 407, Faces of Diversity: Diasporic Archives and Archivists in the New Millennium.  Unless I missed this whilst I was out at the other session, nobody in session 410 mentioned the series system as a possible alternative or resolution to some of the tensions identified in a strict application of hierarchically-interpreted original order, which surprised me.  There were some hints towards a need for a more object-oriented view of description in a digital environment, and of methods of addressing the complexity of having multiple representations (physical, digital etc.), but I have been reading my UCL colleague Jenny Bunn’s recently completed PhD thesis, Multiple Narratives, Multiple Views: Observing Archival Description on flights for this trip, which would have added another layer to the discussion in this session.

And continuing the digital theme, I was handed a flyer for an event coming later this year (on 6th October): Day of Digital Archives which might interest some UK colleagues.  This is

…an initiative to raise awareness of digital archives among both users and managers. On this day, archivists, digital humanists, programmers, or anyone else creating, using, or managing digital archives are asked to devote some of their social media output (i.e. tweets, blog posts, youtube videos etc.) to describing their work with digital archives.  By collectively documenting what we do, we will be answering questions like: What are digital archives? Who uses them? How are they created and maanged? Why are they important?

 

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Day 1 Proper of the conference began with acknowledgements to the organisers, some kind of raffle draw and then a plenary address by an American radio journalist.  Altogether this conference has a celebratory feel to it – fitting since this is SAA’s 75th Anniversary year, but very different in tone from the UK conferences where the opening keynote speaker tends to be some archival luminary.  More on the American archival cultural experience later.

My session with Kate Theimer (of ArchivesNext fame) and Dr Elizabeth Yakel from the University of Michigan (probably best known amongst tech savvy UK practitioners for her work on the Polar Bear Expedition Finding Aid) followed immediately afterwards, and seemed to go well.  The session title was: “What Happens After ‘Here Comes Everybody’: An Examination of Participatory Archives”.  Kate proposed a new definition for Participatory Archives, distinguishing between participation and engagement (outreach); Beth spoke about credibility and trust, and my contribution was primarily concerned with contributors’ motivations to participate.  A couple of people, Lori Satter and Mimi Dionne have already blogged about the session (did I really say that?!), and here are my slides:

After lunch, I indulged in a little session-hopping, beginning in session 204 hearing about Jean Dryden’s copyright survey of American institutions, which asked whether copyright limits access to archives by restricting digitisation activity.  Dryden found that American archivists tended to take a very conservative approach to copyright expiry terms and obtaining third party permission for use, even though many interviewees felt that it would be good to take a bolder line.   Also, some archivists knowledge of the American copyright law was shaky – sounds familiar!  It would be interesting to see how UK attitudes would compare; I suspect results would be similar, however, I also wonder how easy it is in practical terms to suddenly start taking more of a risk-management approach to copyright after many years of insisting upon strict copyright compliance.

Next I switched to session 207, The Future is Now: New Tools to Address Archival Challenges, hearing Maria Esteva speak about some interesting collaborative work between the Texas Advanced Computing Center and NARA on visual finding aids, similar to the Australian Visible Archive research project. At the Exhibit Hall later, I picked up some leaflets about other NARA Applied Research projects and tools for file format conversion, data mining and record type identification which were discussed by other speakers in this session.

Continuing the digitization theme, although with a much more philosophical focus, Joan Schwartz in session 210, Genuine Encounter, Authentic Relationships: Archival Convenant & Professional Self-Understanding discussed the loss of materiality and context resulting from the digitisation of photographs (for example, a thumbnail image presented out of its album context).  She commented that archivists are often too caught up with the ‘how’ of digitization rather than the ‘why’.  I wouldn’t disagree with that.

Back to the American archival cultural experience, I was invited to the Michigan University ‘alumni mixer’ in the evening – a drinks reception with some short speeches updating alumni on staff news and recent developments in the archival education courses at the university.  All in all, archives students are much in evidence here: there are special student ‘ribbons’ to attach to name badges, many students are presenting posters on their work, and there is a special careers area where face-to-face advice is available from more senior members of SAA, current job postings are advertised, and new members of the profession can even pin up their curriculum vitae.  Some of this (the public posting of CVs in particular) might seem a bit pushy for UK tastes, and the one year length of UK Masters programmes (and the timing of Conference) of course precludes the presentation of student dissertation work.  But the general atmosphere seems very supportive of new entrants to the profession, and I feel there are ideas here that ARA’s New Professionals section might like to consider for future ARA Conferences.

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#SAA11, Wednesday 24th August

A meeting connected to my research for me, followed by a little sight-seeing as I was not involved in any of the day’s events.

It’s interesting to compare how SAA organises their annual meeting, in comparison to the much smaller ARA event.  On the days running up to the main conference, SAA arranges a series of training workshops, group committee meetings, and some poor archivists are even taking their Certified Archivists examination.  This means that delegates arrive at different times over the first few days, and it is only tomorrow (Thursday) that the full size of the conference is revealed with the first plenary session.  Some of the pre-conference events are an extra charge to attendees.  I understand these are an important source of income for SAA but I imagine work out as a cost-effective way of attending training for the delegates, since they are already traveling to get to the main Annual Meeting itself.  I guess many ARA sections also hold committee meetings at Conference, but that is more of an informal arrangement.  I wondered if formalising it might simultaneously help save some costs for ARA, and boost attendance, but I think I’d switch the order so that such add-on events followed the main conference rather than precede it as happens here – the gradual ramping up towards the main event I find quite dis-orientating as a first time attendee.

Oh, and in the evening, a mass outing to watch the Chicago Cubs baseball game – and the home team won!  Fortunately, I had a very patient explainer…

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It’s been a busy summer for me – lots of stimulating conferences and events.  Here’s my (eclectic) roundup of highlights:

No.1 spot has to go to the fabulous VeleHanden project, a collaborative digitisation and crowdsourcing project initiated by Amsterdam City Archives, with numerous archival partners from all over the Netherlands. I was lucky enough to be invited to the inaugural meeting of the user test panel for the pilot project, militieregisters (militia registers), in Amsterdam at the end of June.

Why do I never get to work in buildings like this?

The testing phase of the project is now well underway, and the project is due to go live in October.  VeleHanden interests me for a number of reasons: Firstly, it has an interesting and innovative private-public partnership funding model and project structure.  Participating archives have to pay to have their registers scanned by a commercial digitisation company, but the sheer size of the consortium has enabled the negotiation of a very low price per page digitised.  Research users of the militieregisters site will pay a small fee to download a digitised image (similar to Ancestry), thus providing an ongoing revenue stream for the project.  The crowdsourcing interface is being developed by a private company; in future the consortium (or individual members of the consortium) will hire the platform for new projects, and the developers will be free to sell their product to other crowdsourcing markets.  Secondly, I’m interested in the project’s (still evolving) approach to opening up archival metadata.  Thirdly, I’m interested in the way the project is going about recruiting and motivating volunteers to undertake the indexing of the registers – targeting the popular family history community; offering extrinsic quasi-financial rewards for participants in the shape of discounted access to digitised content; and promoting and celebrating competition between participants.

In fact, I think one of VeleHanden‘s great strengths is the project’s user-focused approach to design and testing, the importance of which was highlighted by Claire Warwick in a ‘How To’ session on Studying Users at Interface 2011, “a new international forum to learn, share and network between the fields of Humanities and Technology”.  Slides from the keynote and workshop sessions at this event are available on the Interface 2011 website; all are worth a look.  I particularly enjoyed the workshop on Thinking Through Networks and the practical tips on How to Get Funded should resonate with a much wider audience than just the academic community.  All the delegates had to give a lightening talk about their research.  Here is mine:

View more presentations from 80gb
I also spoke at the Bloomsbury Conference on e-Publishing and e-Publications, and attended a couple of conferences I also went to last year – Research2, the Loughborough University student-organised conference on data analysis for information science, and AERI, the Archival Education and Research Institute, this year at Simmons College in Boston, MA.  It was interesting to note an increased interest in online participation and Internet-based methods at both events.  Podcasts of the AERI plenary sessions are available at the link above.

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Since it seems a few people read my post about day one of ECDL2010, I guess I’d better continue with day two!

Liina Munari’s keynote about digital libraries from the European Commission’s perspective provided delegates with an early morning shower of acronymns.  Amongst the funder-speak, however, there were a number of proposals from the forthcoming FP7 Call 6 funding round which are interesting from an archives and records perspective, including projects investigating cloud storage and the preservation of context, and on appraisal and selection using the ‘wisdom of crowds’. Also, the ‘Digital Single Market’ will include work on copyright, specifically the orphan works problem, which promises to be useful to the archives sector – Liina pointed out that the total size of the European Public Domain is smaller than the US equivalent because of the extended period of copyright protection available to works whose current copyright owners are unknown. But I do wish people would not use the ‘black hole’ description; its alarmist and inaccurate.  If we combine this twentieth century black hole (digitised orphan works) with the oft-quoted born-digital black hole, it seems a wonder we have any cultural heritage left in Europe at all.

After the opening keynote, I attended the stream on the Social Web/Web 2.0, where we were treated to three excellent papers on privacy-aware folksonomies, seamless web editing, and the automatic classification of social tags. The seamless web editor, seaweed, is of interest to me in a personal capacity, because of its WordPress plugin, which would essentially enable the user to add new posts or edit existing ones directly into a web browser without recourse to the cumbersome WordPress dashboard, and absent mindedly adding new pages instead of new posts (which is what I generally manage to do by mistake). I’m sure there are archives applications too, possibly for instance in terms of the user interface design for encouraging participation in archival description.  Privacy-aware folksonomies, a system to enable greater user control over tagging (with levels user only, friends, and tag provider), might have application in respect of some of the more sensitive archive content, such as mental health records perhaps.  The paper on the automatic classification of social tags will be of particular interest to records managers interested in the searchability and re-usability of folksonomies in record-keeping systems, as well as to archivists implementing tagging systems into the online catalogue or digital archives interfaces.

After lunch we had a poster and demo session.  Those which particularly caught my attention included a poster from the University of Oregon entitled ‘Creating a Flexible Preservation Infrastructure for Electronic Records’ and described as the ‘do-it’ solution to digital preservation in a small repository without any money.  Sounded familiar!  The authors, digital library expert Karen Estlund and University Archivist Heather Briston, described how they have made best use of existing infrastructure, such as share drives (for deposit) and the software package Archivists Toolkit for description.  Their approach is similar to the workflow I put in place for West Yorkshire Archive Service, except that the University are fortunate to be in a position to train staff to carry out some self-appraisal before deposit, which simplifies the process.  I was also interested (as someone who is never really sure why tagging is useful) in a poster ‘Exploring the Influence of Tagging Motivation on Tagging Behaviour’ which classified taggers into two groups, describers and categorisers, and in the demonstration of the OCRopodium project at King’s College London, exploring the use of optical character recognition (OCR) with typescript texts.

In the final session of the day, I was assigned to the stream on search in digital libraries, where papers explored the impact of the search interface on search tasks, relevance judgements, and search interface design.

Then there was the conference dinner…

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A write-up of the second Archival Education Research Institute which I attended at  from 21st to 25th June.

The scheduled programme (or program, I suppose!) was a mixture of plenary sessions on the subject of interdisciplinarity in archival research, methods and mentoring workshops, curriculum discussion sessions, and research papers given by both doctoral students and faculty members.  We also experienced two fascinating and engaging, if slightly US-centric, theatrical performances by the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning Theatre Program (ok, now I’m confused – why would it be ‘center’ but not ‘theater’?).

Most valuable to me personally were the methods workshops on Information Retrieval and User Studies.  IR research is largely new to me, although I was aware that current development work at The National Archives [TNA] includes a research strand being carried out at the University of Sheffield’s Information Studies Department which uses IR techniques to investigate information-seeking behaviour across TNA’s web domain and catalogue knowledge base.  I was interested to see whether these methods could be adapted for my research interests in user participation.  User Studies turned out to be more familiar territory, not least because of many years’ responsibility coordinating and analysing the Public Services Quality Group[PSQG] Survey of Visitors to UK Archives across the West Yorkshire Archive Service‘s five offices.  I hadn’t previously appreciated that the PSQG survey is unique in the archival world in providing over a decade’s worth of longitudinal data on UK archive users (despite what it says on the NCA website, the survey was first run in 1998), and it seems a shame that only occasional annual reports of the survey results have been formally published.

Of the paper sessions, I was particularly interested in several examples of participatory archive projects.  The examples given in the Digital Cultural Communities session – in particular Donghee Sinn’s outline of the No Gun Ri massacre digital archives and Vivian Wong’s film-making work with the Chinese American community in Los Angeles, together with Michelle Caswell’s description of the Cambodian Human Rights Tribunal in the session on Renegotiating Principles and Practice – reinforced my earlier conviction that past trauma or marginalisation may help to promote user-archives collaboration, and provide greater resilience against (or perhaps more sophisticated mechanisms for resolving) controversy.  However, Sue McKemmish and Shannon Faulkhead, in their presentations about another previously persecuted grouping, Australian Aboriginal natives (the Koorie and Gundjitmara communities specifically), gave me hope that the participatory attitudes of the Indigenous communities are just an early precursor to a much wider social movement which puts a high value upon co-creation and co-responsibility for records and record-keeping.  [Incidentally, if you have access, I see that Sue and Shannon’s Monash colleague Livia Iacovino has just published an article in Archival Science entitled Rethinking archival, ethical and legal frameworks for records of Indigenous Australian communities: a participant relationship model of rights and responsibilities, which looks highly pertinent – it’s currently in the ‘online first’ section]  I was also interested in Shannon’s comments about developing a framework to incorporate or authenticate traditional oral knowledge as an integral part of the overall community ‘archive’ (I’m not quite sure I’ve got this quite right, and would like to chat to her further about it).  William Uricchio has remarked of contemporary digital networks that “Decentralized, networked, collaborative, accretive, ephemeral and dynamic… these developments and others like them bear a closer resemblance to oral cultures than to the more stable regimes of print (writing and the printing press) and the trace (photography, film, recorded sound)”¹.  What can we learn from oral culture to inform our development of participatory practice in the digital domain?

Carlos Ovalle gave a useful paper on Copyright Challenges with Public Access to Digital Materials in Cultural Institutions in the Challenges/Problems in Use, Re-use, and Sharing session, which was interesting in the light of the UK Digital Economy Act and recent amendments to UK Copyright legislation, and some of my own current concerns about digitisation practices and business models in UK archives.

I cannot say I particularly enjoyed the plenary sessions and ensuing discussions.  I found the whole dispute about whether archival ‘science’ could, or should, be considered inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary, and which disciplines are core or which are peripheral, somewhat sterile and frankly rather futile.  Some of the arguments seemed to stand as witness to a kind of professional identity crisis, undermining any claim that archival research might have to a wider relevance in the modern world.  I was particularly surprised at how controversial ‘collaboration’ seemed to be in a US research context – a striking contrast I felt to the pervasive ‘partnership’ ethos that is accepted best practice in fields with which I am familiar in the UK.  Not just, I think, because I worked for what is in many ways a pioneering partnership of local authorities at West Yorkshire Joint Services; the current government policy on archives, Archives for the 21st Century similarly emphasises the benefits and indeed necessity (in the current economic climate) of partnership working in a specific archives context.

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to have been much blogging about AERI, but you can read one of the Australian participant’s Lessons from AERI Part I (is there a part II coming soon, Leisa?!).  I’ll link to any further blog posts I notice in the comments.

Finally, nothing to do with AERI, but I’ve finally got round to registering this blog with technorati and need to include the claim code in a post, so here goes: CF2RCBCUPWQC.

¹Uricchio, W. ‘Moving Beyond the Artifact: Lessons from Participatory Culture’ in Preserving the Digital Heritage Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO, 2007.  <http://www.knaw.nl/ecpa/publ/pdf/2735.pdf>

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