Hub contributors’ reflections on the current and future state of the Hub

The Archives Hub is what the contributors make it, and with over 170 institutions now contributing, we want to continue to ensure that we listen to them and develop in accordance with their needs. This week we brought together a number of Archives Hub contributors for a workshop session. The idea was to think about where the Hub is now and where it could go in the future.
We started off by giving a short overview of the new Hub strategy, and updating contributors on the latest service developments. We then spent the rest of the morning asking them to look at three questions: What are the benefits of being part of the Hub? What are the challenges and barriers to contributing? What sort of future developments would you like to see?
Probably the strongest benefit was exposure – as a national service with an international user-base the Hub helps to expose archival content, and we also engage in a great deal of promotional work across the country and abroad. Other benefits that were emphasised included the ability to search for archives without knowing which repository they are held at, and the pan-disciplinary approach that a service like the Hub facilitates. Many contributors also felt that the Hub provides them with credibility, a useful source of expertise and support, and sometimes ‘a sympathetic ear’, which can be invaluable for lone archivists struggling to make their archives available to researchers. The network effect was also raised – the value of having a focus for collaboration and exchange of idea.
A major barrier to contributing is the backlog of data, which archivists are all familiar with, and the time required to deal with this, especially with the lack of funding opportunities for cataloguing and retro-conversion. The challenges of data exchange were cited, and the need to make this a great deal easier. For some, getting the effective backing of senior managers is an issue. For those institutions who host their own descriptions (Spokes), the problems surrounding the software, particularly in the earlier days of the distributed system, were highlighted, and also the requirement for technical support. One of the main barriers here may be the relationship with the institution’s own IT department. It was also felt that the use of Encoded Archival Description (EAD) may be off-putting to those who feel a little intimidated by the tags and attributes.
People would like to see easy export routines to contribute to the Hub from other sytems, particularly from CALM, a more user-friendly interface for the search results, and maybe more flexibility with display, as well as the ability to display images and seamless integration of other types of files. ‘More like Google’ was one suggestion, and certainly exposure to Google was considered to be vital. It would be useful for researchers to be able to search a Spoke (institution) and then run the same search on the central Hub automatically, which would create closer links between Spokes and Hub. Routes through to other services would add to our profile and more interoperability with digital repositories would be well-received. Similarly, the ability to search across archival networks, and maybe other systems, would benefit users and enable more people to find archival material of relevance. The importance of influencing the right people and lobbying were also listed as something the Hub could do on behalf of contributors.
After a very good lunch at Christie’s Bistro we returned to look at three particular developments that we all want to see, and each group took one issues and thought about what the drivers are that move it forward and what the retraining forces are that stop it from happening. We thought about usability, which is strongly driven by the need to be inclusive and to de-mystify archival descriptions for those not familiar with archives and in particular archival hierarchies. It is also driven by the need to (at least in some sense) compete with Google, the need to be up-to-date, and to think about exposing the data to mobile devices. However, the unrealistic expectations that people have and, fundamentally, the need to be clear about who our users are and understanding their needs are hugely important. The quality and consistency of the data and markup also come into play here, and the recognition that this sort of thing requires a great deal of expert software development.
The need for data export, the second issue that we looked at, is driven by the huge backlogs of data and the big impact that this should have on the Hub in terms of quantity of descriptions. It should be a selling point for vendors of systems, with the pressure of expectation from stakeholders for good export routines. It should save time, prove to be good value for money and be easily accommodated into the work flow of an archive office. However, complications arise with the variety of systems out there and the number of standards, and variance in application of standards. There may be issues about the quality of the data and people may be resistant to changing their work habits.
Our final issue, the increased access to digital content, is driven by increased expectations for accessing content, making the interface more visually attractive (with embedded images), the drive towards digitisation and possibly the funding opportunities that exist around this area. But there is the expense and time to consider, issues surrounding copyright, the issue of where the digital content is stored and issues around preservation and future-proofing.
The day ended with a useful discussion on measuring impact. We got some ideas from contributors that we will be looking at and sharing with you through our blog. But the challenges of understanding the whole research life-cycle and the way that primary sources fit into this are certainly a major barrier to measuring the impact that the Hub may have in the context of research outputs.

A very rare thing!

Yesterday I went to a meeting organised by the CURL Research Support Task Force (the Consortium of University Research Libraries in the British Isles, maybe best known for Copac, the online public access catalogue for CURL libraries).

This blog is inspired by the first talk, which was by Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library. His subject was ‘The next 10 years’, always something that gets the brain firing off in many and various directions. One of the things that I particularly liked about the talk was his generally positive take on the outlook for Special Collections (usually rare books, manuscripts and archives and maybe other unique artifacts). When institutions are thinking about their priorities, one of the main drivers in this age of increasingly ubiquitous access to electronic information is going to be what makes their institution stand out – what makes them unique. Well, one of the selling points here has got to be the Special Collections, which are by definition unique and rare materials.

Richard pointed to the strategic aims of Emory University over the next 5 years they just have 3 aims digital innovations, a customer-centered library and special collections. If more universities in this country could see the sense in putting special collections at the forefront of their development strategies in this way we would really be getting somewhere!

Richard talked about the EEBO effect (Early English Books Online). This makes finding material very easy, but what are the implications for physical access? Will institutions start to become less inclined to plug gaps in their rare books collections as the electronic version is so easily available via EEBO?

Manuscripts and archives are a slightly different case to books because they are pretty much always completely unique. Maybe there will be a shift here to the idea of supporting new research areas, not just building on the same areas that the collections traditionally cover, to reflect the new research areas that are now developing. However, we are in an increasingly competitive environment, where our esteemed US colleagues (at least some of them) can often afford to purchase archive collections where we cannot. Maybe we need to counter this to some extent by being more collaborative across our special collections. A point that I had not thought about before is that digital material will increasingly become a valuable commodity, and we will need to think about buying a digital archive in the same way as we may have to bid for more traditional archives. Creators of this material will become more aware of its value and may start to think more about exactly where it is held they cannot easily make money from it if it is stored on a server elsewhere.

Richard pointed to the growing interest in visual materials, which surely will increase over the next 10 years. The Archives Hub team are well aware of this and are developing support for displaying and linking to digital images and surrogates. Equally, archives will become increasingly born-digital, so we can link to the real thing. He referred to the Barbara Castle collection that the Bodleian recently acquired, which included 3 PCs as well as the usual boxes of books and papers. When considering how we deal with digital collections, there must be some benefits to be derived from working more closely with Institutional Repositories, which are now pretty high profile within the HE sector there should be a good fit here with Special Collection materials.

Another positive note sounded by Richard was his belief in the growing awareness of the value of evidence he sees a move from the value of theory back to the value of evidence. Undergraduates seem to be more likely to be producing dissertations than they were and therefore there are opportunities for us to inculcate the value of archives to them.

Marketing strategies are becoming increasingly important the Hub team are well aware of this and very keen to develop our own strategy and get ourselves more out there and engaged with users and potential users of the materials (anyone got any good ideas about engaging academics??). One way of doing this is to use such things as blogs, podcasts and other social networking possibilities, which are likely to become more important, and clearly new possibilities in this social Web area will arise that we cannot yet predict.

To sound a rather less positive note, Richard made the observation that grant-giving bodies are not really giving grants for cataloguing anymore. It is something of a mystery to me why this should be, as it is at the heart of opening up access. They will often give grants for education and interpretation, but not to actually enable archivists to get the material to the point where it can be used in this way. The grants that JISC has given to the Archives Hub in the past to enable us to fund contributors had a huge impact on opening up collections, and as a colleague said to me, the Hub helped to shape the strategy of collection-level cataloguing as a result of this.

Overall, Richards talk made me feel positive about the way forward and I felt a real sense that the Archives Hub can play an important role in continuing to open up collections, raise the profile of archives and special collections and look for innovative and imaginative ways to engage our audience.

Image: from Mark Drasutis photos on Flickr ( Creative Commons licence),