Archives 2.0 Conference report

Archives 2.0: Shifting Dialogues between Users and Archivists was the culmination of a programme of events held by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, based at the University of Manchester. The Archives Hub were very happy to be co-organisers and I certainly got a good deal out of the four seminars that I attended and this two-day conference that drew together archivists, academics and other information professionals.

The first session was called ‘Whither Archives 2.0’ (named in honour of ye olde archivists I feel!). Well, I’m not entirely sure that we could answer the ambitious question of where archives 2.0 may be going, other than in the general sense that social networks and user engagement in a broad sense is only going to gather momentum.

I think that presentations on difficult subjects often have a tendency to provide a list of challenges and issues, without necessarily providing much else. There was a danger that we would all talk about the problems and challenges, which are of course important to think about, but in fact there was a good mixture of setting out the landscape, considering the broader philosophical implications and thinking about the issues as well as presenting practical projects that have really borne fruit.

In my talk (slides available on Slideshare) I referred to Kate Theimer’s Archives 2.0 manifesto that she published on her ArchivesNext Blog a while back. There were no radical dissenters from this idea of a more open, participatory and collaborative approach in principle, but I certainly felt that there were differing levels of acceptance. There were certainly assertions that professionalism and the rigour of standards are still appropriate and necessary, and so maybe the balance is difficult to achieve. There were also some references to control – the need for the professional to have a certain level of control over the archive and over the metadata – a fascinating area of debate. Interestingly, we didn’t spend much time defining what we meant by ‘Archives 2.0’ (I think that I was the only one who did this to any extent). In principle I think this is a good thing, because it’s too easy to get bogged down with definitions, but maybe there were differences between those who would define it in the broader sense of an open and collaborative mindset and those who were more focused on the current popular tools that are on offer – Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, etc.

Michael Kennedy, presenting on Documents on Irish Foreign Policy was particularly resolute that for diplomatic archives such as those he has responsible for, integrity is uppermost. He was cautious of adopting an Archives 2.0 approach that might allow users to interfere with the text. He seemed to feel that this meant that he was to some extent rejecting an Archives 2.0 approach, but we don’t want to end up taking a draconian approach to what Web 2.0/Archives 2.0 means for archives and archival finding aids – we don’t have to let users add to the text just in order to tick the right box.

One thing that struck me about some of the projects that were presented was that they seemed very self-contained and very much to operate within their own defined space. It reminds me of the ‘walled garden’ analogy that Ewan McIntosh talked about at the JISC Conference this week. We are still tending to build our own environment in our own space and asking people to come to it – to come to a destination that we prescribe for them. Ewan talked about VLEs and how students are forced to go to them for course materials, but usually dash in and out and then go back to more comfortable and happening environments. To me, Archives 2.0 is partly about thinking out of the box – maybe thinking beyond the confines of a project website and considering dissemination more broadly. Its hard though, because I think it brings us back to that thorny issue of control, or lack of it. It means considering dropping traditional practices and ways of doing things that we are comfortable and familiar with. It means venturing into other spaces and in these other spaces we aren’t necessarily in control. But this can bring great rewards. I think that this is amply demonstrated by ‘Revisiting Archive Collections’ – an MLA project that Jon Newman spoke about and that I have referred to in a previous Hub blog. I will come back to this in another blog post, because I thought it threw up some interesting notions of context which will make this post just too long!

Derek Law, from the University of Strathclyde, talked about re-framing the purpose of the library. He wasn’t necessarily stating anything we haven’t already heard, but he did effectively drum home the message that libraries (and archives??) are simply not meeting the current challenges that the online world is throwing up. It reminded me of a recent Horizon programme on the BBC about how people react to disasters. Whilst the threat to libraries may not be quite of that magnitude, Derek did paint a picture of librarians staying stubbornly rooted to the spot in the face of rapid changes going on around them that are going to change the very nature of librarianship and what a library is…if libraries exist at all in 10-20 years time. Whilst Derek was very convincing, I can’t help reflecting that there is another more optimistic side to this. In the UK we apparently publish more books than in any other country (sorry, can’t find the source for this, but I’m sure I heard it on good authority!). So, whilst the environment is changing and libraries do have to adapt, the ‘paper free’ world that has been predicted is not looking very likely to happen in our lifetimes.

Brian Kelly from UKOLN talked to us about the risks associated with implementing Web 2.0 type features (talk on Slideshare), and emphasised that there are risks in everything and sometimes it’s worth taking a certain level of risk in order to gain a certain level of benefit. We need those who are prepared to be early implementers and early adopters, but if we take a measured approach we can avoid the all to familiar trough of despair that often follows excessive levels of expectation. Brian referred to a framework that could be used to consider and manage risk. This does seem like a sensible approach, although I guess that we started the Archives Hub blog, created Netvibes and iGoogle widgets and started Twittering without really analysing the purpose, benefits, risks and costs in any great detail. Maybe we should’ve done this, but then I like to think that we have an admirable sense of adventure, a sense of the missed opportunities that too much naval-gazing can bring about and also a general appreciation that if something takes relatively little time to do or to set up then it might be worth taking the plunge and seeing how it goes. I echo Brian’s reference to the wonderful comic strip by Michael Edison – well worth watching.

The technology horizon(s)

The Horizon Report (2008) from the New Media Consortium provides a well-worth-reading and considered opinion on ’emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning or creative expression within learning-focused organizations.’ It lists the six main technologies considered to be key emerging technologies within the next 1-5 years, as well as looking at some challenges and overall trends.

The two technologies that are first on the horizon, likely to be in mainstream use in the next year, are grassroots video and collaboration webs. Grassroots video is something that anyone can do easily at very little cost. The feeling is that learning-focused organisations will want their content to be where the viewers are – so there will be more tutorials and learning-based content alongside music videos and the huge raft of personal content available on the vast number of video-sharing sites.

Collaboration is now facilitated by flexible and free tools that use the Web 2.0 concept of the Web as the platform – so collaboration without the need for downloading an application. It is simple to edit documents, hold meetings and swap information whilst never leaving one’s desk (although I’m not sure being even more desk-bound is such as good thing…).

The second horizon, so to speak, heralding technologies that will be mainstream in two to three years, brings mobile broadband and data mashups. Mobiles are clearly going to become more important as a means to stay networked whilst on the go (so encouraging us away from our desks!). New displays and interfaces are being developed. Indeed, at Mimas, we have been involved in developing mobile hairdressing training – so students can learn to cut and style with their scissors in one hand and their phone in the other :0)

The Horizon Report states that there is growing expectation to deliver content to mobile and personal devices. It seems clear that archival finding aids fit comfortably into this category – enabling people to use their mobile phones to search for archival sources, locate their whereabouts and find out about access and opening times. At the moment, i’m not sure that there are high expectations for this amongst researchers, but this may change over the next few years.

Data mashups combine different sources of data in customised applications. Here, we can point to a fine archival example of this – the Archives Hub contributors map . This is something we would like to develop further – maybe adding images or large-scale maps for areas where we have a large number of contributors. It does seem clear to me that this sort of combining of data could really be of benefit for archives. Maps showing the location of repositories is a clear winner, and maybe also some kind of combining of travel or transport data.

In four to five years, according to the report, the horizon will have brought us collective intelligence and social operating systems. I think that collective intelligence is certainly very pertinent for us. Wikipedia has been an outstanding example of success in this area and we now have some initiatives in the archives world, although it is early days yet. Archivopedia is the main example I can think of. When looking for this I found Archipedia – so I can only assume there will eventually be a ‘pedia’ for every subject (…yes, I just tried gardenpedia and there it was!). There must be some mileage in the idea of collective intelligence being applied to archives, and this is the sort of thing that we would like to look at in future in relation to the Hub.

Social operating systems form part of that shift in focus that is happening from content to people. This chimes in with the whole concept of Web 2.0 as putting people at the heart of the Internet – a change from an emphasis on sharing files and applications to creating and sustaining relationships. Systems should be people-led, and not the other way around. Take a look at Katherine Gould’s blog on The Social Catalog for an example of a potential social operating system.

Experimentation in the use of these technologies and practices should reap benefits, but this needs to be supported by policy and given the proper resources. Clearly collaboration is key, enabling the risks and workload to be shared, as well as the outcomes. We need to be able to create meaningful content and relevant and valuable learning opportunities with the tools that are available to us.

I believe that archivists need to embrace technology and appreciate the need to become technically literate to a level required for our work, just as for teachers and students. As the report says, ‘fluency in information, visual and technological literacy is of vital importance…We need new and expanded definitions of these literacies that are based on mastering underlying concepts rather than on specialized skill sets’.

I feel I should end on a pithy and insightful statement about new dawns and beautiful sunrises! But instead I’ll take the opportunity to mention the photo, as for a change I’ve used one of my very own…Norfolk, county of flat land and huge skies, provides a sense of never-ending horizons, and here I am on my very own path to the horizon! (…ending in a very sociable and collaborative cream tea.)

Facebook and research support: the jury’s still out

I thought it was worth posting something I’ve just been reading on another blog. The question was posed: If you could contact a librarian via Facebook or MySpace for help with your research, would you? If not, why?

This is something that is interesting to many of us at the moment – the value of Facebook to our work as archivists and in user support. This research refers to librarians, but doubtless the results for archivists would be similar. It was also carried out in the States, although I suspect UK students might have similar ideas.

The survey found that a total of 23% of respondents stated yes or maybe they would be interested in contacting a librarian via these two social networking sites, so there is some scope for this. Undergrads had a slightly higher than average percentage of 34%.

However, nearly half of the total respondents stated they would not be interested. The reasons given were various – the biggest reason being that they feel the current methods (in-person, email, instant messaging) are more than sufficient.

14% said no because they felt it was inappropriate or that Facebook/MySpace is a social tool, not a research tool. This is an opinion that has been expressed on several occassions in talks and articles I have read. I’m interested to see whether this changes as the service develops, although my suspicion is that by this time next year we’ll be talking about a different social networking service anyway!

My feeling as far as the Archives Hub is concerned is that I would still be happy to put up a search widget and to enable people to contact us via Facebook – it may be a minority but that’s fine – it just gives people another option if they want to take it.

Have a look at the survey results at
Image: No Facebook – Blessington St, St Kilda by avlxyz from Flickr (Creative Commons licence)