“The Hidden Curse of Automation” & archives

A friend on Facebook posted a link to this Los Angeles Review of Books article by Clive Thompson about Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. The review raises many issues, but as usual I was reading it with archives in mind. Specifically, this discussion made me think about the possible problem of historians and scholars relying too heavily on keyword searching of digitized archival sources rather than pursuing more old-fashioned (and time consuming) practices. I say “possible problem” because I do not know, of course, that this is what’s being done, but I have certainly heard chatter that leads me think it’s worth considering.

This also brought to mind a long-ago tweet from Patrick Murray-John, who asked “Would archivists accept topic modelling on OCRed items as a collection level description?” As I recall my response was something like, “No. But it would be a very useful resource or accompaniment to such a description.” Just as Carr (according to Thompson) is not opposed to technology, neither am I. But I think both authors raise points that are worth injecting into our discussions with all of our users about the extent to which they use–and rely on–the time-saving features that technology supports, and what information they may be missing if they are relying on it exclusively.

Innovative Practices in Archives & Special Collections: Description – Table of Contents now available

As many of you may know, I’m editing a series of books on “Innovative Practices in Archives & Special Collections” for Rowman & Littlefield. The first four books are scheduled to be available this May, and I’m pleased to be able to share the list of case studies and contributors for the book on Description:

1) “The Hive”: Crowdsourcing the Description of Collections
Zoё D’Arcy, National Archives of Australia

2) More Than a <biogHist> Note: Early Experiences with Implementing EAC-CPF
Erin Faulder, Veronica Martzahl, and Eliot Wilczek, Tufts University

3) Creating Access and Establishing Control: Conducting a Comprehensive Survey to Reveal a Hidden Repository
Matthew B. Gorham and Chela Scott Weber, Brooklyn Historical Society

4) Step by Step, Stage by Stage: Getting a Diverse Backlog of Legacy Finding Aids Online
Eira Tansey, Tulane University

5) You Got Your Archives in My Cataloging: A Collaborative Standards-Based Approach to Creating Item-Level Metadata for Digitized Archival Materials
Kelcy Shepherd and Kate Gerrity, Amherst College

6) A Long Road: Creating Policies and Procedures for Mandatory Arrangement and Description by Records Creators
Kristjana Kristinsdóttir, National Archives of Iceland

7) Collaboration in Cataloging: Sourcing Knowledge from Near and Far for a Challenging Collection
Evyn Kropf, University of Michigan

8) Where there’s a Will There’s a Way: Using LibGuides to Rescue Paper Ephemera from the Bibliographic Underbrush
Sharon Farnel, Robert Cole, Robert Desmarais, Spencer Holizki, and Jeff Papineau, University of Alberta

9) Describing Records, People, Organizations and Functions: The Empowering the User Project’s Flexible Archival Catalogue
Clare Paterson, University of Glasgow

10) Business as Usual: Integrating Born-Digital Materials into Regular Workflows
Jackie Dean and Meg Tuomala, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

11) Opening the Black File Cabinets: Describing Single Items for Discovery and Access
James Gerencser, Dickinson College

You can access more information on this book and the others in the series and read some enthusiastic early reviews from Kathleen Roe and Bill Landis on the Rowman & Littlefield site: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780810890947.

Thanks to all the wonderful contributors and I’m looking forward to seeing all the books in print in May!


My talk from #AHA14: A Distinction worth Exploring: “Archives” and “Digital Historical Representations”

A few weeks ago I was part of the panel, “Digital Historiography and the Archives” at the 2014 meeting of the American Historical Association. [UPDATE: All papers from this session are now available online here.] As with my previous foray into a historical conference, it was an interesting experience and an informative one. Viewing how historians describe or refer to our resources, practices, and profession when talking to audiences of their peers is fascinating. The AHA is in New York in 2015, and I highly recommend that more archivists try to get on panels and attend.

When presented with the topic of this session, I was uncertain what response to take in the limited time (about 15-20 minutes, I think), so I was fortunate, as I mention in my remarks, that I procrastinated and waited until I saw the other speakers’ notes before I decided on my approach. I’m still not sure it was the most effective one possible, but it seemed to fill what I perceived as a genuine need to ensure that the necessity to “unpack” and question digital resources was explored. And since my preference is always for practical rather than theoretical discussions, I took a practical approach. The full text of the other speakers’ talks will hopefully be up soon on the AHA site, and when it is I’ll link to it so you can see the full context of my remarks. It was an interesting panel and I look forward to more discussion, both here and hopefully on the AHA site about how historians and archivists can work together to best support “digital historiography.”

I spoke without slides, and this is an only slightly modified version of the text from which I spoke. I’ve added links to the sites I reference and other sources that might be useful.

In approaching this session and this topic, I had trepidations, as I often do, about how the other speakers and the audience would be framing their conception of “archives.” In preparing my talk I read an article Josh [Sternfeld] had written for an archival journal in 2011 [“Archival Theory and Digital Historiography: Selection, Search, and Metadata as Archival Processes for Assessing Historical Contextualization,” American Archivist Fall/Winter 2011] and was pleased to see his careful usage of the phrase “digital historical representations” as an umbrella term covering some of the products created by archives, as well as a range of products created by other sources.

In approaching the subject of archives with historians and other humanities scholars, I often feel somewhat pedantic in my continual emphasis on the meaning of words. But after all, words represent concepts and perceptions of reality, and if those words aren’t clearly communicating what we intend, then it’s hard to achieve meaningful progress. What I’d like to talk about in the time I have, and hopefully as part of the discussion, is to illustrate the points Josh and Katja have made about the importance of questioning, understanding, and articulating the context of creation of digital historical representations by discussing the differences between different types of digital information sources created and used by historians—many if not most of which are often all referred to as “archives.”  In all of these cases the context of the creation of the information sources is critical to understanding the problems that may be inherent in that source and which the researcher should take into consideration. I am not a historian, but I would think that understanding why and how an information resource was created—that is to say, its context—is more valid than ever in digital historiography.

Everyone here is familiar with what for lack of a better term I’ll call “traditional” archives—that is, primarily paper-based (or non-digital) largely unique materials, brought together in repositories in aggregations either created by the originating organization or person, or by a third party, such as a scholar, manuscript dealer, or the repository itself (as in special collections).  Appraisal and selection of such materials is a multi-dimensional process, as you might imagine, with many factors involved, including sometimes political influence, censorship on the part of the creator/collector, resource limitations on the part of the repository, random chance and “acts of God.” How and why the materials on our shelves end up there is not always a straightforward story and one that is usually not captured in detail in the public description of the materials. How the materials were aggregated and for what purpose is usually described at some level in the finding aid, but documentation in this area is sometimes sporadic. I would guess most archivists believe—rightly or wrongly—that fields like “Custodial History,” “Appraisal, Destruction and Scheduling Information,” and “Administrative/Biographical History” (which applies to creators of aggregates) are not valued by most users.   To be honest, I’m not sure how often it’s even of interest to historians, or at least how often they ask the archivist about more information if the finding aid is skimpy in this regard. Anecdotal evidence from my colleagues and user studies indicate that it is not widely valued or used by users.

Again, that’s “traditional” physical archival materials, represented digitally by descriptions in online finding aids, catalog records, etc. For these materials, what has changed for historians in the modern digital age, I think is the increased expectation—and reality—that more descriptive information about materials will be made available online, and also the ability to easily create their own digital copies with digital cameras and smart phones.

Next we have collections of digitized analog historical materials—sometimes called “digital archives.” These may be topically based—assembled from holdings of many repositories, like the William Blake Archive or the Wilson Center Digital Archive, which is focused on documents related to international relations. Or they may be all from one repository—as in the recently launched FRANKLIN site, which provides online access to digitized collections from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. These collections may be created by archivists, librarians, historians, passionate amateurs, nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies.  Because these digital historical representations, to use Josh’s term, are created by such a wide range of sources, it’s critical to know about the context of these collections—including who assembled them, what their purpose was, and what criteria they used.

Often when historians are talking about archives, when I probe to see what they mean, it is these kinds of collections they are referring to. Katja’s point that it’s important to know where the individual original materials are located and where they fit in their archival context is a valid one, but it’s also important to understand where they fit in the context of the new digital collection. On what basis were items added to this collection? Why were some items excluded? To what extent is what’s being presented a subset of what’s available? Where does the metadata come from? How was it created and reviewed?  As with online finding aids for physical collections, what you’re accessing in this kind of digital collection is a surrogate—a description of that object or aggregate created by a person to represent it. Even the scan is a surrogate—although hopefully an accurate one.  Descriptions and metadata can be subjective and also subject to errors.

It seems to me as if these kinds of collection—or “digital archives” as they’re commonly called, would raise a host of questions in terms of digital historiography—some similar to those presented by online information for “traditional” archives, but many others that are different.

Yet a different kind of aggregate, also sometimes called “digital archives” are groups of born-digital materials as opposed to the digital surrogates of analog originals I just talked about. These types of aggregates, kept together because they come from a single source or creator, reside primarily within archives and special collections repositories, and consist of records created or received by an organization in the course of business, maintained by them and transferred to their associated archival repository. For example, the electronic records created by the Census Bureau and transferred to the National Archives. You can also have the equivalent of the “papers” of a person or family, such as Salman Rushdie collection at Emory, which contains the contents of his personal computers. For these kinds of aggregates archives have most of the same kinds of issues with selection, appraisal, and custodial history as they do with non-digital materials, but with additional issues raised by their digital format, as Katja noted, related to reliability and authenticity as well as how to provide access.

And last but not least, you can have assembled collections of born-digital materials—yet another category of what are termed “digital archives.” The September 11 Digital Archive created by the Center for History and New Media is a good example of this type of collection. In this case—and also with the Internet Archive—the collection serves a critical function: acquiring born-digital materials that might not otherwise survive. Many born-digital materials are more fragile than their analog counterparts for various reasons, and so some of these collections are similar in function to special collections libraries, which pull together valuable individual items for preservation. It’s also worth noting that in digital collections, copies of materials can reside in more than one collection. For example, in the September 11 collection there are copies of documents created by the New York City Fire Department (Incident Action Plans). Presumably there are also copies of these born-digital records being transferred to the official repository for the municipal records of New York City.  These kinds of “digital archives” combine the issues related to assembled collections—that is, the necessity of exploring who is creating them, for what purpose and using what methods— and those concerns related to born-digital materials as far as preservation and authenticity.

Coming back to Josh’s use of the term “digital historical representations,” I’m happy to see this broader term being used in discussions about “archives” and digital historiography. For me, many products that come under this term—like databases and sources like Google Books—would be removed one step (or more than one step) too far to be categorized as “archives.” I would consider these as separate intellectual products created from archival sources.  And, indeed, in a way, so are any of the collections in which copies of archival materials are removed from their original context and “re-mixed” to be part of a new creation—a new “digital archives” like Valley of the Shadow, to use a classic example. In fact, in a pre-digital era analogous versions of the scholarly products I’ve talked about here (other than databases) would still have existed, I think, and been called something other than “archives”—they would have taken the form of exhibits, edited volumes of letters or printed collections of documents, assembled and edited by historians or other sources. The question of why the word “archives” has been adopted to refer to collections of materials is one for a different discussion, but I do think it’s worth noting that this co-opting of the word does seem to be a rather recent development.

I hope the efforts being discussed today encouraging more rigorous assessment of digital historical representations will result in a greater understanding and appreciation of what makes archives distinct from these other kinds of products. I often fear that this appreciation and understanding is being lost as fewer historians work with “old-fashioned” physical archival collections, and do most of their work online, where it is easy to think that all digital collections are the same. The value of the collections of materials preserved in archives often lies in the relationship of the records to each other—what’s called the archival bond—which means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As a whole, the materials provide evidence about the activities of the creator.

In considering the topic of this session, I’d like all of us to consider this as two way street. It’s heartening to see archival concepts such as appraisal and provenance being discussed at an AHA session and so information flow from the archival literature to this audience, and hopefully this will continue.  On a related topic, I’m always interested in hearing how much historians actually know about either archival theory or practice. Anecdotal evidence provided by many of my archivist colleagues suggests that such knowledge is, shall we say, uneven. So that’s another topic that might be worth discussing—how much do historians know about archives and what more would be helpful or necessary to assist in their work.

But I also want to see information flow the other way, and I hope we can get into this a bit in the discussion that follows. That is, I’m interested in learning what digital historiography, that is the study of the interaction of digital technology with historical practice—what can this new field of study and you as historians tell the archival profession—and me specifically. How has the way you do your work changed?  And how can archives and archivists do things differently to assist in that?

Today’s conversation is about how digital technology has changed the way you do your work as historians, and certainly it has also effected the way archivists do our work as well. Among the most significant of those ways is in the increased workload to create descriptions and digital copies to post online, find ways to collect and preserve digital materials, and of course, actively connect with the public via the ever widening world of digital tools and social media. Digital technology has increased the user base for archival resources, meaning that the connection between our historian users and archivists is more diluted than it was in the past. In prioritizing our work and establishing our practices, archivists are trying to meet the needs of the broadest range of users. In so doing, it’s possible that the more specialized needs of historians—if indeed they are different from other users—are not being met. We need to keep an ongoing dialog between our two professions to ensure that we’re all working together as effectively as possible to support the historical enterprise.

I look forward to discussing both archival theory and practice, and hopefully historical practice as well, in the discussion that follows, and in many subsequent conversations.

Again, update: All papers are now available on Michael J. Kramer’s blog.

Guest post: Megan McShea responds to “Does the Creation of EAD Finding Aids Inhibit Archival Activities?”

Below is a response to “Does the Creation of EAD Finding Aids Inhibit Archival Activities?,” a post by Joshua Ranger on the AV Preserve site. I’m sharing it on behalf on the author, Megan McShea, Audiovisual Archivist at the Archives of American Art. As always, I’m happy to let other archivists use my blog as a platform for sharing ideas and furthering the debate of important issues.

 Alright, Josh. People keep sending this link to me from your recent newsletter blast, so looks like I’d better respond. My response has gotten to be almost as long as your original post, so Kate has generously agreed to post my response on her blog, ArchivesNext.

I agree that archival audiovisual media require more intervention than most types of archival records, and I agree that traditional processing workflows can ignore their needs. Without special attention to AV, you often get poorly described media, inaccessible both intellectually and physically, and therefore more at risk and hidden as their collections get checked off as “processed.”  But I think there are lots of ways to approach this problem, and for us and any repository with an active EAD implementation as part of their workflow, EAD finding aids have a big role to play.

I think we may be dealing with a problem of talking across communities of practice, here. Media-specific archives whose systems are friendlier towards item-level cataloging (or even sub-item level access) don’t see the utility of EAD, and archival repositories that are not specialized in audiovisual media, but who have AV mixed in their collections, tend to look to their existing processes for the solution.

At the Archives of American Art, we do both the things you and Adam are talking about in the comments here – we create item records when we digitize, either for access or for preservation, and we create finding aids for collections which may or may not have digitized content. The digitization queue and the processing queue are driven by different factors, but truth be told, for description, the processing queue is much more efficient and effective than the digitization queue, as active as it is. Just looking at the numbers, over the last 6 years or so, we’ve managed to digitize/preserve about 1500 AV items from our collection, which contains about 15K AV objects.  10%. In the EAD finding aids we’ve done in the same time period, at least twice that many AV records have been described.

And along the way, we’ve also created a detailed inventory of 15,000 media objects in 800 collections for preservation and collection management. We don’t put that data in our finding aids because the researcher has no need for it. Description for researchers at a minimum needs to say what it is, how it relates to the other stuff in the collection, and how to access it. By getting some basic form and content information into the title, and by including a little bit about format, researchers know if they want to play it as part of their research, and our reference staff knows what we can and can’t do with it. And meantime, the processing staff doesn’t get bogged down in detailed, item-level work. Instead, we collect the detailed information we need to support preservation and collection management on accession of a collection with media, and the database we use to capture that information is used to generate our preservation queue, which is used to create grant projects and support collection-wide activities like planning for cold storage, for instance.

And whether or not you’re familiar with the standard, EAD is here to stay. A recent pre-survey of moving image catalogers, done as part of the update to the AMIA cataloging practice compendium, showed that 31% of moving image catalogers worked at institutions that use EAD. EAD has wide international use and free tools for implementation and the support of the archival community. For us, and I suspect for many collections that are not solely comprised of audiovisual recordings, online finding aids are going to continue to be the primary descriptive tool for our collections. So media in collections are going to get described in EAD, whether or not they get described at the item level as well as a result of digitization.

The real problem in my opinion is that the EAD as written doesn’t provide any guidance for how to describe audiovisual media, so media in collections described in EAD often aren’t described accurately or adequately. The revision coming out this year, EAD3, looks promising for improvement in that area (and a study group is forming that seems like just the right forum for improving media description as the new version is implemented). In the meantime, we’ve been working on guidelines for our processing archivists that are standards compliant and allow us to describe AV in our collections to what I believe is a minimally acceptable level, and to do it consistently and in a standards-compliant way. Last year those guidelines were adopted Smithsonian-wide via the implementation of Archivist’s Toolkit. I routinely get asked for them by other repositories. (Here’s a link to a draft if anyone’s interested).

A couple of things I wanted to point out, too, in response to your blog post. Most archives that create finding aids have collection-level MARC records in their catalogs that link out to the finding aid, so the main catalog does provide access to finding aids, generally speaking. Also, many repositories have found ways to make their finding aids discoverable via web searches, including ours. Try searching for Ad Reinhardt, for example. As of this writing, Google gives our finding aid as the third result. It takes a little doing to make that happen, but it’s do-able, and it’s do-able because EAD is such a portable structure for descriptive metadata.

And with developments like EAC-CPF and research going on around EAD content discoverability, it’s only going to get better. A recent webinar hosted by OCLC Research came with a follow-up e-mail noting a lot of smart people experimenting to see what you can do with EAD structured data. Check out ArchivesGrid, SNAC, findingaids.priceton.edu, etc. Not to mention the awesome regional portals, OAC, NWDA, MWDL, among others (see the appendix of this document, for example). There’s lots of evidence that people like finding aids, too. An Ithaka S+R user study of historians last year found that the number one thing historians want more of from archives is online finding aids.

In light of this widespread adoption and appreciation for their utility by researchers, I think it makes sense for moving image and sound archivists to improve the standard to make sure it serves our collections better than it has in the past.

There are lots of ways to solve the AV access and preservation problem, and different solutions will work in different contexts. In our experience, that is, in a manuscript repository with large, mixed-media collections, EAD is the most efficient descriptive tool for making media in collections intellectually and physically accessible.


Metadata is a foreign concept? Whaaaat?!? (Part Two) – A guest post by Greg Bak

[This is the second guest post by Greg Bak, Archival Studies, Department of History, University of Manitoba.]

Thanks again to Kate for agreeing to publish my presentation on her blog. In Part One of this guest post I discuss some of the Twitter reaction to my talk; in Part Two I include the slides and speaking notes from my talk.

This second part of my guest post is to set out a bit of the context for my presentation, and to provide the slides and speaking notes, which you can access here: Bak_SAA13_s701.

Update, December 18, 2013: At Greg’s request his slides are no longer accessible as he is expanding on his ideas for a lengthier discussion in a journal article. If you would like a copy of the slides, please contact him at  Greg.Bak@umanitoba.ca.

My presentation was the third of three in SAA 2013 session 701. The session was titled “It’s All About the Items: Digital Objects and Aggregations in Archival Description and Access.” My co-presenters, Kelcy Shepherd of Amherst College and Kat Timms of Library and Archives Canada, had just spoken to the challenges posed by item-level metadata within archival theory and practice.

I chose to build on Kelcy’s and Kat’s talks while providing a different conceptual framework. Following their talks meant that I didn’t have to get into the question of why archives must manage item-level metadata: Kelcy had just discussed this with reference to made-digital records, and Kat had done so with reference to born-digital records.

This is a point that I have addressed in an earlier article (Bak and Armstrong 2008). Digital preservation and digital management require that archives create or capture item-level metadata. My presentation is in no way intended to ignore this basic fact of digital archiving. Instead, I focused on the nature of items and aggregations within archival theory in contrast with bibliographic theory.

The presentation was to take only 20 minutes. It lacks the nuance and depth of evidence that I will include in the manuscript that I submit for peer review.  Additionally, I was not able to build upon the basic foundations laid out in this presentation to examine how reconceptualizing archival data could allow us to reimagine not just the description, discovery and access of archival records, but other archival functions as well, including appraisal, preservation and outreach.  Some of these implications are addressed in a piece I published in Archival Science in 2012, while others emerged in the panel discussion after the talk.

As I revise the presentation for publication I welcome your thoughts and comments about the ideas included here. Please feel free either to comment below this blog post or to contact me by email: greg.bak@umanitoba.ca.


Bak G (2012) Continuous classification: capturing dynamic relationships among digital information resources. Archival Science 12.3:287-318.

Bak G, Armstrong P (2008) Points of convergence: seamless long-term access to digital publications and archival records at Library and Archives Canada. Archival Science 8.4:279-293.


Metadata is a foreign concept? Whaaaat?!? (Part One) – A guest post by Greg Bak

[This is a guest post by Greg Bak, Archival Studies, Department of History, University of Manitoba. ]

Thanks to Kate for agreeing to publish my recent SAA presentation on her blog. In Part One of this guest post I discuss some of the Twitter reaction to my talk; in Part Two I include the slides and speaking notes from my talk.

Okay, so I’m paraphrasing here, but the title of this post summarizes reactions on Twitter to my presentation at SAA 2013 session 701. In the course of my talk I suggested that “Metadata is a natural concept for librarians and a foreign concept for archives.” Here are a few tweets that followed:

 Brad Houston:
Hmm. Metadata a foreign concept to archivists? Don’t think I agree with that at all. Used all the time, even if the word isn’t #Saa13 #s701 

Kind of getting annoyed by the assumptions made in this preso. Metadata is implicit in most description we do as archivists #Saa13 #s701 

Geof Huth:
How could say this and use the word “folksonomies” in the same presentation?

 Couldn’t figure out how he came to this conclusion. I mean, finding aids (of any kind) are metadata.

Things didn’t get much better when I went on to suggest that metadata, as a concept, is foreign to social media, too:

 Krystal Thomas:
hmm, also not sure I am buying the idea that metadata is foreign to social media though something to think about #s701 #saa13

 Andrew Berger:
Metadata is foreign to social media? #saa13

 Brad Houston:
Metadata is foreign to social media?” Um, I’ve got a spreadsheet of #Saa13 tweets on Google Drive which says otherwise #s701 

Thankfully, a couple of folks picked up the nuances and saved me from myself:

 Mark Matienzo:
From the looks of Twitter my colleagues are seriously misunderstanding Greg Bak’s presentation #saa13

 Sami Norling:
Metadata is a natural concept for librarians and a foreign concept for archivists (at least at its introduction) #saa13

 Seth Shaw:
“Metadata is foreign to social media”? I don’t buy the argument though I accept the implication: it is all ‘just’ data. #s701 #saa13

Sami Norling perceptively noted the emphasis I put in my oral remarks on archivists’ initial reluctance, in the 1980s and 1990s, to embrace metadata as a concept, while Seth Shaw evaluated my statement in light of the definition of metadata that I used in my paper. Mark Matienzo urged that people not react to my (poor) choice of wording, but take into account the ideas behind the words.

Not that I was using an obscure or idiosyncratic definition of metadata: I defined it as “data about data.” My point was that when defined in this way, the very concept of metadata requires that there be primary data (for example, a digital object or an analog document) and secondary data (data that is outside of, above or apart from the primary data).

My contention is that when the term began to gain currency among archivists in the 1990’s there was an instinctive reaction against it, followed by an attempt to re-frame it into archival terms. Adrian Cunningham, writing in Archival Science in 2001, scoffed that “When most of us first encountered the term metadata, we were probably repelled by yet another debasement of the English language by a bunch of barbarian techno-boffins.”  Cunningham presses on, discussing various definitions of the term before suggesting that “metadata is simply a new term for information that has been around for a very long time, but which now looks a bit different due to the advent of computer technology.” He rounds off his brief discussion with the claim that “archivists are metadata experts – it is just that we tend not to think in those terms,” and lists some examples of what he would consider archival metadata: finding aids, index cards, file covers, file registers and so on.

In my paper I sought to return to the initial wariness of archivists for the concept and re-evaluate this reluctance. What if archival anxiety around “metadata” was triggered not by fear of “debasement of the English language”, but rather from concern for debasement of archival theory?

This is the real issue: in archival theory, the kind of data typically identified as “metadata” is an integral part of the record. It is evidence of relationships among records and records users. It is not “meta” data; it is simply data. It is data that must be acquired and managed as a necessary part of the record. It is the data that makes the difference between a bunch of discrete, solitary items and a fully interrelated set of archival records.

This, moreover, is also how such data is managed within social media applications. Data that describes the use of information resources is not “meta” data, it is simply data: data that enables the weighting of search results, creating tangible differences in rankings, visibility and usefulness.

I am presently writing my SAA presentation for peer-reviewed publication. If you would like to see how I presented these ideas at SAA, my presentation slides and speaking notes will be included in “Part Two” of this post. I welcome any and all feedback, either in this blog’s comments or by sending me an email at greg.bak@umanitoba.ca.


Cunningham A (2001). Six degrees of separation: Australian metadata initiatives and their relationships with international standards. Archival Science 1.3:271-283.


Debate: “Although digitization is useful for accessibility, detailed online item-level cataloguing is even more so”

I remember seeing that tweet from the “‘Democratising or Privileging: the Future of Access to Archives” conference at University of Dundee last week and thinking that many in the U.S. might find it a controversial statement. I was reminded of it  this morning when Jane Stevenson retweeted it and linked to Amanda Hill’s blog post summarizing the conference sessions. To put the claim in context, here is Amanda’s summary:

Chris Paton is a professional genealogist and his pleas to archivists included a request for free wi-fi in archives, permission to take digital photos, longer opening hours and simpler user registration and photocopying policies. He also thought it was important for archives to make use of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter. Both Chris and Alan emphasized that although digitization is useful for accessibility, detailed online item-level cataloguing is even more so, especially in a time of financial constraints for researchers (and everyone else!), although they both recognized that this is much harder to get funding for than ‘sexy’ digital imaging projects.

As you can see this claim is being made from the perspective of an archives user. So I put the question to you, archivists, historians, researchers and users of archives: do you agree or not? Which is more important? I expect many of you will say that both are equally important, because of course, most people want it all. But most archives can’t afford to invest in everything so, for the purposes of this debate, which is more important, digitizing materials or providing item-level cataloging?

(And if there’s some nuance to this that we’re missing on this side of the Atlantic, please enlighten us.)


Archives who have implemented linked data?

On Twitter I asked for suggestions of archives who have implemented linked data (or perhaps I should say linked open data?). I got a few responses from people who were beginning to implement or starting projects, but not much else. Someone suggested I post a list of what I’ve found, so here it is, and of course, I’m still actively looking, so post more suggestions in the comments, please:

For my purposes I am looking for implementation at an institutional level, but if people want to post about less formal projects or other kinds of projects that might be interesting for everyone to look, please do.

A question for archivists with experience in the pre-Internet era

In a related, but different question that the one posed to researchers in the previous post, I would like the input of archivists with experience in the pre-Internet era. In the post targeted at researchers, I said:

… my hypothesis is that it is the easy and seemingly all-encompassing nature of information available on the web that has driven archivists to seek to provide online access to some level of information about all the holdings in their collections. My assumption is that prior to the Internet there was no assumption that such access would be possible, and that it was expected that there would be what we now call “hidden collections” which would have to be “discovered.”  (As opposed to today when archivists believe that our users expect that some level of intellectual access will be provided online for all materials, and that our users have an expectation that one easy search tool that reveals to them all the relevant materials across archives should be possible.)

My questions for you are:

    • Did the kind of backlogs that exist today exist in the pre-Internet era? If so, were they considered as much of a problem then as they are now (when we hear so much discussion about the need to eliminate them)? 
    • Do you agree that the primary driver in the current desire to describe all holdings at some level is the need to provide access to that information via the web? If not, what is?

Again, my thanks to you. You may think the answers to these questions are obvious, but I prefer to try to verify my assumptions. I’d rather look like an idiot by asking questions rather than by making incorrect statements. 


A question for researchers with experience in the pre-Internet era

I’d like to confirm what I think is a pretty logical assumption about the driver for changes in archival practice. To do this I would like the input of people who conducted research in archives before the glorious age of the Internet. (I am thinking primarily of people conducting scholarly or subject-oriented research rather than people interested in family history and genealogy.)

  • Do you think it’s accurate to say that before the widespread use of the Internet historians and other researchers did not have an expectation that descriptions of all an archives’ holdings would be accessible via the available research tools?
  • Was there an accepted expectation that discovering collections with relevant materials might involve several stages of discovery? If so, what were those stages? Looking in printed sources (like NUCMC), asking colleagues, following references in footnotes, contacting archivists?

As is probably clear from the questions, my hypothesis is that it is the easy and seemingly all-encompassing nature of information available on the web that has driven archivists to seek to provide online access to some level of information about all the holdings in their collections. My assumption is that prior to the Internet there was no assumption that such access would be possible, and that it was expected that there would be what we now call “hidden collections” which would have to be “discovered.”  (As opposed to today when archivists believe that our users expect that some level of intellectual access will be provided online for all materials, and that our users have an expectation that one easy search tool that reveals to them all the relevant materials across archives should be possible.)

Are my assumptions about research practices in the pre-Internet age accurate? Many thanks.

NOTE: There is a different question for archivists with experience in the pre-Internet era posed in the next post.