Blowing the dust off Special Collections

Guest Blog Post by John Hodgson

Mimas works on exciting and innovative projects all the time and we wanted Hub blog readers to find out more about the SCARLET project, where Mimas staff, academics from the University of Manchester and the archive team at John Rylands University Library are exploring how Augmented Reality can bring resources held in special collections to life by surrounding original materials with digital online content.

The Project

Special Collections using Augmented Reality to Enhance Learning and Teaching (SCARLET)

SCARLET addresses one of the principal obstacles to the use of Special Collections in teaching and learning – the fact that students must consult rare books, manuscripts and archives within the controlled conditions of library study rooms. The material is isolated from the secondary, supporting materials and the growing mass of related digital assets. This is an alien experience for students familiar with an information-rich, connected wireless world, and is a barrier to their use of Special Collections.

The SCARLET project will provide a model that other Special Collections libraries can follow, making these resources accessible for research, teaching and learning. If you are interested in creating similar ‘apps’ and using the toolkit created by the team then please get in touch.


SCARLET Twitter:

The Blog Post

Blowing the dust off Special Collections

The academic year is now in full swing and JRUL Special Collections staff are busy delivering ‘close-up’ sessions and seminars for undergraduate and postgraduate students.

A close-up session typically involves a curator and an academic selecting up to a dozen items to show to a group of students. The items are generally set out on tables and everyone gathers round for a discussion. It is a real thrill for students to see Special Collections materials up close, and in some circumstances to handle the items themselves. The material might be papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt, medieval manuscripts, early printed books, eighteenth-century diaries and letters, or modern literary archives: the range of our Special Collections is vast.

Dante Seminar

Dr Guyda Armstrong shows her students a selection of early printed editions of Dante.

From our point of view, it’s really rewarding and enlightening to work alongside enthusiastic teachers such as Guyda Armstrong, Roberta Mazza and Jerome de Groot. The ideal scenario is a close partnership between the academic and the curator. Curators know the collections well, and we can discuss with students the materiality of texts, technical aspects of books and manuscripts, the context in which texts and images were originally produced, and the afterlife of objects – the often circuitous routes by which they have ended up in the Rylands Library. Academics bring to the table their incredible subject knowledge and their pedagogical expertise. Sparks can fly, especially when students challenge what they are being told!

This week I have been involved in close-up sessions for Roberta Mazza’s ‘Egypt in the Graeco-Roman World’ third-year Classics course, and Guyda Armstrong’s ‘Beyond the Text’ course on Dante, again for third-year undergraduates. Both sessions were really enjoyable, because the students engaged deeply with the material and asked lots of questions. But the sessions also reinforced my belief that Augmented Reality will allow us to do so much more. AR will make the sessions more interactive, moving towards an enquiry-based learning model, where we set students real questions to solve, through a combination of close study of the original material, and downloading metadata, images and secondary reading, to help them interrogate and interpret the material. Already Dr Guyda Armstrong’s students have had a sneak preview of the Dante app, and I’m look forward to taking part in the first trials of the app in a real teaching session at Deansgate in a few weeks’ time.

For many years Special Collections have been seen by some as fusty and dusty. AR allows us to bring them into the age of app.

Archives 2.0 Conference report

Archives 2.0: Shifting Dialogues between Users and Archivists was the culmination of a programme of events held by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, based at the University of Manchester. The Archives Hub were very happy to be co-organisers and I certainly got a good deal out of the four seminars that I attended and this two-day conference that drew together archivists, academics and other information professionals.

The first session was called ‘Whither Archives 2.0’ (named in honour of ye olde archivists I feel!). Well, I’m not entirely sure that we could answer the ambitious question of where archives 2.0 may be going, other than in the general sense that social networks and user engagement in a broad sense is only going to gather momentum.

I think that presentations on difficult subjects often have a tendency to provide a list of challenges and issues, without necessarily providing much else. There was a danger that we would all talk about the problems and challenges, which are of course important to think about, but in fact there was a good mixture of setting out the landscape, considering the broader philosophical implications and thinking about the issues as well as presenting practical projects that have really borne fruit.

In my talk (slides available on Slideshare) I referred to Kate Theimer’s Archives 2.0 manifesto that she published on her ArchivesNext Blog a while back. There were no radical dissenters from this idea of a more open, participatory and collaborative approach in principle, but I certainly felt that there were differing levels of acceptance. There were certainly assertions that professionalism and the rigour of standards are still appropriate and necessary, and so maybe the balance is difficult to achieve. There were also some references to control – the need for the professional to have a certain level of control over the archive and over the metadata – a fascinating area of debate. Interestingly, we didn’t spend much time defining what we meant by ‘Archives 2.0’ (I think that I was the only one who did this to any extent). In principle I think this is a good thing, because it’s too easy to get bogged down with definitions, but maybe there were differences between those who would define it in the broader sense of an open and collaborative mindset and those who were more focused on the current popular tools that are on offer – Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, etc.

Michael Kennedy, presenting on Documents on Irish Foreign Policy was particularly resolute that for diplomatic archives such as those he has responsible for, integrity is uppermost. He was cautious of adopting an Archives 2.0 approach that might allow users to interfere with the text. He seemed to feel that this meant that he was to some extent rejecting an Archives 2.0 approach, but we don’t want to end up taking a draconian approach to what Web 2.0/Archives 2.0 means for archives and archival finding aids – we don’t have to let users add to the text just in order to tick the right box.

One thing that struck me about some of the projects that were presented was that they seemed very self-contained and very much to operate within their own defined space. It reminds me of the ‘walled garden’ analogy that Ewan McIntosh talked about at the JISC Conference this week. We are still tending to build our own environment in our own space and asking people to come to it – to come to a destination that we prescribe for them. Ewan talked about VLEs and how students are forced to go to them for course materials, but usually dash in and out and then go back to more comfortable and happening environments. To me, Archives 2.0 is partly about thinking out of the box – maybe thinking beyond the confines of a project website and considering dissemination more broadly. Its hard though, because I think it brings us back to that thorny issue of control, or lack of it. It means considering dropping traditional practices and ways of doing things that we are comfortable and familiar with. It means venturing into other spaces and in these other spaces we aren’t necessarily in control. But this can bring great rewards. I think that this is amply demonstrated by ‘Revisiting Archive Collections’ – an MLA project that Jon Newman spoke about and that I have referred to in a previous Hub blog. I will come back to this in another blog post, because I thought it threw up some interesting notions of context which will make this post just too long!

Derek Law, from the University of Strathclyde, talked about re-framing the purpose of the library. He wasn’t necessarily stating anything we haven’t already heard, but he did effectively drum home the message that libraries (and archives??) are simply not meeting the current challenges that the online world is throwing up. It reminded me of a recent Horizon programme on the BBC about how people react to disasters. Whilst the threat to libraries may not be quite of that magnitude, Derek did paint a picture of librarians staying stubbornly rooted to the spot in the face of rapid changes going on around them that are going to change the very nature of librarianship and what a library is…if libraries exist at all in 10-20 years time. Whilst Derek was very convincing, I can’t help reflecting that there is another more optimistic side to this. In the UK we apparently publish more books than in any other country (sorry, can’t find the source for this, but I’m sure I heard it on good authority!). So, whilst the environment is changing and libraries do have to adapt, the ‘paper free’ world that has been predicted is not looking very likely to happen in our lifetimes.

Brian Kelly from UKOLN talked to us about the risks associated with implementing Web 2.0 type features (talk on Slideshare), and emphasised that there are risks in everything and sometimes it’s worth taking a certain level of risk in order to gain a certain level of benefit. We need those who are prepared to be early implementers and early adopters, but if we take a measured approach we can avoid the all to familiar trough of despair that often follows excessive levels of expectation. Brian referred to a framework that could be used to consider and manage risk. This does seem like a sensible approach, although I guess that we started the Archives Hub blog, created Netvibes and iGoogle widgets and started Twittering without really analysing the purpose, benefits, risks and costs in any great detail. Maybe we should’ve done this, but then I like to think that we have an admirable sense of adventure, a sense of the missed opportunities that too much naval-gazing can bring about and also a general appreciation that if something takes relatively little time to do or to set up then it might be worth taking the plunge and seeing how it goes. I echo Brian’s reference to the wonderful comic strip by Michael Edison – well worth watching.

The Archives 2.0 Hub

No…we’re not thinking of changing the name…but I am thinking about a presentation that I’m giving on the Archives Hub in the context of ‘Archives 2.0’.

We’ve been doing a great deal of work recently that relates to the interoperability of the Hub. As part of an Enhancements Project taking place at Mimas, we are promoting data sharing, and an important part of this is work on import and export routines between services. Ideally, of course, it would be great to share data without any need for complex routines that effectively alter the structure of the data to make it suitable for different services, and remote searching of other data sources is something that we are also going to be looking at. But I guess that whilst we like to think of our service as interoperable, it’s currently still within certain limitations. It is problematic even sharing data held as EAD (Encoded Archival Description XML for archives) because EAD is really quite a permissive standard, allowing a great deal of flexibility and thus in some ways inhibiting easy data exchange. It is even more challenging to share data held in different databases. Many archives use the CALM system or the AdLib system, and we are working towards improving the export option from these systems, thus allowing archivists to have all of the advantages of an integrated management system, whilst at the same time enabling them to contribute to a cross-searching service such as the Hub.

I firmly believe that Archives 2.0, as an implementation of Web2.0 for archives, should primarily be viewed as an attitude rather than a suite of tools or services, characterised by openness, sharing, experimentation, collaboration, integration and flexibility that enables us to meet different user needs. Whilst widgets and whizzy features on websites are certainly a way to work towards this, I do think that more fundamentally we should be thinking about the data itself and how we can open this up.

Archives 2.0

I’ve just been reading the excellent entry (with many interesting comments) on the ArchivesNext blog on the subject of ‘Archives 2.0’. I agree with Kate’s position, that ‘Archives 2.0’ should be about our mindset – the principles of participation, openness, experimenting with new technologies, collaboration and exploration. Whilst we can argue over various tools that may or may not be ‘Web 2.0’ and how we might or might not integrate these into our work patterns, surely taking a more open and participatory approach should be something we can all agree on?

At the Archives Hub our raison d’etre is dissemination – we want to improve access to archives through providing an effective cross-searching service. I see ‘Archives 2.0’ as very much in line with what we are doing – implementing standards, looking at interoperability and taking a collaborative approach. As a community, we are entirely at liberty to shape ‘Archives 2.0’ ourselves, to make it something relevant to us – the label is, after all, just a label until it has an agreed meaning behind it. It should not be seen as something forced upon us, but as something that we create and progress for our own benefit and the benefit of our users.

I’ve kept an eye open for good examples of more interactive and participatory websites relating to archives, but they seem to be a bit thin on the ground in the UK. I think that the archives community might be a bit behind the Library community in this respect, although maybe that is hardly surprising given the resources that most of us are working with and the fact that many archivists are lone practitioners. It’s not easy to embrace new technologies and new ways of working when you’re struggling to accomplish the basic tasks – acquisition, cataloguing (backlogs!), preservation, etc.

I think that some of the work that we at the Hub are doing with The Women’s Library (Genesis portal) and AIM25 in terms of interoperability and data sharing is very much ‘Archives 2.0’ but the benefits of this won’t be obvious to the outside world because its not about whizzy new user interfaces, but about sharing descriptions, rather than asking archivists to create several descriptions for different services. So this brings benefits of efficiency and more content and reduces problems of version control. We’ll post more about this work as we progress it!

I think that if we can work together as a community, then the benefits of a more open and collaborative approach can be widely shared. Certainly at the Hub we are keen to share our experience and any expertise that we might have for the benefit of the wider community, and we are also keen to find out about any other projects that we might learn from – no point in trying to work out everything for yourself if you can benefit from the experience of others.