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Posts Tagged ‘West Yorkshire’

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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Last week I goaded a couple of male colleagues into posting a (deliberately provocative) thread on the archives2.0 ning forum linking the high proportion of women in the archives profession (at least this is the case in the UK) with a slow take-up of web2.0 technologies.  From the ensuing discussion, it appears nobody really agrees with this premise, so maybe we need to change the title of the thread! 

However, it did catch the attention of a colleague who works at the Dutch Institute of Women’s History, and hence has a particular interest in gender issues.  She points out that my blog header includes a picture of a woman with an early computer.  Indeed, there are two women in the header pictured with computers – so I thought as an August bank holiday kind of post, I would tell you a little about both of them.

As it happens, I know quite a lot about the woman in the oldest photograph:

Miss Rowena Wilby with the West Riding County Council's 'Electronic Brain' 1957

Miss Rowena Wilby with the West Riding County Council's 'Electronic Brain' January 1958

Her name is Rowena Wilby, and she was just 18 when this photograph was taken for a press call to announce the arrival of the West Riding County Council’s new ‘Electronic Brain’ in January 1958.  In 1955, (a full two years before a government grant provided Leeds University with its first computer), the Council had resolved “that an order be placed immediately with the British Tabulating Machine Company Ltd. for a Hollerith Electronic Computer, at an estimated cost of £28,000”[1].  The West Riding was the first local authority to order a HEC-4 (Type 1201) computer, which was duly delivered in December 1957.

As well as photographs of the new computer, which was used primarily for payroll and the occasional calculation for the Highways Department, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield also holds a diary which documents the installation of the new computer at County Hall, Wakefield.  It appears to have been something of a temperamental beast, frequently ‘jumping out of programme’ and requiring constant attention:

Diary recording the installation of the West Riding County Council's first electronic computer, 1958

Diary recording the installation of the West Riding County Council's first electronic computer, 1958

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Miss Wilby played a major part in the arrival of computing to West Yorkshire.  The Council minutes record the names of those chosen for special training at the premises of the British Tabulating Machine Co., and none of them are women.  It is more probable that Rowena Wilby was recruited as a photogenic candidate from amongst the ranks of a small army of female card punchers and tabulating machine operators who had been employed in the West Riding Treasurer’s Department since before the second world war:

Punching cards at County Hall, Wakefield.  Annoyingly, I can't quite read the date on the calendar in the room!  Probably 1940s or 1950s.

Punching cards at County Hall, Wakefield. Annoyingly, I can't quite read the date on the calendar in the room! Probably 1940s or 1950s.

Woman with a Holllerith Machine at County Hall, Wakefield.  Not dated. 1940s or 1950s.

Woman with a Holllerith Machine at County Hall, Wakefield. Not dated. 1940s or 1950s.

About the second woman in the blog header, I know rather less, except that this was one of a series of posed photographs taken sometime in the 1980s to illustrate the history of computing at West Yorkshire Police.  The West Riding Constabulary was one of the first departments to book computer time on the County Council’s Type 1201, and in time their needs grew to the extent that the police acquired their own computer.  This photograph shows a civilian police officer using the UNIVAC computer which was in use in the 1980s:

Civilian police officer with UNIVAC computer, 1980s

Civilian police officer with UNIVAC computer, 1980s

All images reproduced by permission of West Yorkshire Archive Service.


[1] West Riding County Council minutes 19 October 1955 – West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield: WR/52 p.242.  The ‘Purchasing Power’ calculator at http://measuringworth.com/calculators/ppoweruk/ estimates £28,000 in 1955 to be the equivalent of just over half a million pounds in today’s terms.

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