Democratising context?

As I reported in a previous blog, the Archives 2.0 conference threw up and tossed about a whole host of issues. Geoffrey Yeo from University College London talked about archival description and how this might need to change, and he made me start to think about what we mean when we talk about the context of an archive collection.

As an archive student I was taught about the vital importance of the archival context. This is seen as providing important evidence for users of the archive, enabling them to place the materials within the context of their creation. The context gives the material meaning. We generally catalogue from the collection level down to the item level, and we tend to impose this route on our users – our websites often compel them to go to the collection and drill down to find specific items.

The Archives Hub generally takes this approach: an initial search results in a hit list of collection level descriptions. Advanced searches by default include both collection and lower level descriptions. We are very aware of the advantages of taking users to individual item descriptions, especially now that we are planning to add images and links to content. It would be great to add images to individual descriptions. One of the challenges is to present the user with collection and item-level descriptions in such as way that they understand the principle of the archival description – from the general down to the specific.

At the Archives 2.0 Conference, Jon Newman talked about the MLA London Revisiting Archive Collections project. Having struggled to find anything useful about the project on the MLA London Website, I’ll just refer to a previous Hub Blog post to describe it: “Focus groups of diverse groups of people, generally unfamiliar with archives, were set up in three different London institutions. They were asked to look at and provide feedback on specially selected archives that were chosen because they might resonate with the groups, having relevance to their lives and experiences. For example, a Tanzanian women’s group was commenting on photographs and manuscripts relating to Tanzania and a group of cleaners and security staff, many of west African origin, were looking at Somalian and Nigerian material.”

Jon gave some examples of how participants gave different contexts to images by providing additional information about them. For example, a participant commented on a photograph of two women from a Nigerian tribe. She was originally from a neighbouring tribe and remembered details about clothing and how the tribes had a tradition of gently mocking eachother.

This project essentially broke away from the archival context to create other contexts for the archives. It showed how they can have different meanings to different people, depending upon their perspective, and gave the archives new contexts that other researchers could benefit from.

My feeling is that the archival profession is moving from a situation in which we very much saw archival context as THE context to a position where we are starting to appreciate and encourage other contexts. I wonder whether we will start to accept that all contexts are, or can be seen as, equally important, or are some more important than others?

I am sure that we don’t want to neglect the archival context because once gone, it is almost impossible to recover, and valuable evidence that can aid interpretation is lost. But maybe we should be less inclined to make the archival context primary and actually think in terms of flexible access to archives through descriptions that give equal weight to the individual item, the various contexts within which that item might be seen, and the evidential value of the item as part of a whole collection?

Whilst thinking about this whole issue, I couldn’t help but reflect that there is an increasing tendency to display isolated ‘treasures’ on the Web, and actually neglect context altogether. Many websites, it seems to me, get funding to create an attractive interface to display images, but give little attention to metadata, connections, contexts and sustainability.

So, are we moving towards a myriad of contexts, or are we in danger of losing context altogether?

Image of salt: From Flickr courtesy of kevindooley’s photostream