Observations on remarks of Cecilia Muir, LAC Chief Operating Officer at #ACA2012

I’ve been behind in  posting information related to the ongoing situation for archives in Canada, but I hope to have some guest blog posts up for you in the next few days. In the meantime, after watching a firestorm of tweets about a talk at the Association of Canadian Archivists annual meeting in White Horse, I have finally listened to the audio for myself. The speaker in question was  Cecilia Muir, the Chief Operating Officer at Library and Archives Canada, who was filling in for Daniel Caron, the Librarian and Archivist of Canada who was unexpectedly unable to attend as scheduled.

Here is a link to the audio file: http://www.mediafire.com/?897x4x1h7evewxl which, as you will hear immediately, was recorded by someone in the audience. The audio quality gets better when Ms. Muir starts speaking, so hang in there. I did not listen to the Q&A, which I understand from watching Twitter was quite heated. I will leave the discussion of the decision to eliminate NADP and other budgets cuts to my guest bloggers and future posts. What I wanted to discuss here were two smaller issues that I think may be of interest to the readers of this blog.

First, regarding digitization, on which LAC is relying heavily to improve access to collections, Muir declared that in the Digital Content Strategy LAC is developing they will be aligning content selection with the government’s commemorative events agenda (set by the prime minister and his cabinet). Those events include the War of 1812, World War I, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir John A MacDonald, and  Canada’s 150th Anniversary. As noted in Twitter conversations, this decision will have an effect on the ability of scholars and researchers to gain increased access to records that are not part of this nationally (and it has been argued, politically) driven agenda. What is your reaction to this approach to digitization?

Muir also praised LAC’s efforts  toward “simplifying and accelerating our descriptive practices” and made references to (I think, the audio was a little muffled at that point) implementing practices to capture essential descriptive information earlier in the lifecycle of the records. I am fully in support of the latter, but I will be curious to hear more about the former. I’m told what this means is going from 25 descriptive fields to 10, but it’s not clear which fields those will be or what this really means. Will archivists at LAC now only have 10 fields available to them for description, or does that just mean they only be required to complete 10 fields? What thought has been given to the impact will this have on researchers?

One reason I wanted to listen to the talk was to confirm what Muir had actually said about LAC’s use of social media and crowdsourcing. She devoted some time to highlighting LAC’s commitment to and progress in using social media to enhance access and in experimenting with crowdsourcing to supplement description (although I did not hear many specifics about this). While I did not hear Muir making a direct connection between the cuts LAC has made to archival staff and the increased use of social media, some attending the talk interpreted her  as drawing a connection between the two. I jokingly said on Twitter that the next topic for debate on this blog should be whether or not active outreach to the public via social media could be viewed as an adequate substitute for trained archivists. This I think was a genuine fear at one point–crowdsource description and fire the archivists. I don’t think that’s the point Muir was trying to make, but it is the way her remarks may have been interpreted by some listeners.

So, even aside from the more explosive issues related to the cuts to the NADP and the CCA, there was much of interest in Muir’s talk. What do you think about the road LAC seems to be taking with digitization and description? Does anyone have any specifics to share about these efforts?




Links from MAC talk on participatory archives

If you were among the lucky (?) people in the audience today, here, as promised, are the links to the sites I mentioned in my talk. If you are one of the millions of people who were not there, these are the sites I mentioned as examples of participatory archives. I know there are a great many others, so I apologize if  I left out one of your favorites. I’m happy that there is an overabundance of riches when it comes to choosing examples on this topic. (At least examples that meet the criteria I use.) I’ll probably be posting my slides to SlideShare soon, or I may post them here on the blog so I can add the explanatory text that would help make some of them comprehensible. (Here’s a post about the talk I gave on this topic at the 2011 SAA Annual Meeting.)

Here are the links: Continue reading “Links from MAC talk on participatory archives”

News: Footnote is now Fold3. Does that make sense to you? Me neither. And we’re not alone

So, yes the site we all knew as Footnote.com is no more. If you go there, this is what you get, in front of the new Fold3 website:

I think the answer to “So what does it mean?” misses the point.

I have so many questions. And this post on the official blog of Fold3.com does little to answer them. Some things are clear. The new focus will be on military records. They state that clearly: “This new focus will direct our content plans and allow us to organize the site around military records.” So what does that mean for the non-military records digitized by Footnote? The blog post says: “You will still be able to access the great non-military records previously found on Footnote.” In my mind I added a phrase to that “. . . at least for now.” I mean, how does it make any sense to go to these lengths to re-brand yourself as a military-focused site and then have all these now (now) random non-military records on it? How long before those records get moved to yet another site? I mean, not that I really care as long as they are still available to the public (for a price, for the most part), but how does this make any sense? And I would guess that this means no new scanning projects of anything but military records, so there goes another way of increasing access to those kinds of records.

I found this whole thing confusing. Why? Why get rid of the name Footnote? And if you want to do that, why go with this military focus? In reading the comments on the Fold3 blog post, I found that I was not alone. Here are excerpts from some of the comments:

Continue reading “News: Footnote is now Fold3. Does that make sense to you? Me neither. And we’re not alone”

NARA Crowdsourcing Classification Reform

These days our friends at the National Archives don’t need any help from me in promoting their many social media efforts, but I think what’s happening at the new Transforming Classification blog is truly innovative and noteworthy, and I’d like to highlight it here and encourage all of you to participate and spread the word among other archivists and records professionals, as well as among people in the user community who have in classification issues.

Sponsored by the Public Interest Declassification Board, the blog is intended to provide a forum for discussion of key elements of the Board’s proposed “transformation” of the U.S. security classification system. The format? “Every other Wednesday over the next eight weeks, we will post either two or three ‘white paper’ synopses to the blog describing an element of our proposed transformation.” The public is encouraged to comment and participate in discussion on the proposed reforms through comments on the blog post for each topic. The conversation and postings will continue through May 4, and the responses received will be used by the Board as it finalizes its proposals for the President.

The first two “white papers” have been posted, and they truly are synopses, no longer than a typical blog post. The topics are Using Technology to Improve Classification and Declassification and Reconsidering Information Management in the Electronic Environment. So far commenting has been sparse, to say the least, and I know there are many, many people in the archives and records community who could add value to this discussion. This is exactly the kind of openness and participatory activity many have wanted NARA to adopt, so I hope to soon see some intelligent and probing questions and responses appear in the comments.


The beginning of real change at NARA?

Last week, the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, released to the public (via his blog) the final report of the Archivist’s Task Force On Agency Transformation. Their report recommends significant changes in organizational structure and culture, characterized by “The Six Transformational Outcomes and Organizational Change.” Anyone with more than a passing interest in NARA should read the whole report.

In closing his blog post, Ferriero asks his readers (staff, researchers, and “citizen archivists”) “are you in?” I’m sure he’s gratified that so far 65 people have responded that they are. Many of those 65 are people I know and respect (including the illustrious Richard Cox), and I am sure their responses are sincere. So, am I “in”? Longtime readers of this blog (were you reading back in January 2008?) and people who knew me when I worked at NARA will know the answer to that question is yes (or perhaps more appropriately, “duh!”). So, yeah, I’m supportive, but I think the topic deserves a little more attention than a simple comment on his blog. Continue reading “The beginning of real change at NARA?”

Good things from around the planet, and Twitter makes history

Yesterday’s big story was clearly the Library of Congress’ announcement that they will be preserving “Every public tweet, ever, since Twitter’s inception in March 2006 . . . That’s a LOT of tweets, by the way: Twitter processes more than 50 million tweets every day, with the total numbering in the billions.” The reaction from the archivists on Twitter was mixed, but I think it’s a great move on LOC’s part. You may not agree with their appraisal decision, but they believe it fits within their available resources and mission and certainly the collection has tremendous research potential. Providing access will present challenges but I’m confident those challenges will be met by highly-qualified people who believe in sharing their results and process with the rest of the archival community.

In other news:

  • Someone on Twitter (@samaramc, actually) recently posted a link to an old post on Tim Sherratt’s blog about what people are doing with the data released by the National Archives of Australia. The post is worth revisiting, especially in light of the recent interest in tapping the creativity of online collaborators here in the U.S. Also note that I’ll be announcing the Best Archives on the Web awards soon and expect to have a new category to recognized efforts like this, so if you’re doing some hacking I’ll hope you’ll nominate yourself.
  • Speaking of which there is an excellent post by Harriet Deacon over on The Archival Platform blog: Involving archive users in digitising archival collections (note that link seems a little wonky–may have to try it more than once). It’s lengthy and detailed, and concludes, “What are we waiting for?” I was happy to see she referenced a post I’d written on this topic as part of my response to NARA’s call for ideas about how they could become more interactive and collaborative. If you have other sources that discuss projects that use the public to digitize archival records, please post them in the comments. I think this is a prime area for the utilization of volunteers in all kind of archives, large and small.
  • Our colleagues at Archives New Zealand are calling for participation (via a wiki) in reviewing their Digital Continuity Glossary (Feedback wanted on Digital Continuity Glossary. As they observe: “Discussion of digital continuity issues is hampered by the use of inconsistent language and terminology. Digital ‘stuff’ is variously referred to in different contexts as records, information, documents, content, data, assets, etc. At the same time, an effective collective response to digital continuity needs to draw on expertise and experience from all sectors and disciplines.” So, they’re crowdsourcing their glossary. Please take a look and add your thoughts (we all know RPM will do so!).
  • An interesting post from the Collections Australia Network (CAN) about Repatriation and collections online.
  • NARA has released their Open Government Plan, highlighting four specific areas as part of their “flagship initiative.” Among those areas is a (long-overdue) re-design of the archives.gov website. You can contribute to this effort by participating in an online ” card sort”–see their blog for details. (Just noticed the last day for this is April 16, so you’ll need to hurry.) I was also delighted to see that among the other elements of the flagship initiative are developing a social media strategy (my Christmas wish is answered!) and “[approaching] digitization strategically as well as transparently with the ultimate goal of providing greater access to our holdings online.”
  • The Library of Congress has supplied another great resource for everyone to use, “Why Digital Preservation is Important for Everyone,” shown here on the L’Archivista blog. As she observes: “It’s an accessible non-technical introduction for people who aren’t familiar with the challenges of preserving digital materials, and a great resource and model for those of us who must cultivate support for digital preservation. A full transcript is available.”
  • I just saw this on Twitter a minute ago and haven’t had time to check it out, but it seems to follow some of our recent themes. It’s a post from the East London Theater Archive’s blog, sharing a presentation they just gave at JISC. Part of their description of their project:

    To meet this concern we are about to launch a new version of ELTA which will incorporate a forum where the community can collaborate to help others learn more. Our new website will allow people to log in and make comments, make notes on items, and help us enhance our metadata by providing more detail to our material (in a similar way to GalaxyZoo). They will also be able to help each other with questions and so on. Most importantly they will have the opportunity to curate collections and cluster material together, so we will be able to see how our users/ collaborators use and organise archival material.

    That certainly looks like a project worth keeping an eye on!

David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, has a blog

Yup-here it is:

AOTUS: Collector in Chief

That stands for Archivist of the United States, by the way. I’m not crazy about the name, but with a subtitle like: “The Archivist’s Take on Transparency, Collaboration, and Participation at the National Archives,” I can hardly complain.

Congratulations to NARA and Mr. Ferriero on this important step!

How should NARA support user contributions to enhance description of collections?

Note, that’s not “Should NARA support user contributions,” it’s “How should NARA support user contributions.” The time has come for our National Archives to start drawing on the collective wisdom and energy of the Web to enhance its online descriptions. The question is, how should that best take place?

In considering this question, I was reminded of a previous post about how the “space” in which interaction takes places affects the quality/quantity of interaction. Building on that discussion, I can see several possible ways to proceed (although I’m sure there are others).

First, allowing users to add tags, comments, and additional information to the catalog records in ARC or to other descriptive information on the NARA site. Questions immediately arise about the level of moderation this would entail, both to avoid information with no value and potentially offensive information. Does the question of moderation arise if only tags are permitted? I think it would, although it certainly might involve less time. I would be surprised if NARA would allow users to post information on their site (even if the information were clearly differentiated from NARA-provided data) if it did not go through a moderation process, wouldn’t you? This also requires that users add their information within the current descriptive structure (Record groups, series, file units, etc. and as well to the the records for people and organizations). So this option is essentially allowing users to annotate and supplement NARA’s information within NARA’s current descriptive products.

A second option would be creating a separate space, still controlled and moderated by NARA, dedicated to collecting user-provided information along the lines of The National Archives (UK)’s Your Archives wiki. The advantage of this option is that it clearly separates user-provided information from “official” information, and also allows the user community more freedom in how it structures the information it provides (at least in the wiki model, users can add pages, etc.). In such a model there might be a greater reliance on the kind of community policing one sees in Wikipedia, where inaccurate information is identified and deleted by the community of interest for the topic. Clearly this kind of site would also have to be monitored or moderated. And, of course, it wouldn’t have to take the form Your Archives does, of one large resource that is sub-divided. Smaller topical “spaces” could be established, perhaps around areas that have an active community of interest (or for which information is particularly needed).

Another option would be to directly solicit the participation of researchers in the description of materials. If a researcher is working with a given group of records, there’s a good chance he or she may know more about the materials than the description reveals. Why not provide them with a template for providing descriptive information (and guidance about what information to provide) and let them take a crack at adding more to the description provided? Yes, of course, all of it would have to reviewed and some of it might be worthless, but there are many highly skilled researchers who might be able to provide either relatively complete descriptions or at least valuable supplementary material. NARA may even have developed its own online tutorials for its staff about how to write descriptions, which could be easily reworked as a tool to train researcher volunteers.

I don’t know about the viability of this idea, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. As a way of possibly mitigating “frivolous” tags, comments, and notes in Option #1, provide a “space” that’s dedicated to adding personal or creative content to collection descriptions. A place where people can essentially have tools to remix or annotate NARA’s content any way they want. (Yes, again, within the terms NARA would have to establish to ensure people weren’t creating offensive products.) But think about the potential for that one–galleries, exhibits, videos, performances? If it actually took off it could even the kind of thing where notable examples were highlighted on a regular basis. And, while we’re at it, why not actually make this area a larger playing field and have it also draw from the collections of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress? That’s an idea, isn’t it?

But I wandered away from the issue of description. Still, providing an area for “play” might help keep the “serious” area more serious. Just a thought. Similarly, providing designated “discussion spaces” (in either of the first two options) might provide a channel for debate or information exchange other than the comments on the descriptive information.

In the comments on the earlier post I referred to above people also discussed the need to consider collaborative sites that the archives doesn’t control, created by communities of interest–either scholarly or not. “Partnering with a community, in a neutral space, as power equals” as one wise commenter put it. I feel as though I’m once again wandering away from the topic of user contributions to descriptions, but not entirely. Communities might be more inclined to share their knowledge in a space where they are “power equals.”

So, I’ve provided you with a range of options, from small steps that have already been implemented elsewhere to possibilities that might not yet exist anywhere. Can you add any other possibilities for harnessing the wisdom of NARA’s users? Which of the ideas above do you think has the most promise?

Ideas for increasing NARA openness and transparency: processing

As noted previously, NARA is looking for suggestions from the public about how they can increase the transparency of their operations as well as “Broad recommendations on how to improve public participation in and feedback on the National Archives core mission activities.” I’ve posted previously with some ideas about scheduling and appraisal, so now I’m moving on to processing. I’ve got two suggestions for this, or perhaps one with two parts.

I propose that NARA create a system which makes public the new accessions it receives (including the descriptive information provided on the SF-258), allowing users to subscribe to new updates via RSS and other means. I also propose that NARA provide a way for the public to browse descriptions of all the unprocessed materials not yet described in ARC (aka “the backlog”) and allow the public to vote or rank on which materials they would like to see processed the most quickly. I would not expect that this kind of user feedback would be the only means for NARA to prioritize processing, but it would allow people to express interest.

I think this effort may also allow the public to see just how much material NARA accessions on a regular basis and how big the “backlog” is, providing an opportunity to communicate with the public about the challenges NARA faces. Given David Ferriero’s interest in using social media for outreach, I wouldn’t be surprised to see NARA create the kind of processing blogs that we’ve seen successfully used by other archives.

I’ll talk about description in a future post (and yes, of course, I’ll be suggesting they allow users to contribute tags and other information), but for now, what do you think of these ideas? What other areas do you think need to be addressed?

As I expected, there has not been a great deal of traffic on the NARA area of the Open Government Ideas Forum, but they have had some ideas posted and I encourage you to take a look at them and vote for the ones you like best. And add your own too!

New NARA online database makes Federal schedules available to the public

With no fanfare and a minimal announcement (a comment on the NARAations blog is the only public announcement I’ve seen), the National Archives and Records Administration has made available:

a records control schedule website that allows the public and Federal agencies to browse scanned copies of unclassified, NARA-approved records control schedules. We currently have NARA-approved schedules from 1985 to the present loaded, with more schedules added weekly. For more context and information about this online resource, and to browse the repository itself, please go to our records control schedule website at: http://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/rcs/

I, of course, applaud this development since this was a recommendation I made here several weeks ago. I do find it a bit curious that no one from NARA bothered to respond to that post and let us know that such a system was, in fact, in the works and would be launched very soon, although I do know that they were aware of my comments. Can I take credit for having pushed them to make the system public earlier than expected? I’m far too modest to jump to that conclusion, but you can decide for yourself. 😉

The important thing is that the schedules are being made available, and that NARA is continuing to add to the repository. So, bravo to NARA for taking this important step in government transparency. I’m sure it will be the first of many.

UPDATE: This morning, Eric Hennekam on the Archieven.org blog also posted a story on this topic. He however has a quote from Archivist David Ferriero that appears to come from a press statement, but there is no announcement yet on the NARA press area of their web site.