We have ways of keeping control!

The Archives Hub has been putting itself about a bit over the past couple of years…by which I mean that we are becoming distributed. We have around 150 contributors, who provide us with their archive descriptions, and through the medium of EAD and our search and retrieval software, Cheshire, we make these available for cross-searching.

The role of the Archives Hub is to facilitate dissemination of information and therefore promote use of archives as widely as possible to enhance all kinds of research. But at the same time we have sought to be transparent in what we do and how we do it, and we have always emphasised that the data belongs to the contributors. What we don’t want them to feel is that once they pass their descriptions on to us that is pretty much that…it’s out of their hands. We like to think that we’ve avoided this by continuing to maintain personal contact with contributors, providing news and updates, being generally approachable…and sending out mugs and fun Christmas cards!

I find the whole issue of control very interesting. There are so many levels on which we can think about it now – the control of archive descriptions, the control of archives (getting into issues of preservation vs. access), the control that can come from understanding technology, and how far archivists have to understand technology in this day and age in order to have control, and also the issue of control with the advent of ‘Web 2.0‘ and user-generated content.

What we want to do is facilitate contributors having responsibility for their data, and one way of doing this is to enable them to host their own data and administer it themselves. As well as providing them with the software to do this, they can create their own web interface and give it a look and feel that they are happy with. This means that researchers (and archivists) still have the advantages of the Archives Hub as a central cross-searching facility as well as the means to search just the descriptions of one repository.

We will be moving to a new version of our software soon (Cheshire 3) and this will be particularly well suited to this distributed environment. However, that doesn’t mean that we will be pressing all of our contributors to set up their own server – we are still more than happy to host their data here at Manchester, and they have the added advantage of a data editor to check their descriptions and provide advice and support (which we are happy to do for the distributed contributors as well). But whether the data is here or held by the contributor, we want to continue to act as a facilitator rather than a controller.

I do wonder whether it is useful to talk about control of the data anyway – I think that we are moving towards a scenario where the movement of data will become more fluid, and we will want to provide access in more flexible ways. Maybe ‘control’ really means the ability to ensure that the archival descriptions are accurate and reliable – which generally relies upon the authority of the archivist – rather than implying that the channels of dissemination must be limited. What we want is one authoritative version of the description with any number of ways to actually get that information to the people out there.

Image: from Flickr courtesy of Telstar Logistics