How the Exploring British Design project informed the development of the Archives Hub

Back in 2014 the Archives Hub joined forces with The University of Brighton Design Archives for an exciting new project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, ‘Exploring British Design’ (EBD).

The project explored Britain’s design history by connecting design-related content in different archives, with the aim of giving researchers the freedom to explore around and within archives.

You can read a number of blog posts on the project, and there is also a video introducing the EBD website on You Tube, but in this post I wanted to set out how we have learned from the project and how it has informed the development of the new Archives Hub.

Unfortunately, we may not be able to maintain the website longer term, and so it seemed timely to reflect on how the principles used in this project are being taken forward.

Modelling the Data

A key component of EBD was our move away from the traditional approach of putting the archive collection at the centre of the user experience. Instead, we wanted to reflect the richness of the content – the people, organisations, places, subjects, events that a collection represents.

We had many discussions and filled many pieces of paper with ideas about how this might work.

rough ideas for data connectivity
Coming up with ideas for how EBD should work

We then took these ideas and translated them into our basic model.

model of data for EBD
Relationships between entities in the EBD data

Archives are represented on our model as one aspect of the whole. They are a resource to be referenced, as are bibliographic resources and objects. They relate to the whole – to agents, time periods, places and events. This essentially puts them into a whole range of contexts, which can expand as the data grows.

Screenshot of EBD homepage
Homepage of Exploring British Design: People are foremost.

The Exploring British Design website was one way to reflect the inter-connected model that we created.

We have taken the principles of this approach with the new Archives Hub architecture and website, which was launched back in December 2016. Whilst the archive collection description stays very much in the forefront of the users’ experience, we have introduced additional tabs to represent themed collections and repositories. All three of these sources of information are, in a data and processing sense, treated equally. The user searches the Hub and the search runs across these three data sources. The model allows us to be flexible with how we present the data, so we could also try different interfaces in future, maybe foregrounding images, or events.

screenshot of Archives Hub search results
Search for ‘design industry’ gives results across Archive Collections, Themed Collections and Repositories

Names

The EBD project had a particular focus on people. We opted to combine machine methods of data extraction – data taken partly from our already existent archive descriptions as well as from other external sources – with manual methods, to create rich records about designers. This manual approach is not sustainable for a large-scale service like the Archives Hub, but it shows what is possible in terms of creating more context and connectivity.

screenshot of a person page from the EBD website
EBD website showing a person page

We wanted to indicate that well-structured data allows a great deal more flexibility in presentation. In this case the ‘Archive and Museum Resources’ are one link in the list of resources about or related to the individual. We could have come up with other ways to present the information, given how it was structured.

We are intending to introduce names pages to the Archives Hub, which will then more clearly echo the EBD approach. They will largely have been created through automated processes, as we needed to create them at scale. They will generally be quite brief, without the ideal structure or depth, but the principle remains that we can then link from a person page to a host of related resources. The Hub website will have a new tab for ‘Names’ and end users will be able to run searches that take in collections, themes, repositories, people and organisations.

The EBD project allowed us to explore standards used for the creation of names data. It was our first experience of using Encoded Archival Context (Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families) (EAC-CPF), so we could start to see what we could do with it, as well as discover some of the shortcomings of the standard, as our data went beyond what is supported. For example, we wanted to link images to people and events but this was not covered by the standard. It was useful to have this preliminary exploration of it, and what it can – and can’t – do, as we look to adopt it for names within the Archives Hub.

Structured Data

One of the things the project did reinforce for me was the importance of indexing. On the Archives Hub we have always recommended indexing, but we have had mixed reactions from archivists, some feeling that it is less useful than detailed narrative, some saying that it is not needed ‘now we have Google’, some simply saying they don’t have time.

Indexing has many advantages, some of which I’ve touched on in various blog posts – and one at the top of the list, is that it brings the advantages of structured data. A name in a narrative can, in theory, be pulled out and utilised as a point of connectivity, but a name as an index term tends to be a great deal easier to work with: it is identified as a name, it usually has structured surname, forename content, it usually includes life dates and may include titles and epithets to help unambiguously identify an individual.

EBD was all about structured data, and we gave ourselves the luxury of adding to the data by hand, creating rich structured records about designers. This was partly to demonstrate what could be done in an interface, but we were well aware that it would be problematic to create records of that level of detail at scale. However, as we start to grapple with expanding name records in the Archives Hub, we have EBD as a reference point. It has helped us to think more about approaches and priorities when creating name records. If we were to create an EAC Editor (similar to our EAD Editor) we would think carefully about how to facilitate creating relationships. For example, the type of relationship – should there be a controlled list of relationship types? e.g. ‘worked with, collaborated with, had professional connection with, influenced by,  spouse of’ – these are some of the relationships we used in EBD, after much discussion about how best to approach this. Or would it be more practical to stick to ‘associated with’ (i.e. not defined), which is easier, but far less useful to a researcher. Could we have both? How would one combine them in an interface?  Another example – the potential to create timelines. If we wanted to provide end users with timelines, we would need to focus on time-bound events. There are many issues to consider here, not least of which is how comprehensive the timeline would be.

The vexed question of how to combine data from name descriptions created by several institutions is not something we really dealt with in EBD, but that will be one of the biggest challenges for us in aiming to implement name data on the Archives Hub.

The level of granularity that you decide upon has massive implications for complexity, resources and benefits. The more granular the data, the more potential for researchers to be able to drill down into lives, events, locations, etc. So including life dates allows for a search for designers from 1946; including places of education allows for exploring possible connections through education, but adding dates of education allows for a more specific focus still.

Explaining our approach

One thing that struck me about this project was that it was harder than I had anticipated to convey to people what we were trying to achieve and what we could achieve. I tended to find that showing the website raised a number of expectations that I knew would be difficult to fulfill, and if I’m being honest, I sometimes felt rather frustrated at the lack of recognition of what we had achieved – it’s really not easy to combine, process and present different data sources!  It is ironic that the more we press forwards with new functionality, and try to push the boundaries of what we do, the more it seems that people ask for developments that are beyond that!  You can try to modify expectations by getting deep down and technical with the challenges involved in aggregating and enhancing data created over time, by different people, in different environments (we worked with CSV data, EAC-CPF data, RDF and geodata for example), with different perspectives and priorities.  But detailed explanations of technical challenges are not going to work for most audiences. End users see and make an assessment of the website; they shouldn’t really need to be aware of what is going on behind the scenes.

Originally, in our project specification, we asked the question: “How can we encourage researchers, archive and museum professionals, and the public, to apprehend an integrated and extended rather than collection-specific sense of Britain’s design history?”  Whilst we did not go as far to answer this question as we had hoped, the work that we did made me feel that it might be harder than I had envisaged. People are very used to the traditional catalogues and other finding aids that are out there, and it creates a certain (possibly unconscious) mindset. I know this too well, because, as an archivist, I have had to adjust my own thinking to see data in a different way and appreciate that traditional approaches to cataloguing and discoverability are not always suited to the digital online age.

Data Model

The hierarchical approach to data is very embedded among archivists, and this is what people are used to being presented with.  Unless archivists catalogue in a different way, providing more structured information about entities (names, places, etc) then actually presenting things in a more connected way is hard.

image of hierarchical folders
A folder structure is often used to represent archival hierarchy

A more inter-connected model, which eschews linear hierarchy in favour of fluid entity relationships, and allows for a more flexible approach with the front-end interface to the data relies upon the quality, structure and consistency of the data. If we don’t have place names at all we can’t provide a search by place. If we don’t have place names that are unambiguously identified (i.e. not just ‘Cambridge’) then we can provide a search by place, but a researcher will be presented with all places called Cambridge, anywhere in the world (including the US, Australia and Jamaica).

A diagram showing archives and other entities connected
An example of connected entities

The new Archives Hub was designed on the basis of a model that allows for entities to be introduced and new connections made.

Archives Hub Entity Relationship diagram
Entities within the Archives Hub system

So, the tabs that the end user sees in the interface can be modified and extended over time. Searches can be run across all entities; it is not solely about retrieving descriptions of archives. This approach allows for researchers to find e.g. repositories that are significantly about ‘design’ or repositories that are located in London. It allows us to introduce Themed Collections as a separate type of description, so a student doing a project on ‘plastics’ would discover the Museum of Design in Plastics as a resource alongside archive collections at repositories including Brighton Design Archives, the V&A and the Paul Mellon Centre.

screenshot of Archives Hub search results
Search for ‘plastics and design’ shows archives and themed resources

Website Maintenance

One of the things I’ve learnt from this project is that you need to factor in the ongoing costs and effort of maintaining a project website. The EBD website is quite sophisticated, which means there are substantial technical dependencies, and we ended up running into issues with security, upgrades and compatibility of software, issues that are par for the course for a website but nonetheless need dealing with promptly. Maybe we should have factored this in more than we did, as we know the systems administration required for the Archives Hub is no small thing, but when you are in the throws of a project your focus is on the objectives and final output more than the ongoing issues. We cannot maintain a site long-term that is not being regularly used. EBD does not get the level of use that would justify the resources we would have to put into it on an ongoing basis.

Conclusion

When we were creating the model for the Archives Hub, we thought as much about flexibility and future potential as anything else. This is one thing that we have learnt from running the Hub for 25 years and from projects like Exploring British Design. You need to plan for potential developments in order to start to work with cataloguers, to get the data into the shape that you need it to be. We wanted to be able to introduce additional entities, so that we could have names, places, languages, images, or any other entities as ‘first class citizens‘ of the Hub. We wanted to be able to enhance the end user’s ability to take different paths, and locate relevant archives through different avenues of exploration.

We need to temper our ambitions for the Hub with the realities of cataloguing, aggregation and resources available, and we need as much information as we can get about what researchers really want; but this is why it is so important to encompass potential as well as current functionality. We may not be able to introduce everything we have envisioned or that users ask for right now; but it is important to understand the vital link between approaches to cataloguing, adherence to data standards, and front end functionality. We created visualisations for EBD and we would love to do this for the Hub, but it was not an easy thing to do, and so we would need to consider what the data allows, the software options available, whether the technical requirements are sustainable over time, and the effectiveness of the end result for the researcher.

Visualisation showing connections to Elizabeth Denby
Visualisation for Elizabeth Denby

When we demonstrated the visualisations in EBD, they had the wow factor that was arguably lacking in the main text-based site, but for serious researchers the wow factor is a great deal less important that the breadth and depth of the content, and that requires a model that is fundamentally rigorous, sustainable over time and realistic in terms of the data that you have to work with.

 

Archives Portal Europe Country Managers’ Meeting, 30 Nov 2016

This is a report of a meeting of the Archives Portal Europe Country Managers’ in Slovakia, 30 November 2016, with some comments and views from the UK and Archives Hub perspective.

APE-CMmeeting-30Nov2016
APE Country Managers meeting, Bratislava, 30 Nov 2016

Context

The APE Foundation (APEF), which was created following the completion of the APEx project (an EC funded project to maintain and develop the portal running from 2012 to 2015), is now taking APE forward. It has a Governing Board and working groups for standards, technical issues and PR/comms. The APEF has a coordinator and three technical/systems staff as well as an outreach officer. Institutions are invited to become associate members, to help support the portal and its aims.

Things are going well for APEF, with a profit recorded for 2016, and growing associate membership. APEF continues to be busy with development of APE, and is endeavouring to encourage cooperation and collaboration as a means to seize opportunities to keep developing and to take advantage of EU funding opportunities.

Current Development

The APEF has the support of Ministry of Culture in the Netherlands and has a close working relationship with the Netherlands national aggregation project, the ‘DTR’, which is key to the current APE development phase. The idea is to use the framework of APE for the DTR, benefitting both parties. Cooperation with DTR involves three main areas:

•    building an API to open up the functionality of APE to third parties (and to enable the DTR to harvest the APE data from The Netherlands)
•    improving the uploading and processing of EAC-CPF
•    enabling the uploading and processing of ‘additional finding aids’

The API has been developed so that specific requests can be sent to fetch selected data. It is possible to do this for EAD (descriptions) and EAC-CPF (names).  The API provides raw data as well as processed results.  There have been issues around things like relevance of ordering of results which is a substantial area of work that is being addressed.

The API raises implications in terms of the data, as the Content Provider Agreement that APE institutions sign gives control of the data to the contributors. So, the API had to be implemented in a way that enables each contributor to give explicit permission for the data to be available as CC0 (fully open data). This means that if a third party uses the API to grab data, they only get data from a country that has given this permission. APEF has introduced an API key, which is a little controversial, as it could be argued that it is a barrier to complete openness, but it does enable the Foundation to monitor use, which is useful for impact, for checking correct use, and blocking those who misuse the API. This information is not made open, but it is stored for impact and security purposes.

There was some discussion at the meeting around open data and use of CC0. In countries such as Switzerland it is not permitted to open up data through a CC0 licence, and in fact, it may be true to say that CC0 is not the appropriate licence for archival descriptions (the question of whether any copyright can exist in them is not clear) and a public domain licence is more appropriate. When working across European countries there are variations in approaches to open data. The situation is complicated because the application of CC0 for APE data is not explicit, so any licence that a country has attached to their data will effectively be exported with the data and you may get a kind of licence clash. But the feeling is that for practical purposes if the data is available through an API, developers will expect it to be fully open and use it with that in mind.

There has been work to look at ways to take EAC-CPF from a whole set of institutions more easily, which would be useful for the UK, where we have many EAC-CPF descriptions created by SNAC.  Work on any kind of work to bring more than one name description for the same person together has not started, and is not scheduled for the current period of development, but the emphasis is likely to be on better connectivity between variations of a name rather than having one description per name.

Additional finding aids offer the opportunity to add different types of information to APE. You may, for example, have a register of artists or ships logs, you may have started out with a set of cards with names A-Z, relating to your archive in some way.  You could describe these in one EAD description, and link this to the main description. In the current implementation of EAD2002 in APE this would have to go into a table in Scope & Content and in-line tagging is not allowed to identify parts of the data. This leads to limitations with how to search by name. But then EAD3 gives the option to add more information on events and names. You can divide a name up into parts, which allows for better searching.  Therefore APE is developing a new means to fetch and process EAD3 for the additional finding aids alongside EAD2002 for ‘standard’ finding aids. In conjunction with this, the interface needs to be changed to present the new names within the search.

The work on additional finding aids may not be so relevant for the Archives Hub as a contributor to APE, as the Hub cannot look at taking on ‘other finding aids’, with all the potential variations that implies. However, institutions could potentially log into APE themselves and upload these different types of descriptions.

APE and Europeana

There was quite a bit to talk about concerning APE and Europeana. The APEF is a full partner of the Europeana Digital Services Infrastructure 2 (DSI2) project (currently running 2016/2017). The project involves work on the structure for Europeana, maintaining and running data and aggregation services, improving data quality, and optimising relations with data partners. The work APE is involved with includes improving the current workflow for harvest/ingest of data, and also evaluating what has already been ingested into Europeana.

Europeana seems to have ongoing problems dealing with multi-level EAD descriptions, compounded by the limitation that they only represent  digital materials. The approach is not a good fit for archives. Europeana have also introduced both a new publishing framework and different rights statements.

The new publishing framework is a 4 tier approach where you can think of Europeana as a more basic tool for promoting your archives, or something that is a platform for reuse. It refers to the digital materials in terms of whether they are a certain number of pixels, e.g. 800 pixels wide for thumbnails (adding thumbnails means using Europeana as a ‘showcase’) and 1,200 pixels wide ( high quality and reusable, using Europeana as a distribution and reuse platform). The idea of trying to get ‘quality’ images seems good, but in practice I wonder if it simply raises the barrier too much.

The new Rights statements require institutions to be very clear about the rights they want to apply to digital content.  The likely conclusion of all this from the point of view of the Archives Hub is that we cannot grapple with adding to Europeana on behalf of all of our contributors, and therefore individual contributors will have to take this on board themselves. It will be possible for contributors to log into the APE dashboard (when it has been changed to reflect the Europeana new rights) and engage with this, selecting the finding aids, the preferred rights statements, and ensuring that thumbnail and reusable images meet the requirements.  One the descriptions are in APE they can then be supplied to Europeana. The resulting display in Europeana should be checked, to ensure that it is appropriate.

We discussed this approach, and concluded that maybe APE contributors could see Europeana as something that they might use to showcase their content, so, think of it on our terms, as archives, and how it might help us. There is no obligation to contribute, so it is a case of making the decision whether it is worth representing the best visual archives through Europeana or whether this approach takes more effort than the value that we get out of it.  After 10 years of working with Europeana, and not really getting proper representation of archives, the idea of finding a successful way of contributing archives is appealing, but it seems to me that the amount of effort required is going to be significant, and I’m not sure if the impact is enough to warrant it.

Europeana are working on a new way of automated and real time ingest from aggregators and content providers, but this may take another year or more to become fully operational.

Outreach and CM Reports

Towards the end of the day we had a presentation from the new PR/communicaitons officer. Having someone to encourage, co-ordinate and develop ideas for dissemination should provide invaluable for APE. The Facebook page is full of APE activities and related news and events. You can tweet and use the hashtag #archivesportaleurope if you would like to make APE aware of anything.

We ended the day with reports from country managers, which, as always threw up many issues, challenges, solutions, questions and answers. Plenty to set up APEF for another busy year!

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From Ivory Tower to People Power

Here is a presentation I gave at ELAG 2015 to introduce our innovation project, Exploring British Design. The presentation is entitled ‘From Ivory Tower to People Power‘ (You Tube link) and emphasises the collaborative nature of the project and the focus on people as a topic, rather than on archival description, which is not always the best starting place for researchers. The presentation covers:

  • Aims of the project
  • Workshops with postgraduate students about how they research and analysis of their research paths
  • Workshops with postgraduates about websites: what students do and don’t like in terms of discovery
  • Traditional archival cataloguing ‘lock in’ of entities such as people, places and events.
  • Connectivity beyond single A to B connections; ‘anything can be a focus’ and can link to a myriad of other things
  • Use of EAC-CPF (XML standard for archival authority files)
  • Creating the data, handcrafting data, limitations of our approach, too many ideas not enough time!
  • Demonstration of the Website

 

Connecting through defining people and relationships

If, as a researcher, you search for ‘Jane Drew’, the celebrated architect and town planner, on the Archives Hub, amongst other things, you might discover a single item, “Letter from Jane B Drew to John and Myfanwy Piper”, a letter in the “Papers of John and Myfanwy Piper”.

You can see that its a letter in a collection at the Tate Gallery Archive. The description of the collection is an example of a good quality traditional archival catalogue, giving a fairly detailed listing of the content this particular collection.  But as a researcher you are really just interested in just this one letter.  You may ask yourself a number of questions, possibly starting with (1) Is this the Jane Drew I’m interested in? and then (2) What is the relationship between Jane Drew and John and Myfanwy Piper? You may well be able to find answers by accessing the letter itself, but at this stage you may just want to place this connection in the broader context of Jane Drew’s life and work. As a researcher, understanding how these people are connected may shed light on your research interests.

In this blog I want to think about this question of relationships. The fact is that archivists rarely provide structured information about relationships; if there is information, it is usually in the biographical history, which might outline key events and people in someone’s life, referring to their parents, work colleagues, friends, etc. The nature of the relationship is sometimes explicitly given, but often it is not. Our standards don’t really say much about relationships between the entities (people, organisations, places, etc) that we describe in our catalogues.

Going back to the Papers of John and Myfanwy Piper as an example, the biographical history includes the following:

[John] Piper began writing reviews from the late 1920s making a name for himself as a critic writing for periodicals like ‘The Listener’ and the ‘Architectural Review’. From 1935-1937 he assisted Myfanwy Evans, with the production of a quarterly review of contemporary European abstract painting called ‘Axis’. In 1937 Piper was commissioned by his friend John Betjeman to write the ‘Shell Guide to Oxfordshire’. Piper went on to write and provide photographs for a number of the guides as well as edit the series. In the same year John Piper married the writer Myfanwy Evans.

This is a typical of a biographical history – useful historical information about the individual or organisation. Within this there is information we can potentially use to create explicit relationship information:

John Piper ‘worked with’ Myfanwy Evans
John Piper ‘was friends with’ John Betjeman
John Piper ‘worked for’ John Betjeman
John Piper ‘was married to’ Myfanwy Evans

There are a number of issues to consider here:

How can we unambiguously identify the people?
How do we choose the vocabulary we use to define the relationships?
Do we try to include dates?
Is it reasonable for us to interpret relationships as ‘friendships’ or ‘collaborations’ if this is not actually explicit?

We are looking at some of these issues through our AHRC project, Exploring British Design. They are all issues that archivists need to explore in a debate around relationship information, but the first issue to consider is simply whether we should be thinking more about including this kind of relationship information in our archival finding aids. Is it something that would be of real value to end users?  This issue is coming more to the fore as we start to think about implementing ISAAR (CPF) and working with EAC-CPF , and also as Linked Open Data gains traction.

In a (well worth reading) recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies, on the potential impact of EAC-CPF, K.M Wisser reports the findings of a survey about relationship information. The survey received 208 responses from archivists/archives in the US. Wisser wrote “The survey results indicate that the archival community has only just begun to consider relationships in the context of archival description and the role that explicit description of those relationships may play.”

As one respondent wrote:

“relationships are among the most important facets in a collection and deserve a high priority in description. One cannot understand the historical value of an event, person, or organization without knowing [the] relationship among and between them.”

One thing that really strikes me in Wisser’s findings is that archivists see relationships that are documented outside of the collection as almost as significant as those that are documented within the collection. Going back to our original topic of Jane Drew: who else did Jane Drew work with? Should we provide that information to our users, whether or not it is documented within the collection? Is our role to give as full an account as we can of Drew’s life and career? Is it to limit ourselves to what is within the collection?

Wisser’s survey asked respondents about the importance of relationship types. It is curious to me that archivists rated ‘collaborated with’ as a more important relationship than ‘studied with’; they rated a friendship as far more important when it was documented in the collection; and they rated ‘influenced by’ as generally not so important. I’m surprised that the respondents had such definite ideas about the relative importance of different types of relationships, especially when the majority appeared to agree with the importance of ‘objective cataloguing’.

In our Exploring British Design project, the work we did with researchers definitely confirmed to me the fairly self-evident observation that any relationship can be of major significance in research, even if it appears of minor significance within the archive, or indeed, within the literature in general. A brief collaboration may have been a crucial influence, a short friendship may have had hitherto unrealised impact, and anyway, the importance of the relationship depends upon the research you are doing. Researchers are not really aware of how challenging it is for us as information professionals to establish these kinds of relationships in ways that they can then access. But it is clear that this is the sort of connectivity they are after.

One of the challenges with documenting relationship types is that they can be hard to define. As Wisser notes:

“The concept of influence, however, proved the most problematic. Comments such as ‘influence is a squishy sort of relationship’ and ‘I think it would often be very difficult to prove that Entity A was influenced by Entity B’ indicate a notion of intangibility.”

The conclusion could be that we should leave well alone relationships that are hard to define. On the other hand, if we are in a position, as we research a collection, to highlight potential connections, that action could be of major value to a researcher, who may otherwise never know about a link that ends up being crucial to their particular research. The relationships that are easy to define are likely to have been defined already.

One thing that strikes me about the whole notion of introducing interpretation and opinion into cataloguing (a possible argument against defining relationships) is that the horse has pretty much bolted. I’ve looked at enough ‘objective’ descriptions to be aware that the names archivists choose to add as index terms are a choice; they inevitably have to be an opinion about the names significant enough to add as index terms. And subjects are a similar case – some collections are indexed thoroughly, some not at all.

Aside from indexing, each person would create a different scope and content entry, including and excluding different information, and whether you call that subjective or not, it is certainly always selective. You could also argue that the level of detailed hierarchical cataloguing, might indicate the relative importance of the collection. On the Archives Hub there are some collections catalogued in huge detail, and it is inevitable that researchers will assume these collections are particularly important.

All of these choices have implications for discoverability.

In Wisser’s survey, a significant proportion of respondents felt that the importance of a relationship should be based upon the use of the collection.  But this, again, raises the question: When thinking about relationships, is the cataloguer reflecting the scope of the collection, or are they trying to give as full a picture as they can of the person or organisation? Are we within the world of the collection; or is the collection within the world?

The reason that I believe that we should think beyond the bounds of the collection content is that I think it promises much richer rewards for our users and encourages archives to be a major player within a broader landscape of information resources. I base my thinking on the premise that the researcher is primarily interested in their research topic, which is not likely to be an archive collection per se, but rather an event, a person, an organisation, a subject, and the way things are connected. I think archivists are still tending to think in terms of a document that describes a collection, rather than how to link the collection into the cultural heritage landscape, and even more broadly beyond that. I wonder if archivists don’t always think beyond the catalogues they currently create because the researchers they have contact with (who visit the archive) are already fairly confident they want to use that repository, or a particular archive within that repository. In other words, the researcher is already in their space. When I worked in a specialist archive, I thought about researchers discovering our archive as a whole (having an online presence) and then I thought about them using our collections (individual collections each with their own description); I didn’t think about how our collections could be seen as part of a whole information landscape.

The loudest – and most convincing – argument I hear against this kind of approach is that it takes time, and archivists are short on time. But I wonder if that means we have to think fundamentally differently. Going back to Jane Drew, and think about the value of relationships for research into her life and work…

If one archive collection description highlights just a few relationships, this could take us a long way (although relationship types are a whole different thing…). If the individuals and organisations are unambiguously identified, this can help with the process of creating links out to other data sources, so that information can be linked together; then we have the chance to benefit from finding out about relationships that have been defined elsewhere. In other words, the connections one person has throughout their life can only be fully realised through the pooling of information resources, very much a joint effort. If the data is structured it can potentially be brought together.

Traditional archival cataloguing focuses on the collection, and what is documented within the collection. It tends to think in terms of a self-contained document. Pursuing relationships breaks the bounds of any one information source. That seems like a good thing, but it raises questions around approaches to cataloguing. One obvious way to tackle this is to start to think more about archival authority records. These should enable us to move beyond a collection-centric description of the collection and towards a more entity based approach, because you describe an agent (entity) independently of any one archival collection. Another option is to think in a Linked Data way, where you are concentrating on entities and relationships.

There are so many questions raised by the whole area of entities and relationships. A few of my current conclusions are:

We should primarily be led by what benefits research. Researchers are far less likely to think in terms of individual archive collections, and far more likely to think in terms of research areas (topics). The Web gives us the opportunity to think in a broader context.

Maybe it is worth considering taking some of the time used to provide a really detailed biographical history as an unstructured narrative, or the time to provide a really detailed multi-level description, and taking more time to provide (or provide the potential for) connections between our descriptions and the larger information environment. This could allow researchers to bring together much more comprehensive information, even if what we provide about individual collections is less detailed. Just adding something like a VIAF identifier to a name would be a great big leap forwards (http://viaf.org/viaf/51792789).

There is great value in being a small fish in a big pond, because most researchers are fishing for data in the big pond. As Wisser’s article says, “relationships are…seen to free collections from the isolation of individual repositories.” If we aim to be part of the big pond, we can continue to tend our smaller ponds as well!

To go back to the Piper Collection and Jane Drew….I used this as a random example, thinking of a researcher interested in one particular designer. But of course, the Tate Gallery Archive can’t be expected to define all the relationships within the description. It’s great that they have provided enough detail to find this one individual item – without that, we would not know about the connection with Jane Drew. I’m arguing for unambiguously identifying entities (people, organisations) because if we can potentially link this instance of ‘Jane Drew’ to other instances in other information sources, then it is very possible that we can find out more about this relationship; And if the relationship can’t be established through other sources, then maybe this archive provides unique evidence of a connection that could significantly benefit research.

UKAD Forum

The National Archives
The National Archives (used under a CC licence from http://www.flickr.com/photos/that_james/2693236972/)

Weds 2nd March was the inaugural event of the UK Archives Discovery Network – better known as UKAD.  Held at the National Archives, the UKAD Forum was a chance for archive practitioners to get together, share ideas, and hear about interesting new projects.

The day was organised into 3 tracks: A key themes for information discovery; B standards and crowdsourcing; and C demonstrating sites and systems.  Plenary sessions came from John Sheridan of TNA, Richard Wallis of Talis, David Flanders of Jisc, and Teresa Doherty of the Women’s Library.

I would normally have been tweeting away, but unfortunately although I could connect to the wifi, I couldn’t get any further!  So here are my edited highlights of the day (also known as ‘tweets I wish I could have sent’).

Richard Sheridan kicked off the proceedings by talking about open data.  The government’s Coalition Agreement contains a commitment to open data, which obviously affects The National Archives, as repository for government data.  They are using light-weight existing Linked Data vocabularies, and then specialising them for their needs. I was particularly interested to hear about the particular challenges posed by legislation.gov.uk, explained by John as ‘A changes B when C says so’: new legislation may alter existing legislation, and these changes might come into force at a time specified by a third piece of legislation…

Richard Wallis carried on the open data theme, by talking about Linked Data and Linked Open Data. His big prediction? That the impact of Linked Data will be greater than the impact of the World Wide Web it builds on. A potentially controversial statement, delivered with a very nice slide deck.

Off to the tracks, and I headed for track B to hear Victoria Peters from Strathclyde talk about ICA-AtoM.  This is open source, web based archival  description software, aimed at archivists and institutions with limited financial and technical resources.  It looks rather nifty, and supports EAD and EAC import and export, as well as digital objects.  If you want to try it out, you can download a demo from the ICA-AtoM website, or have a look at Strathclyde’s installation.

Bill Stockting from the BL gave us an update on EAD and EAC-CPF.  I’m just starting to learn about EAC-CPF, so it was interesting to hear the plans for it.  One of Bill’s main points was that they’re trying to move beyond purely archival concerns, and are hoping that EAC-CPF can be used in other domains, such as MARC.  This is an interesting development, and I hope to hear more about it in the future!  Bill also mentioned SNAC, the Social Networks and Archival Context project, which is looking at using EAC-CPF with a number of tools (including VIAF) to ‘to “unlock” descriptions of people from finding aids and link them together in exciting new ways’.

David Flanders’ post-lunch plenary provided absolutely my favourite moment of the day: David said ‘Technology will fail if not supported by the users’… and then, with perfect timing, the projector turned off.  One of David’s key points was that ‘you are not your users’.  You can’t be both expert and user, and you will never know exactly how what users want from your systems, and how they will use them unless you actually ask them! Get users involved in your projects and bids, and you’re likely to be much more successful.

Alexandra Eveleigh spoke in track B about ‘crowds and communities: user participation in the archives’.  I especially liked her distinction between ‘crowds’ and ‘communities’ – crowds are likely to be larger, and quickly dip in and out, while communities are likely to be smaller overall, but dedicate more time and effort.  She also pointed out that getting users involved isn’t a new thing – there’s always been a place in archives for those pursuing ‘serious leisure’, and bringing their own specialist knowledge and experience.  A point Alexandra made that I found particularly interesting was that of being fair to your users – don’t ask them to participate and help you, if you’re not going to listen to their opinions!

I have to admit that I’d never really heard of Historypin before I saw them on the conference programme.  Don’t click on that link if you have anything you need to get done today!  Historypin takes old photographs, and ‘pins’ them to their exact geographic location using Google maps.  You can see them in streetview, overlaid on the modern background, and it is absolutely fascinating.  Photos can be contributed by anyone, and anyone can add stories or more information to photos on the site.  One of the developments on the way is the ability to ‘pin’ video and audio clips in the same way.

CEO Nick Stanhope was keen to point out that Historypin is a not-for-profit – they’re in partnership with Google, but not owned by them, and they don’t ask for any rights to any of the material posted on Historypin.  They’re keen to work with archives to add their photographic collections, and have a couple of things they hope to soon be able to offer archives in return (as well as increased exposure!):  they’ll be allowing any archive to have an instance of Historypin embedded on the archive’s site for free.  They’re also developing a smartphone app, and will be offering any archive their own branded version of the app – for free!  These developments sound really exciting, and I hope we hear more from them soon.

Teresa Doherty’s closing plenary was on the re-launch of the Genesis project.  As Teresa said ‘many of you will be sitting there thinking ‘this isn’t plenary material! what’s going on?”, but Teresa definitely made it a plenary worth attending.  Genesis is a project which allows users to cross-search women’s studies resources from museums, libraries and archives in the UK, and Teresa made the persuasive point that while the project itself might not be revolutionary, how they’ve done it is.  Genesis has had no funding since 200 – everything they’ve done since then, including the relaunch, has been done with only the in-house resources they have available.  They’ve used SRU to search the Archives Hub, and managed to put together a valuable service with minimal resources.

As a librarian and a new professional, I found Teresa’s insights into the history of archival cataloguing particularly fascinating.  I knew that ISAD(G) was released in 1996, but I hadn’t had any real understanding of what that meant: that before 1996, there were no standards or guidelines for archival cataloguing. Each institution would catalogue in entirely their way – a revelation to me, and completely alien to my entirely standards-based professional background!  And I now have a new mantra, learned from one of Teresa’s old managers back in the early 90s:

‘We may not have a database now, but if we have structured data then one day we will have a database to put it in!’

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better definition of the interoperability mindset.

After the day officially ended, it was off the the pub for a swift pint and wind-down. An excellent, instructive, and fun day.

Slides from the day are available on SlideShare – tag ukad.