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)

UKAD Forum

The National Archives
The National Archives (used under a CC licence from

Weds 2nd March was the inaugural event of the UK Archives Discovery Network – better known as UKAD.  Held at the National Archives, the UKAD Forum was a chance for archive practitioners to get together, share ideas, and hear about interesting new projects.

The day was organised into 3 tracks: A key themes for information discovery; B standards and crowdsourcing; and C demonstrating sites and systems.  Plenary sessions came from John Sheridan of TNA, Richard Wallis of Talis, David Flanders of Jisc, and Teresa Doherty of the Women’s Library.

I would normally have been tweeting away, but unfortunately although I could connect to the wifi, I couldn’t get any further!  So here are my edited highlights of the day (also known as ‘tweets I wish I could have sent’).

Richard Sheridan kicked off the proceedings by talking about open data.  The government’s Coalition Agreement contains a commitment to open data, which obviously affects The National Archives, as repository for government data.  They are using light-weight existing Linked Data vocabularies, and then specialising them for their needs. I was particularly interested to hear about the particular challenges posed by, explained by John as ‘A changes B when C says so’: new legislation may alter existing legislation, and these changes might come into force at a time specified by a third piece of legislation…

Richard Wallis carried on the open data theme, by talking about Linked Data and Linked Open Data. His big prediction? That the impact of Linked Data will be greater than the impact of the World Wide Web it builds on. A potentially controversial statement, delivered with a very nice slide deck.

Off to the tracks, and I headed for track B to hear Victoria Peters from Strathclyde talk about ICA-AtoM.  This is open source, web based archival  description software, aimed at archivists and institutions with limited financial and technical resources.  It looks rather nifty, and supports EAD and EAC import and export, as well as digital objects.  If you want to try it out, you can download a demo from the ICA-AtoM website, or have a look at Strathclyde’s installation.

Bill Stockting from the BL gave us an update on EAD and EAC-CPF.  I’m just starting to learn about EAC-CPF, so it was interesting to hear the plans for it.  One of Bill’s main points was that they’re trying to move beyond purely archival concerns, and are hoping that EAC-CPF can be used in other domains, such as MARC.  This is an interesting development, and I hope to hear more about it in the future!  Bill also mentioned SNAC, the Social Networks and Archival Context project, which is looking at using EAC-CPF with a number of tools (including VIAF) to ‘to “unlock” descriptions of people from finding aids and link them together in exciting new ways’.

David Flanders’ post-lunch plenary provided absolutely my favourite moment of the day: David said ‘Technology will fail if not supported by the users’… and then, with perfect timing, the projector turned off.  One of David’s key points was that ‘you are not your users’.  You can’t be both expert and user, and you will never know exactly how what users want from your systems, and how they will use them unless you actually ask them! Get users involved in your projects and bids, and you’re likely to be much more successful.

Alexandra Eveleigh spoke in track B about ‘crowds and communities: user participation in the archives’.  I especially liked her distinction between ‘crowds’ and ‘communities’ – crowds are likely to be larger, and quickly dip in and out, while communities are likely to be smaller overall, but dedicate more time and effort.  She also pointed out that getting users involved isn’t a new thing – there’s always been a place in archives for those pursuing ‘serious leisure’, and bringing their own specialist knowledge and experience.  A point Alexandra made that I found particularly interesting was that of being fair to your users – don’t ask them to participate and help you, if you’re not going to listen to their opinions!

I have to admit that I’d never really heard of Historypin before I saw them on the conference programme.  Don’t click on that link if you have anything you need to get done today!  Historypin takes old photographs, and ‘pins’ them to their exact geographic location using Google maps.  You can see them in streetview, overlaid on the modern background, and it is absolutely fascinating.  Photos can be contributed by anyone, and anyone can add stories or more information to photos on the site.  One of the developments on the way is the ability to ‘pin’ video and audio clips in the same way.

CEO Nick Stanhope was keen to point out that Historypin is a not-for-profit – they’re in partnership with Google, but not owned by them, and they don’t ask for any rights to any of the material posted on Historypin.  They’re keen to work with archives to add their photographic collections, and have a couple of things they hope to soon be able to offer archives in return (as well as increased exposure!):  they’ll be allowing any archive to have an instance of Historypin embedded on the archive’s site for free.  They’re also developing a smartphone app, and will be offering any archive their own branded version of the app – for free!  These developments sound really exciting, and I hope we hear more from them soon.

Teresa Doherty’s closing plenary was on the re-launch of the Genesis project.  As Teresa said ‘many of you will be sitting there thinking ‘this isn’t plenary material! what’s going on?”, but Teresa definitely made it a plenary worth attending.  Genesis is a project which allows users to cross-search women’s studies resources from museums, libraries and archives in the UK, and Teresa made the persuasive point that while the project itself might not be revolutionary, how they’ve done it is.  Genesis has had no funding since 200 – everything they’ve done since then, including the relaunch, has been done with only the in-house resources they have available.  They’ve used SRU to search the Archives Hub, and managed to put together a valuable service with minimal resources.

As a librarian and a new professional, I found Teresa’s insights into the history of archival cataloguing particularly fascinating.  I knew that ISAD(G) was released in 1996, but I hadn’t had any real understanding of what that meant: that before 1996, there were no standards or guidelines for archival cataloguing. Each institution would catalogue in entirely their way – a revelation to me, and completely alien to my entirely standards-based professional background!  And I now have a new mantra, learned from one of Teresa’s old managers back in the early 90s:

‘We may not have a database now, but if we have structured data then one day we will have a database to put it in!’

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better definition of the interoperability mindset.

After the day officially ended, it was off the the pub for a swift pint and wind-down. An excellent, instructive, and fun day.

Slides from the day are available on SlideShare – tag ukad.