A bit about Resource Discovery

The UK Archives Discovery Network (UKAD) recently advertised our up and coming Forum on the archives-nra listserv. This prompted one response to ask whether ‘resource discovery’ is what we now call cataloguing and getting the catalogues online. The respondent went on to ask why we feel it necessary to change the terminology of what we do, and labelled the term resource discovery as ‘gobledegook’. My first reaction to this was one of surprise, as I see it as a pretty plain talking way of describing the location and retrieval of information , but then I thought that it’s always worth considering how people react and what leads them to take a different perspective.

It made me think that even within a fairly small community, which archivists are, we can exist in very different worlds and have very different experiences and understanding. To me, ‘resource discovery’ is a given; it is not in any way an obscure term or a novel concept. But I now work in a very different environment from when I was an archivist looking after physical collections, and maybe that gives me a particular perspective. Being manager of the Archives Hub, I have found that a significant amount of time has to be dedicated to learning new things and absorbing new terminology. There seem to be learning curves all over the place, some little and some big. Learning curves around understanding how our Hub software (Cheshire) processes descriptions, Encoded Archival Description , deciding whether to move to the EAD schema, understanding namespaces, search engine optimisation, sitemaps, application programming interfaces, character encoding, stylesheets, log reports, ways to measure impact, machine-to-machine interfaces, scripts for automated data processing, linked data and the semantic web, etc. A great deal of this is about the use of technology, and figuring out how much you need to know about technology in order to use it to maximum effect. It is often a challenge, and our current Linked Data project, Locah, is very much a case in point (see the Locah blog). Of course, it is true that terminology can sometimes get in the way of understanding, and indeed, defining and having a common understanding of terms is often itself a challenge.

My expectation is that there will always be new standards, concepts and innovations to wrestle with, try to understand, integrate or exclude, accept or reject, on pretty much a daily basis. When I was the archivist at the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), back in the 1990’s, my world centered much more around solid realities: around storerooms, temperature and humidity, acquisitions, appraisal, cataloguing, searchrooms and the never ending need for more space and more resources. I certainly had to learn new things, but I also had to spend far more time than I do now on routine or familiar tasks; very important, worthwhile tasks, but still largely familiar and centered around the institution that I worked for and the concepts terminology commonly used by archivists. If someone had asked me what resource discovery meant back then, I’m not sure how I would have responded. I think I would have said that it was to do with cataloguing, and I would have recognised the importance of consistency in cataloguing. I might have mentioned our Website, but only in as far as it provided access through to our database. The issues around cross-searching were still very new and ideas around usability and accessibility were yet to develop.

Now, I think about resource discovery a great deal, because I see it as part of my job to think of how to best represent the contributors who put time and effort into creating descriptions for the Hub. To use another increasingly pervasive term, I want to make the data that we have ‘work harder’. For me, catalogues that are available within repositories are just the beginning of the process. That’s fine if you have researchers who know that they are interested in your particular collections. But we need to think much more broadly about our potential global market: all the people out there who don’t know they are interested in archives – some, even, who don’t really know what archives are. To reach them, we have to think beyond individual repositories and we have to see things from the perspective of the researcher. How can we integrate our descriptions into the ‘global information environment’ in a much more effective way. A most basic step here, for example, is to think about search engine optimisation. Exposing archival descriptions through Google, and other search engines, has to be one very effective way to bring in new researchers. But it is not a straightforward exercise – books are written about SEO and experts charge for their services in helping optimise data for the Web. For the Archives Hub, we were lucky enough to be part of an exercise looking at SEO and how to improve it for our site. We are still (pretty much as I write) working on exposing our actual descriptions more effectively.

Linked Data provides another whole world of unfamiliar terminology to get your head round. Entities, triples, URI patterns, data models, concepts and real world things, sparql queries, vocabularies – the learning curve has indeed been steep. Working on outputting our data as RDF (a modelling framework for Linked Data) has made me think again about our approach to cataloguing and cataoguing standards. At the Hub, we’re always on about standards and interoperability, and it’s when you come to something like Linked Data, where there are exciting possibilities for all sorts of data connections, well beyond just the archive community, that you start to wish that archivists catalogued far more consistently. If only we had consistent ‘extent’ data, for example, we could look at developing a lovely map-based visualisation showing where there are archives based on specific subjects all around the country and have a sense of where there are more collections and where there are fewer collections. If only we had consistent entries for people’s names, we could do the same sort of thing here, but even with thesauri, we often have more than one name entry for the same person. I sometimes think that cataloguing is more of an art than a science, partly because it is nigh on impossible to know what the future will bring, and therefore knowing how to catalogue to make the most of as yet unknown technologies is tricky to say the least. But also, even within the environment we now have, archivists do not always fully appreciate the global and digital environment which requires new ways of thinking about description. Which brings me back to the idea of whether resource discovery is another term for cataloguing and getting catalogues online. No, it is not. It is about the user perspective, about how researchers locate resources and how we can improve that experience. It has increasingly become identified with the Web as a way to define the fundamental elements of the Web: objects that are available and can be accessed through the Internet, in fact, any concept that has an identity expressed as a URI. Yes, cataloguing is key to archives discovery, cataloguing to recognised standards is vital, and getting catalogued online in your own particular system is great…but there is so much more to the whole subject of enabling researchers to find, understand and use archives and integrating archives into the global world of resources available via the Web.

International archival standards: living in perfect harmony?

The International Council on Archives Committee on Best Practices and Standards met recently to look at the four ICA descriptive standards: ISAD(G), ISAAR(CPF), ISDF and ISDIAH. It was agreed at this meeting to delay a full review that might lead to more substantial changes and to concentrate on looking at harmonization.
On the Hub we use ISAD(G), which has become very widely recognised and used. ISAAR(CPF) is something that would be important if we started to think about implementing EAC-CPF, enabling our contributors to create authority records for creators of archives. We think that this is the sort of development that should have cross-sectoral agreement, and we are actively involved in the UK Archives Discovery Network (UKAD), which provides a means for us to discuss these sorts of issues across the archives community in the UK.
As far as the International Description for Descriptive Function (ISDF) is concencerned, I feel that a great deal more work is needed to help archivists understand how this can be practically implemented. Our new EAD Editor does allow contributors to add functions to their descriptions, but this is just using the EAD tag for functions. To me, the whole issue of functions and activities is problematic because I am looking at it from the perspective of aggregation. It is all very well for one institution to define their own functions and activities, but how does this translate into the wider environment? How do we successfully enable researchers to access archives by searching functions and activities across diverse institutions?
I have not really given any thought at all to the International Standard Description for Institutions with Archival Holdings (ISDIAH) other than to basically familiarise myself with the standard. For us, the unique code that identifies the institution and the institution’s name is all that we require within our descritions. We link to the Archon details for the institution, and maybe it is in the Archon directory of UK archives, that ISDIAH should be implemented? I am not sure that it would be appropriate to hold detailed information about individual institutions on the Hub.
I will be interested to see what the outcomes of the Committee’s work are. I wonder whether we need a greater understanding of the standards themselves before we try to understand how they work together? Maybe adopting more consistent terminology and providing a conceptual framework will help archivists to appreciate what the standards are trying to achieve and encourage more use, but I am doubtful. I think that a few training days: ‘Understanding the ICA Descriptive Standards’ wouldn’t go amiss for many archivists, who may have only recently adopted ISAD(G), let alone thought about the implications of the other standards.
In the appendices to the minutes, there are some interesting points of discussion. Even some of the assumptions seem to be based on a greater understanding of the standards than most archivists have. For example, ‘if you use ISAD(G) in conjuction with ISAAR, the Admin/Biog history element of ISAD(G) becomes useless because the description of the record creator is managed by ISAAR’. Well, yes, but I’m not sure that this is so clear cut in practice. It makes sense, of course, but how do we relate that to all the descriptions we now have? Also, ‘ISAAR can be used to structure the information contained in the Admin/Biog history element of ISAD(G)’ – that makes sense, but I know of no practical examples that show archivists are doing this.
I wonder if we really need to help archivists to understand the standards – what they are, what they do, how they work, how they can benefit resource discovery – before we throw a conceptual framework at them. At the same time, I increasingly feel that ISAD(G) is not relevant to the modern environment and therefore I think there is a pressing need to review ISAD(G) before looking at how it relates to other standards.

Researchers’ Use of Academic Libraries

library book shelvesA new report has been published by the Research Information Network (RIN) and the Consortium of Research Libraries (CURL): Researchers’ Use of Academic Libraries and their Services [pdf format]. This is based on information gathered from more than 2,000 UK researchers and 300 librarians. After being somewhat critical in an earlier post about the RIN’s Researchers and Discovery Services report, I feel honour-bound to record here that this report is much more comprehensive and well-written. Its authors are Sheridan Brown and Alma Swan of Key Perspectives Ltd. The report covers a number of areas, including the impact of digital services, problems of attracting enough funding, communication between library staff and researchers, and changing patterns of use.

Archive services within academic libraries get a number of mentions, with the interesting statistic that:

Archives are rated “very useful” by 50% of arts and humanities researchers and special collections by 46%. By comparison the figures for life science researchers are 10% and 8%.

Really? 10% of life scientists find archives “very useful”? Wow!

The report also noted that:

Most researchers use digital finding aids to locate both digital and print-based resources. Print finding aids are used by very few researchers, and these are mainly in the arts and humanities. This highlights the need for libraries to ensure that they provide online high-quality metadata for their holdings, and that they address cataloguing backlogs. Information resources that cannot be found electronically may well be overlooked, since few researchers will invest the time required to track down items that cannot be quickly be identified using digital finding aids.

And in the same vein:

Libraries have made significant efforts to optimise the visibility and usage of their archival or special collection material through digitisation programmes. Feedback from researchers is very positive, but many information resources that could be useful to researchers remain under-used currently, mainly because they exist only in hardcopy or are inadequately catalogued.

and:

…material that is digitised and for which there is easily-available and accurate metadata will be visible and usable by scholars. What remains in print may well be sought out, but probably only if it is digitally catalogued. Indeed, some researchers as well as librarians pointed out that more use would be made of library holdings overall