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
I’ve just been reading an article by Elizabeth Shepherd in the December 2008 ARC magazine, asking whether research matters within archives and records management. The ‘anti-intellectualism’ that Terry Cook refers to is something that I can recognise, not least because I was that way inclined as a younger archivist. I remember wanting the MA course to give me the practical skills necessary to become an archivist, and wanting to get on with the real hands-on stuff of collecting, appraising, cataloguing and preserving, once I started work. It seemed to me at the time that this was what was important – ‘its all very well theorising, but you need to get on and do it’ kind of attitude. It took me quite a few years to realise that this was a misplaced notion. It seems obvious to me now that you need to ask yourself ‘why’ you are doing something as a fundamental part of the process.
To take EAD as an example, when I talk to students about using EAD, I think that what is most important is to impress upon them why they might use it – why it is of benefit, and, indeed, what its shortcomings might be. The ‘why’ needs to come before the ‘how’. It is so important to have a firm understanding, which helps to facilitate the proper evaluation and application of a standard. The idea of just going ahead and doing something because its always been done, or because most people are doing it, just seems anathema to me now.
I absolutely agree with Elizabeth that we have to think in terms of working on the mindset of the archivist or records manager. This is something I’ve written about in a chapter for a recent book, What Are Archives? Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader. In terms of issues like data structure, format, cataloguing, and dissemination, archivists and records managers need to understand the benefits and the wider implications of the various options available. It seems hardly worth saying that archivists should think about sustainability and think long-term (although clearly this is not always easy). We need to be open to the possibilities of new technologies and see them as exciting opportunities – which is not to say that we should adopt them simply because they are new and novel – but sticking with old methods and ways of thinking in a fast changing world may leave us disengaged, and separated from our stakeholders and users.
Whilst the Archives Hub has a very practical raison d’etre, we do also involve ourselves in research, and this is essential when you are looking to harness new technologies for the benefit of effective cross-searching and dissemination of information. Whilst we are, I am sure, as guilty as many people, of introducing the odd feature without proper critical thought about why, about the wider implications, about things like sustainability and future planning, we generally do endeavour to operate on a sound theoretical basis.
I think that it would be worth services, like the Archives Hub, thinking about working more closely with researchers on topics like the evaluation of online services, the changing patterns of user behaviour, the benefits of a National Archives Network, the use of EAD…there are many options, but all of them would be of benefit in helping us to gain a greater sense of WHY.
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.
I have just attended two seminars as part of a project on Archiving and Reusing Qualitative Data: Theory, Methods and Ethics Across Disciplines. They provided a great deal of food for thought, as seminars like this so often do. These seminars were particularly valuable because they drew together academics, particularly social scientists and archivists. Many of the participants were oral historians, and the challenges of oral history ran through many of the talks.
When archivists think about archival theory and description, they are generally thinking about archives as materials ‘created by an individual or organisation in the course of their life or work and considered worthy of permanent preservation’ (my quotes, to indicate that this is a classic definition of archives). But if we think about archives as any records considered worthy of preservation and with value for future researchers, then we can expand the definition to include records that social scientists refer to as archives. For them, archives are often data sets, created by researchers in the course of their research and then, possibly, reused.
Social scientists do not necessarily think in terms of business records or personal letters, or archives as a reflection of personal or organisational activity. They think in terms of longitudinal studies and oral histories; quantitative and qualitative data. These are archives that generally are created for the purposes of research, and so the perspective is rather different to those created in the course of individual or organisational activity. We have the UK Data Archive which has ‘the largest collection of digital data in the social sciences and humanities in the UK’, and this houses the History Data Service which ‘promotes the use of digital resources, which result from or support historical research, learning and teaching’, but I don’t think that there is a general sense amongst archivists that these are part of the archive community, in the sense that trainee archivists don’t really think about working for a data archive, and arhcival theory doesn’t appear to really encompass this type of archive. Certainly social scientists clearly see archives as both data archives (data sets) and traditional archives (archives as reflections of past activity), and the fact that the two were not explicitly distinguished during the seminars was striking in itself.
It may be that data archives require different ways of thinking to ‘historical archives’, in terms of how they are organised and managed, but now that archives are increasingly digital, and as all archives are a valuable source for research, surely there is sense in the two communities moving closer together?
I attended a seminar a few weeks ago on The Ontology of the Archive, one of a series held as part of a workshop looking at Archiving and Reusing Qualitative Data organised by the ESRC Centre for Research and Socio-Cultural Change at the University of Manchester.
Louise Craven of The National Archives began the day with a very stimulating and challenging talk on