Archives in the internet age and in the media

A second instalment from the ICA Conference in Dundee, July 2007.

Maygene Daniels from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC talked about archives and users in the internet age. She made the point that simply moving finding aids from paper to the internet may not be the most effective option, and gave some examples of this. She then proceeded to compare search strategies using the website of the National Union Catalogue of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) and the Google search engine. One of the points that she made was how the results were ordered in a fairly meaningless way in the NUCMC system, whereas Google ranks in order of relevance, and seems to do this pretty effectively. She pointed out that barriers of language are lowered by Google, which provides options to search in different languages and also brings back results written in different languages. However, broader subject areas are maybe more difficult to search for using search engines like this and we also have no guarantee that these sorts of search engines will remain open and unbiased.

Maygene went on to talk about standards, referring to MARC AMC (Archival and Manuscripts Control), which was introduced in 1994 as the first attempt at standardisation and following established forms. The ISAD(G) then came along and seemed to make a great deal of sense, but she felt that with more open models of searching things have changed and she put forward the controversial opinion that ISAD(G) may no longer be relevant. She posed the question of whether the new standard for archive creators (ISIAH) is really needed at all. She wondered whether rules are sometimes created where none are really necessary and suggested that often using HTML can achieve the same results.

I pretty much entirely disagree with this opinion as I think that we need to make data open, accessible, flexible and easy to import and export into different applications. This is something that we can achieve fairly well using XML. Whilst it is not perfect, it enables us to store finding aids as text only documents, which is important for their long-term preservation, and it means that we can create XHTML for the Web, PDF for print, and use the data in all manner of ways. I certainly would agree with her that we are still learning about the online environment, which is still in its infancy, and about how best to present data.

Turning to the media, Nick Barratt, the historian of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘ fame, gave a most stimulating talk on archives and the media. From his experienced viewpoint he talked about how the media treat research and archives. The BBC have tended not to appreciate that research should actually involve trips to archive repositories. When a programme is first conceived, a pitch is made and a short and glossy pilot is usually made. At this point the minimum resources are used, the budget is often very tight and no thought is given to how archive resources might be employed. There is generally a great ignorance of what archives are and TV producers tend to want to dress the set with pretty, colourful documents and ensure that PCs are hidden from view so that they can perpetuate the romantic antiquated view of archives. They do not have an appreciation of the ways that archives inter-relate and the importance of context. They also give the impression that genealogical and other archives-based research is easy and the enquirer will get quick results. Nick stressed that it is up to us as archivists to stand up to this type of approach and be more determined to present archives in ways that we see as positive and accurate. One of the points Nick made is something that I hadn’t thought about before: the way that online searching and presenting everything as seamlessly as possible leads to the danger of research skills being eroded. On the positive side, he felt that broadcasters are improving their understanding of archives and he gave a recent example of a TV programme where research into the history of a house started with a tithe map, moved to the census returns and on to look at wills, which gives a more realistic impression of how archives are interrelated.

I enjoyed the conference and wished that I could have stayed for the whole event, especially the grand evening in Fingask castle. Still, I talked to some interesting folk and took away some good ideas, and also a very useful ‘rain mate’ (see pic), which is particularly useful in a country where it rains frequently (and I live in Manchester, so useful at home as well)!