People Power


I’ve been reading with interest some posts on the EAD list about user-generated content.

Bob Kosovsky, Curator, of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts asks “It is possible to envision a platform where an EAD finding aid can be accepting of user-generated content? Could there ever be a more wiki-like interface with EAD?

At the Archives Hub we’ve been toying with this idea of enabling users to contribute to the site in some way, although we haven’t really begun to actively explore the options yet. The Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections (http://polarbears.si.umich.edu) provides a good example of an interactive site, and there are certainly some useful comments provided that give users of the site additional information about the collections. I think the display could be improved – I’m not sure about the Link Paths section, which takes up quite a bit of room on each description page. This does raise the question of descriptions getting cluttered and maybe confused with different types of information or with too much information, but overall I think this is a great site.

The discussion on the EAD list points to the great advantages of using EAD, which does provide the flexibilty to introduce new ways of viewing, sorting and finding information. At the Hub we are keen to really make the most of the fact that our descriptions are encoded in EAD. However, there is one particularly important question to ask, as Michele Combs from Syracuse University Library says: “What new capabilities will be truly useful to the researcher?”

We ran a short online survey for the Hub last June in which we asked how interested people would be in having the ability to contribute comments. Whilst the results appeared to show that this was actually seen as a low priority, the way the survey was worded implied that the choice was between adding more descriptions, adding item-level descriptions, adding images or adding comments. Whilst in reality we can of course pursue any or all of these, it is worth remembering that with limited resources it is always the case that choices have to be made. Should we invest time and energy in creating a more interactive site when we could spend the time maybe promoting the site and getting more content and more users or improving the search and retrieve functionality?

Many users of the Hub are not regular users but visit only once or intermittently, and therefore I wonder whether we would get an active “commenting community” going. And if we did get plenty of comments would this in itself be an issue – we wouldn’t want to clutter descriptions and also we may find that comments are not always the sort of thing that would be helpful to others. For us, something like this would really have to be monitored and edited where necessary…again, a question of time and resources.

In addition, it may be worth thinking about whether this sort of functionality is appropriate for something like an archival site. It works well for leisure sites like the Internet Movie Database (http://imdb.com) where people are happy to spend time browsing and have their own opinions on films, directors, etc. Also it could be argued that there is less of an issue about contributors adding incorrect information, though of course this is still going to happen.

A post on the EAD list by Robert S Cox of the University of Massachusetts makes a pertinent point – they have a blog where users can supply comments (http://www.library.umass.edu/spcoll/umarmot/), but Robert says that “Thus far, the comments we’ve received have been restricted to spam, more spam, reference questions, spam, and pats on the back.” …oh dear!

Maybe a Wiki that is for the archive community is a better option? Archivopedia (http://archivopedia.com/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page) is “open to collaborators who wish to write, edit, and create articles about primary source materials”. I typed in ‘fonds’ and the disambiguation service suggested ‘folders’ (?) and most other articles I found were stubs (very basic and short). But its early days and something like this might take off if it gets a critical mass of archivists interested in contributing. (Please please get rid of the awful pulsing ‘Archivopedia’ that comes up at the top of a Google search page!).

So, the jury is still out I think…and certainly at the Hub we would want to get more user feedback on the usefulness of providing user-generated content on the site, but we’ll continue to monitor other examples of interactive sites and I do think that the UK National Archives Your Archives site does provide cause for optimism that users are often ready and willing to add worthwhile and valuable information – http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php?title=Home_page.

Finally, there’s a good post on next-generation finding aids by Merilee Proffitt at http://hangingtogether.org/?p=278
Image: GeekandPoke image on Flickr (Creative Commons Licence) http://www.flickr.com/photos/geekandpoke/

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