The Standard Bearers

We generally like stdough cutting andards. Archivists, like many others within the information professions, see standards as a good thing. But if that is the case, and we follow descriptive standards, why aren’t our collection descriptions more interoperable? Why can’t users move seamlessly from one system to another and find them consistent?

I’ve been looking at a White Paper by Nick Poole of the Collections Trust: Where Next for Museum Standards? In this, he makes a good point about the reasons for using standards:

“Standards exist to condense and share the professional experience of our predecessors, to enable us to continue to build on their legacy of improvement.”

I think this point is sometimes overlooked – standards reflect the development of our understanding and expertise over time. As a novice jazz musician, I think this has a parallel with jazz theory – the point of theory is partly that it condenses what has been learnt about harmony, rhythm and melody over the past 100 years of jazz. The theory is only the means to the end, but without it acting effectively as a short cut, you would have to work your way through decades of musical development to get a good understanding of the genre.

Descriptive standards should be the means to the end – they should result in better metadata. Before the development of ISAD(G) for archives, we did not have an internationally recognised standard to help us describe archives in a largely consistent way (although ISAD(G) is not really a content standard). EAD has proved a vital addition to our range of standards, helping us to share descriptions far more effectively than we could do before.

But archives are diverse and maybe we have to accept that standards are not going to mould our descriptions so that they all come off of the conveyor belt of cataloguing looking the same? It may seem like something that would be of benefit to our users – descriptions that look pretty much identical apart from the actual content. But would it really suffice to reflect the reality of what archives are? Would it really suffice to reflect the reality of the huge range of users that there are?

Going back to Nick Poole’s paper, he says:

“The purpose of standards is not to homogenise, but to ensure that diversity is built on a solid foundation of shared knowledge and understanding and a collective commitment to quality and sustainability.”

I think this is absostatue of toy standard bearerlutely right. However, I do sometimes wonder how solid this foundation is for archives, and how much our standards facilitate collaborative understanding. Standards need to be clearly presented and properly understood by those who are implementing them. From the perspective of the Hub, where we get contributions of data from 200 different institutions, standards are not always well understood. I’m not sure that people always think carefully about why they are using standards – this is just as important as applying the standards. It is only by understanding the purpose that I think you do come to a good sense of how to apply a standard properly. For example, we get some index terms that are ostensibly using NCA Rules (National Council on Archives Rules for Personal, Family and Place Names), but the entries are not always in line with the rules. We also get subject entries that do not conform to any thesauri, or maybe they conform to an in-house thesaurus, but for an aggregated service, this does not really help in one of the main aims of subject indexing – to pull descriptions together by subject.

Just as for museums, standards, as Nick Poole says, must be “communicated through publications, websites, events, seminars and training. They must be supported, through infrastructure and investment, and they must be enforced through custom, practice or even assessment and sanction.”

For the Hub, we have made one important change that has made descriptions much more standards compliant – we have invested in an ‘EAD Editor’; a template based tool for the creation and editing of EAD based archival descriptions. This sophisticated tool helps to ensure valid and standards-based descriptions. This idea of supporting standards through this kind of approach seems to me to be vital. It is hard for many archivists to invest in the time that it takes to really become expert in applying standards. For the Hub we are only dealing with descriptive standards, but archivists have many other competing standards to deal with, such as environmental and conservation standards. Software should have standards-compliance built in, but it should also be designed to meet the needs of the archivists and the users. This balance between standards and flexibility is tricky. But standards are not going to be effective if they don’t actually meet real life needs. I do sometimes think that standards suffer from being developed somewhat in isolation of practical reality – this can be a result of the funding environment, where people are paid to work on standards, and they don’t tend to be the people who implement them. Standards may also suffer from the perennial problem of a shifting landscape – standards that were clearly relevant when they were created may be rather less so 10 years on, but revising standards is a time-consuming process. The archives community has the NCA Rules, which have served their purpose very well, but they really need revising now, to bring them in line with the online, global environment.

In the UK Archives Discovery network (UKAD) we are working to help archivists understand and use standards effectively. We are going to provide an indexing tutorial and we are discussing ways to provide more guidance on cataloguing generally. The survey that we carried out in 2009 showed that archivists do want more guidance here. Whilst maybe there are some who are not willing to embrace standards, the vast majority can see the sense in interoperability, and just need a low-barrier way to improve their understanding of the standards that we have and how best to use them. But in the end, I can’t see that we will ever have homogeneous descriptions, so we need to harness technology in order to help us work more effectively with the diverse range of descriptions out there that reflect the huge diversity of archives and users.

Images: Flickr goosmurf’s photostream (dough cutter); robartesm’s photostream (standard bearer)