New ways of learning

With the advent of Web 2.0 people are communicating, sharing and learning in new ways. Essentially Web 2.0 is about flexible applications that are consumer orientated, lightweight, simple, informal and interoperable. You may have come across Flickr, Del.icio.us, MySpace, and various other applications (there are zillions of them out there). Jane has recently been looking at 43things, which provides a place for people to express their interests and ambitions and to team up with others with the same goals to set targets and discuss issues.

Yesterday Jane went to a very interesting talk by Scott Wilson of CETIS about Web 2.0 and how it might influence learning within the higher and further education communities. It seems that Web 2.0 heralds a move away from heavyweight, industrial-scale services to smaller, flexible services that provide people with a greater sense of individual ownership. We also like the idea that these services blur the boundaries between learning, which can be considered formal and structured, and leisure interests. Jane’s aims on 43things include both practising yoga regularly and learning XSLT.

The Archives Hub has been looking to embrace these new technologies. We have RSS for feeds for our Collection of the Month, and needless to say we also have a blog. We are currently looking at providing modules that people can use in ‘mash-ups’. If that means nothing to you (and it didn’t mean anything to us until recently), the idea is that people combine content and services in ways that suit them. For example, rather than coming to the Hub website to search, they can incorporate a Hub search facility within their own personalised page. We have now created modules to enable people to do this for their own personalised home pages with netvibes and Google homepage.

There are clearly questions, problems and challenges with Web 2.0, but it is a reality and it is a very interesting and exciting new era. Any move towards simplicity, flexibility and the creation of global communities for sharing and learning can’t be bad.

There’s a really good introduction to Web 2.0 in the archival context in a talk by Peter Van Garderen which he gave at the recent Association of Canadian Archivists conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland. If you’ve got a spare half-hour, we can highly recommend the webcast of the talk on Peter’s site. Peter is doing a PhD on access to digital archives, and has some excellent ideas about the ways in which archives can take part in the future digital landscape.

Reaching users

Friday’s JISC/CNI meeting had a distinct theme of getting content out to the users, wherever they happen to be, rather than expecting users to come and spend time on our carefully-crafted websites. We had a meeting of members of the MIMAS bibliographic team members yesterday, called by Jane to talk about issues surrounding personalisation in online services, in preparation for a meeting about it that she’s going to next week.

Jane showed us Netvibes, which allows you to personalise your own Netvibes page with a range of news feeds, search boxes, images from flickr.com and so on. It’s pretty easy to develop new modules for this service, and we’ve made an Archives Hub search box available for inclusion, if you’re a user of Netvibes. This is basically the code for the search box that’s already published on the Hub website, with some extra Netvibes-specific code wrapped around it. This is just an experiment really, but presenting services within users’ own environments seems to be an increasingly important way of reaching out to them.

Archives Hub Netvibes search box

Resource Discovery Review

Spent today at the JISC/CNI meeting in York. A very interesting day, with some excellent speakers. Nicky Ferguson gave an overview of the Resource Discovery Review, which is reporting on the Archives Hub and three other services (Copac, Zetoc and SUNCAT). His summary included information about the survey results. This included the fact that the surveys suggested that 50% of users of these services are librarians or archivists.

The trouble with this, is that I think that the data was somewhat skewed by the way the survey was promoted. A message about the surveys was sent to the JISCmail LIS-LINK list on 16 May 2006. This list has over 750 subscribers, mainly librarians. We also circulated the URL for the Hub survey on the Hub contributors’ list (c.100 archivists and librarians). It is much easier to contact these users than to get in touch with our ‘academic’ users: there isn’t a single list you can use to send a message to the academic researchers.

So although the survey feedback might suggest that our users are mainly archivists or librarians, I am fairly sure that this is more a result of the way that the survey was promoted than a reflection of actual use. My gut feeling is also that librarians and archivists have a sense of ownership of these services which makes them more willing to support them by filling in the survey. I’ve got absolutely no evidence for this though!

Left on the shelf?

I listened to a really interesting talk yesterday ‘Ontology is Overrated’ by Clay Shirkey – http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail470.html.

His main point was that we are sticking to old habits of classification in an online world, even though these habits were brought about by the physical constraints of the shelf, which are no longer applicable. In a physical environment our real goal was to optimise the physical storage and not the intellectual aspect. In reality, ideas can be all over the place, but a book (or archive) has to be one place. He compared the approach of Yahoo to Google: Yahoo persisted with categories and limited cross-references, and Google gave up on the idea of classifying by subject and just went with the principle ‘you stick in your search terms and we’ll find relevant stuff’, and Google has now practically taken over the search engine world. Clay believes that ontologies only work well if you have a limited amount of stuff, if it is clear and if it is stable. Classification schemes effectively mean that we describe something and then ask users to guess how we’ve described it. We should be moving away from all or nothing categorisations. The reality of folksonomies, used in popular services such as del.icio.us, is that each individual categorisation scheme is worth less, but there are many many more of them. If we can find way of creating value by rolling them up over time they will come to outpace professional categorisation schemes, particularly re. robustness and costs.

“Does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world?”

He concluded that if we are to make sense of the world, then there are many points of view and we shouldn’t privilege one version. We can try to make sense of rolling up what is out there to get an aggregate value, but without having an ontological goal and without trying to get a perfect view of the world.

Well, its all food for thought. I do believe that we need to think differently in an online world, and we are going to have to embrace the interactive nature of the Web – many users like services where they have control and they can tag their own content. However, I think that doing away with the idea of professional categorisation is going too far the other way. We need to find imaginative ways to work with both approaches and get the best for all types of user.

Both a sp

Had a meeting in Aberystwyth yesterday with some archivists who work for higher education institutions in Wales. Some are interested in using the Spokes software to host their multi-level finding aids. It soon became clear that the attitude of their respective IT departments had a lot of influence on the likelihood of their adopting the software. One institution faced a long wait before the software could be installed, while another’s IT section was willing to set a machine up almost immediately, happy to give their team more practice with setting up a Linux server.

Much of the discussion revolved around the problem of obtaining funding for creating those multi-level descriptions. It is widely felt that getting money for cataloguing projects is increasingly difficult, despite the widespread need for the backlogs to be tackled. Catalog Cymru is a project that has recently started in Wales to assess the significance and extent of uncatalogued materials held in 22 repositories in the country.

Another point of discussion was whether the Archives Network Wales would be able to host full finding aids in the future, as this is a purely collection-level service at present. Again, the answer will depend on the availability of future funding.

I think that the title to this entry reads ‘Hub and Spokes’ in Welsh, but please let me know if that’s wrong!

End of an era


Elizabeth Danbury, responsible for training generations of archivists in the UK, at the University of Liverpool and, more recently, at University College London, announced her retirement during a presentation at the FARMER conference for archival educators in Aberystwyth last week. Elizabeth gave a very entertaining presentation at the conference about the changes in archival education in the UK over the last thirty years, ending with the observation that the future is ‘promising and challenging – Good Luck!’.

Strategic Review of Archives Hub

The Archives Hub is currently undergoing a review as part of a more wide-ranging look at of JISC-funded resource discovery services. If you would like to contribute, please take a few moments to complete the questionnaire which has been drawn up by the team undertaking the review.

This survey has now been closed. Thanks if you contributed – we had some very positive feedback: more on that later.

Training new archivists

View of Aberystwyth from Constitution HillJane and I had a great day yesterday in Aberystwyth, training the proto-archivists there in using XML and EAD. We’ve been given a copy of XMetaL software by Blast Radius for use in these sessions which really helps to give the students a feel for encoding descriptions in EAD.

The trainee archivists were discussing a joke I’d forgotten about:

Where did Noah keep his bees?

In the ark-hives