Its a matter of research

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 technology horizon(s)

The Horizon Report (2008) from the New Media Consortium provides a well-worth-reading and considered opinion on ’emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning or creative expression within learning-focused organizations.’ It lists the six main technologies considered to be key emerging technologies within the next 1-5 years, as well as looking at some challenges and overall trends.

The two technologies that are first on the horizon, likely to be in mainstream use in the next year, are grassroots video and collaboration webs. Grassroots video is something that anyone can do easily at very little cost. The feeling is that learning-focused organisations will want their content to be where the viewers are – so there will be more tutorials and learning-based content alongside music videos and the huge raft of personal content available on the vast number of video-sharing sites.

Collaboration is now facilitated by flexible and free tools that use the Web 2.0 concept of the Web as the platform – so collaboration without the need for downloading an application. It is simple to edit documents, hold meetings and swap information whilst never leaving one’s desk (although I’m not sure being even more desk-bound is such as good thing…).

The second horizon, so to speak, heralding technologies that will be mainstream in two to three years, brings mobile broadband and data mashups. Mobiles are clearly going to become more important as a means to stay networked whilst on the go (so encouraging us away from our desks!). New displays and interfaces are being developed. Indeed, at Mimas, we have been involved in developing mobile hairdressing training – so students can learn to cut and style with their scissors in one hand and their phone in the other :0)

The Horizon Report states that there is growing expectation to deliver content to mobile and personal devices. It seems clear that archival finding aids fit comfortably into this category – enabling people to use their mobile phones to search for archival sources, locate their whereabouts and find out about access and opening times. At the moment, i’m not sure that there are high expectations for this amongst researchers, but this may change over the next few years.

Data mashups combine different sources of data in customised applications. Here, we can point to a fine archival example of this – the Archives Hub contributors map . This is something we would like to develop further – maybe adding images or large-scale maps for areas where we have a large number of contributors. It does seem clear to me that this sort of combining of data could really be of benefit for archives. Maps showing the location of repositories is a clear winner, and maybe also some kind of combining of travel or transport data.

In four to five years, according to the report, the horizon will have brought us collective intelligence and social operating systems. I think that collective intelligence is certainly very pertinent for us. Wikipedia has been an outstanding example of success in this area and we now have some initiatives in the archives world, although it is early days yet. Archivopedia is the main example I can think of. When looking for this I found Archipedia – so I can only assume there will eventually be a ‘pedia’ for every subject (…yes, I just tried gardenpedia and there it was!). There must be some mileage in the idea of collective intelligence being applied to archives, and this is the sort of thing that we would like to look at in future in relation to the Hub.

Social operating systems form part of that shift in focus that is happening from content to people. This chimes in with the whole concept of Web 2.0 as putting people at the heart of the Internet – a change from an emphasis on sharing files and applications to creating and sustaining relationships. Systems should be people-led, and not the other way around. Take a look at Katherine Gould’s blog on The Social Catalog for an example of a potential social operating system.

Experimentation in the use of these technologies and practices should reap benefits, but this needs to be supported by policy and given the proper resources. Clearly collaboration is key, enabling the risks and workload to be shared, as well as the outcomes. We need to be able to create meaningful content and relevant and valuable learning opportunities with the tools that are available to us.

I believe that archivists need to embrace technology and appreciate the need to become technically literate to a level required for our work, just as for teachers and students. As the report says, ‘fluency in information, visual and technological literacy is of vital importance…We need new and expanded definitions of these literacies that are based on mastering underlying concepts rather than on specialized skill sets’.

I feel I should end on a pithy and insightful statement about new dawns and beautiful sunrises! But instead I’ll take the opportunity to mention the photo, as for a change I’ve used one of my very own…Norfolk, county of flat land and huge skies, provides a sense of never-ending horizons, and here I am on my very own path to the horizon! (…ending in a very sociable and collaborative cream tea.)