A few thoughs on context and content

I have been reading with interest the post and comments on Mark Matienzo’s blog: http://thesecretmirror.com. He asks ‘Must contextual description be bound to records description?’

I tend to agree with his point of view that this is not a good thing. The Archives Hub uses EAD, and our contributors happily add very excellent biographical and administrative history information into their descriptions, via the tag, information that I am sure is very valuable for researchers. But should our descriptions leave out this sort of information and be just descriptions of the collection and no more? Wouldn’t it be so much more sensible to then link to contextual information that is stored separately?
Possibly, on the other side of the argument, if archivists created separate biographical/administrative history records, would they still want to contextualise them for specific collection descriptions anyway? It makes perfect sense to have the information separate to the collection description if it is going to be shared, but will archivists want to modify it to make it relevant to particular collections? Is it sensible to link to a comprehensive biographical record for someone when you are describing a very small collection that only refers to a year in their life?
Of course, we don’t have the issue with EAD at the moment, in so far as we can’t include an EAC-CPF record in an EAD record anyway, because it doesn’t allow stuff to be included from other XML schemas (no components from other namespaces can be used in EAD). But I can’t help thinking that an attractive model for something like the Archives Hub would be collection descriptions (including sub-fonds, series, items), that can link to whatever contextual information is appropriate, whether that information is stored by us or elsewhere. This brings me back to my current interest – Linked Data. If the Web is truly moving towards the Linked Data model, then maybe EAD should be revised in line with this? By breaking information down into logical components, it can be recombined in more imaginative ways – open and flexible data!

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

Thoughts on context and bias

The importance of context is always emphasised when thinking about how to present archives to researchers. At a recent seminar series I attended in the beautiful town of Lewes, East Sussex (pictured), Mike Savage of the University of Manchester talked about a well-known social survey by Elizabeth Bott, carried out in the 1950s, where 32 couples were interviewed about their relationships. Much of the contextual material was left out of the resultant book, so it was effectively stripped away from the findings. But closer analysis of the survey shows that the selection of the couples themselves was significant – the notes (unpublished) reveal why people volunteered for the study. There was quite a long process of application and most people who ended up taking part had interest in the research as a social activity. This is an important piece of the whole picture and would have had an effect on the findings. The research process itself is an important part of the whole picture.

Social scientists need to find methods to extract key findings from diverse archive sources, often covering long periods. Mike referred to the need to avoid the ‘juicy quotes syndrome’ and talked in detail about sampling methods, all of which have their pros and cons. He referred, for example, to ‘trend analysis’, which strips out the contextual detail (e.g. economic indicators, studies of changing attitudes). Processes and methods get forgotten about.

Archived qualitative data does not allow this abstraction from context and hence cannot deploy representative or aggregate findings. In this sense, qualitative data may have something to teach the social scientist in terms of the importance of context.

Archivists need to think carefully about the whole picture: what they are presenting to users and what they are leaving out. The whole question of subjectivity is a complex one. The social scientist must build the biases of inquiry into their analysis of qualitative data, and this distinguishes it from quantitative data. There is a need to develop clear analytical strategies to allow rigorous yet partial examination of such data – it is important not to give a false sense of the completeness of the data.

At the seminar, there was a great deal of discussion about methodology, the bias of the archive and the life of the archive itself. A particularly interesting talk from Carolyn Hamilton of the University of Cape Town referred to ways of using archival sources to study pre-colonial South Africa. The colonial archive is itself an expression of the power and dominance of the ruling elite – so what can it meaningfully say about the indigenous population? It is profoundly contaminated as evidence, and yet by the very act of proclaiming their dominance, the rulers shed light on those they claim the right to rule. In fact, the colonial archive brims with material germane to the pre-colonial past, but it is important to think about how to approach it and analyse it. Historians tend to study the archive ‘against the grain’ in order to mine it against its basic bias.

A similar situation of bias, although in a very different context, occurs with a community ‘archive’ website such as MyBrightonAndHove: www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk. Jack Latimer of QueenSpark Books talked about how this Website has become a very successful community website where people post images, stories and comments about their local community and history. It is very active, with around 1,300 visits per day and around 10-20 comments put up per day. But of course, this is also a skewed history – maybe a history that is born out of nostalgia, and obviously a self-selecting group of people.

John Hay, of the University of Wolverhampton, gave us a very engaging presentation about archives relating to deaf people and deaf culture. One thing that struck me was his wish to have an archive that represents the achievements of deaf people within society – here we come to another sort of bias. This does, of course, sound like a very worthwhile idea, especially, as John explained, when you consider how the deaf have been treated in the past, pretty much as second class citizens and victims of an affliction. But it does raise the question of whether an archive should have a goal of celebration or creating a certain image. Should it actually seek to gather any and all materials and artefacts that reflect the history of deaf people in the UK? Or is it perfectly valid to want to create something that is intended to be positive and affirming?

Archives may be a result of discourses and may in turn mould discourses, which in turn may give shape to practices that shape the archive. This, as Ann Cvetkovich of the University of Texas postulated, could be thought of as the public life of archive. If we accept that the archive has public life, then maybe it requires methodologically its own biography. The Archive acquires a provenance, is a part of the history of institution housing it. The Archive itself could be seen as a biographical subject.