Hub contributors’ reflections on the current and future state of the Hub

The Archives Hub is what the contributors make it, and with over 170 institutions now contributing, we want to continue to ensure that we listen to them and develop in accordance with their needs. This week we brought together a number of Archives Hub contributors for a workshop session. The idea was to think about where the Hub is now and where it could go in the future.
We started off by giving a short overview of the new Hub strategy, and updating contributors on the latest service developments. We then spent the rest of the morning asking them to look at three questions: What are the benefits of being part of the Hub? What are the challenges and barriers to contributing? What sort of future developments would you like to see?
Probably the strongest benefit was exposure – as a national service with an international user-base the Hub helps to expose archival content, and we also engage in a great deal of promotional work across the country and abroad. Other benefits that were emphasised included the ability to search for archives without knowing which repository they are held at, and the pan-disciplinary approach that a service like the Hub facilitates. Many contributors also felt that the Hub provides them with credibility, a useful source of expertise and support, and sometimes ‘a sympathetic ear’, which can be invaluable for lone archivists struggling to make their archives available to researchers. The network effect was also raised – the value of having a focus for collaboration and exchange of idea.
A major barrier to contributing is the backlog of data, which archivists are all familiar with, and the time required to deal with this, especially with the lack of funding opportunities for cataloguing and retro-conversion. The challenges of data exchange were cited, and the need to make this a great deal easier. For some, getting the effective backing of senior managers is an issue. For those institutions who host their own descriptions (Spokes), the problems surrounding the software, particularly in the earlier days of the distributed system, were highlighted, and also the requirement for technical support. One of the main barriers here may be the relationship with the institution’s own IT department. It was also felt that the use of Encoded Archival Description (EAD) may be off-putting to those who feel a little intimidated by the tags and attributes.
People would like to see easy export routines to contribute to the Hub from other sytems, particularly from CALM, a more user-friendly interface for the search results, and maybe more flexibility with display, as well as the ability to display images and seamless integration of other types of files. ‘More like Google’ was one suggestion, and certainly exposure to Google was considered to be vital. It would be useful for researchers to be able to search a Spoke (institution) and then run the same search on the central Hub automatically, which would create closer links between Spokes and Hub. Routes through to other services would add to our profile and more interoperability with digital repositories would be well-received. Similarly, the ability to search across archival networks, and maybe other systems, would benefit users and enable more people to find archival material of relevance. The importance of influencing the right people and lobbying were also listed as something the Hub could do on behalf of contributors.
After a very good lunch at Christie’s Bistro we returned to look at three particular developments that we all want to see, and each group took one issues and thought about what the drivers are that move it forward and what the retraining forces are that stop it from happening. We thought about usability, which is strongly driven by the need to be inclusive and to de-mystify archival descriptions for those not familiar with archives and in particular archival hierarchies. It is also driven by the need to (at least in some sense) compete with Google, the need to be up-to-date, and to think about exposing the data to mobile devices. However, the unrealistic expectations that people have and, fundamentally, the need to be clear about who our users are and understanding their needs are hugely important. The quality and consistency of the data and markup also come into play here, and the recognition that this sort of thing requires a great deal of expert software development.
The need for data export, the second issue that we looked at, is driven by the huge backlogs of data and the big impact that this should have on the Hub in terms of quantity of descriptions. It should be a selling point for vendors of systems, with the pressure of expectation from stakeholders for good export routines. It should save time, prove to be good value for money and be easily accommodated into the work flow of an archive office. However, complications arise with the variety of systems out there and the number of standards, and variance in application of standards. There may be issues about the quality of the data and people may be resistant to changing their work habits.
Our final issue, the increased access to digital content, is driven by increased expectations for accessing content, making the interface more visually attractive (with embedded images), the drive towards digitisation and possibly the funding opportunities that exist around this area. But there is the expense and time to consider, issues surrounding copyright, the issue of where the digital content is stored and issues around preservation and future-proofing.
The day ended with a useful discussion on measuring impact. We got some ideas from contributors that we will be looking at and sharing with you through our blog. But the challenges of understanding the whole research life-cycle and the way that primary sources fit into this are certainly a major barrier to measuring the impact that the Hub may have in the context of research outputs.

We have ways of keeping control!

The Archives Hub has been putting itself about a bit over the past couple of years…by which I mean that we are becoming distributed. We have around 150 contributors, who provide us with their archive descriptions, and through the medium of EAD and our search and retrieval software, Cheshire, we make these available for cross-searching.

The role of the Archives Hub is to facilitate dissemination of information and therefore promote use of archives as widely as possible to enhance all kinds of research. But at the same time we have sought to be transparent in what we do and how we do it, and we have always emphasised that the data belongs to the contributors. What we don’t want them to feel is that once they pass their descriptions on to us that is pretty much that…it’s out of their hands. We like to think that we’ve avoided this by continuing to maintain personal contact with contributors, providing news and updates, being generally approachable…and sending out mugs and fun Christmas cards!

I find the whole issue of control very interesting. There are so many levels on which we can think about it now – the control of archive descriptions, the control of archives (getting into issues of preservation vs. access), the control that can come from understanding technology, and how far archivists have to understand technology in this day and age in order to have control, and also the issue of control with the advent of ‘Web 2.0‘ and user-generated content.

What we want to do is facilitate contributors having responsibility for their data, and one way of doing this is to enable them to host their own data and administer it themselves. As well as providing them with the software to do this, they can create their own web interface and give it a look and feel that they are happy with. This means that researchers (and archivists) still have the advantages of the Archives Hub as a central cross-searching facility as well as the means to search just the descriptions of one repository.

We will be moving to a new version of our software soon (Cheshire 3) and this will be particularly well suited to this distributed environment. However, that doesn’t mean that we will be pressing all of our contributors to set up their own server – we are still more than happy to host their data here at Manchester, and they have the added advantage of a data editor to check their descriptions and provide advice and support (which we are happy to do for the distributed contributors as well). But whether the data is here or held by the contributor, we want to continue to act as a facilitator rather than a controller.

I do wonder whether it is useful to talk about control of the data anyway – I think that we are moving towards a scenario where the movement of data will become more fluid, and we will want to provide access in more flexible ways. Maybe ‘control’ really means the ability to ensure that the archival descriptions are accurate and reliable – which generally relies upon the authority of the archivist – rather than implying that the channels of dissemination must be limited. What we want is one authoritative version of the description with any number of ways to actually get that information to the people out there.

Image: from Flickr courtesy of Telstar Logistics