Last week I attended the UKAD Forum at The National Archives in London. The title of the forum was ‘Born Digital Realities’. It was reassuring to find that lots of organisations are all looking for solutions to similar issues around getting digital material, cataloging and providing access. Below are my notes, in case others working in archives can take anything useful from them.
Building The National Archives ‘Discovery’: born digital realities (The National Archives)
1. Building processes to appraise, catalogue and make digital material accessible
a. How do we manage sensitivity review at scale – e.g. identifying material that needs to remain closed for data protection reasons?
b. What metadata is required?
c. Do we need lots and lots of levels when arranging, or is usability enhanced by flattening the hierarchy to an extent and retaining the provenance trail by showing the file structure in the description?
d. The National Archives are describing everything to item level. Is there a way of doing this on a lower level of resources?
e. How can I ensure that where material is accessible to the public, it is searchable and easy to use? How can I incorporate the searching of digital material text into catalogue searches on my catalogue?
Archivist and Donor –deposit and transfer (Christopher Hilton, Wellcome Library and Simon Wilson, Hull History Centre)
2. Question of ‘who owns the stuff’!
a. Issue of donors also giving copies to other institutions
b. Need for clarity about intellectual property rights
3. Fears by donors about whether information can end up online when they weren’t expecting it – need for clarity and trust over the process, how access works, how it can be limited.
4. Useful to find a few supportive people/groups to use as a pilot
5. It’s helpful if the methods of getting digital material from organisations have a mimimal impact on how the organisation works, otherwise no one will get round to it!
Archivist and User: access and reuse (Fran Baker and Caroline Martin, University of Manchester Library)
6. Dealing with email collections – library tried this with one organisation they were already getting material from.
7. University of Manchester Library sampled their ‘designated community’ to look at access, e.g. asking whether researchers wanted traditional finding aids. The ability to search and filter was important.
8. Are there alternative ways of displaying information, particularly large quantities of data, and creating ways for researchers to find what they need and to see connections – visualisations, network graphs etc – see Stamford projects (MUSE and ePADD)?
9. Challenge of getting balance right so that search results are not swamped by digital material results, in effect hiding paper material.
10. How do you decide whether to collect something in paper or digital format? What is deemed the definitive version by the creator? Having a digital version may increase what can be done with the item later on, or at least make it easier.
Syncronising born-digital metadata (Christopher Hilton, Wellcome Library and Christopher Fryer, Parliamentary Archives)
11. Both organisations linked catalogue software to their DCMS.
12. Additional catalogue fields were created (file path, date created, date last modified, preservica ref, file type, URL). Extra fields were added on a pragmatic basis.
13. Issue of how to describe extent in a way that is useful to the end user – just including number of kb may not be all that useful!
14. Try to set up workflows first, and automate where possible. Investing the time initially will help later.
15. May be useful to include something in the notes to indicate to users where a description has been automatically generated.
16. Should you change file names to something more helpful to the end user, and where do you record the original file name?
17. Aim is to integrate digital and paper collection information, so that the end user interacts with the same system for everything, regardless of format.
Spotlight on the Digital (Karen Colbron, JISC)
18. Digitised collections are often hard to find.
19. Users are typically looking for item level.
20. JISC report – ‘Improving discoverability of digitised collections…’
21. Avoid silos
22. JISC guide – ‘Make your digital resources easier to discover’.
23. The record keeping system is a whole – it is possible to rework how elements fit together within that system, and we should be thinking critically about what we do.
My Planned Actions
• Join UKAD community
• Look at process of cataloguing digital material – do I need to create extra fields, how might users search for material, how can I make the process more efficient? Is it feasible to catalogue to item level, at least with very basic information?
• Read JISC reports on making digitised collections easier to discover
On Monday I attended an interesting event in Newcastle, ‘Digital Cultures: Future Thinking and Innovation for Arts and Heritage’.
The post has ended up fairly long, so here are the top questions that I took away:
- How can I plan projects to make sure that I am thinking about the audience/end-user and how I can make it easier for them to find what they are looking for?
- How can our collections be used in creative ways, and how can I encourage this?
- How can online and offline work well together for us?
- How can I use digital to start conversations?
- How can I tap into the wealth of knowledge that Old Scholars and others will have about the collections?
- How can the material be used to bring together different groups of people, to create something new and see what emerges?
Here are a few points that I took away from each talk (as opposed to summaries of the talks).
1. Nora McGregor talking about digital collections at the British Library
- When you have large amounts of data, ways of finding information that is relevant is crucial.
- The British Library have made more than 1 million images available on Flickr, and Nora talked about the wide range of uses to which the images have been put, and about how crowdsourcing has been used to tag the images. There are more details on their blog.
- British Library Labs – encouraging people to work with their digital collections.
2. John Bowers from Culture Lab (talking about a project using a collection of natural history artefacts to create an artistic response)
- Seeing objects as raw material for artistic response.
- Using different senses, e.g. sound
- A ‘living exhibition’ – creating the exhibits on site and working openly, enabling people to see how things are created
- People learning by working alongside others
- Curiosity, and finding the detours and interesting routes.
3. Annette Mees from Coney (which mixes theatre and digital in various settings)
- Digital creates new ways of talking to people, and can expand the experience of the audience – conversations before and after an event.
- It’s always about the audience
- Creating live events that people can also engage with online.
- Using technology to make inaccessible spaces accessible.
- Start by asking what you want to achieve – who is the audience, what are they already asking about, what kind of experience, what stories are the focus?
- People want things that they know how to use.
- Working quickly and cheaply, getting feedback as you go along and telling people that you’re testing and developing.
- The first stage of discussing a project is really important.
4. Martha Henson (a freelance digital producer) talking about the power of play
- Games can be used in a way that is co-operative, and that is about the interaction between players.
- Putting people in a situation is more powerful that just telling them about it.
- Games must be fun!
5. Dominic Wilcox and James Rutherford talking about an installation they had done at the Sage
- A map of sounds (again using different senses)
- Using something that looks analogue as the technology is hidden.
6. Olga Mink from Baltan Labs
- Enabling collaberations
- Creating a space for experimentation
- They engage with a wide range of sectors: industry; education; art and design; science and technology
7. Alan Smith from Allenheads Contemporary Arts
- Digital issues in rural areas. Context in terms of location is important.
8. Irini Papadimitriou talking about digital programmes at the V&A
- Annual events and monthly meet-ups that create an opportunity for artists, designers and members of the public to make things together.
- Problem solving events, that bring together diverse themes (e.g. fashion and climate change)
- Exhibitions created by an artist and group of participants.
9. Dr Noel Lobley talking about ethnographic sound galleries at the Pitt Rivers Museum
- Bringing sound into galleries that are very object based.
- Taking sounds out of the archives into the communities that created them, to get contextual information.
- Links with composers and artists to create new work
- Event with soundscape and a torch to explore.
10. Marialaura Ghidini from Or-bits.com
- A mixture of online and offline curation, integrated together.
11. Panel Discussion
- The curator enabling work to happen, rather than dictating what it will be.
- Bringing worlds together that don’t normally meet.
- Issue of how the languages used by different groups/industries/sectors translate.
So what goes on behind the scenes in the archives? To give you a taste, here are a few of the things I was involved in last week…
- Trying out the software for a new catalogue of the archives. I’ve spent a while playing with the software, seeing how it works and seeing how best we might use it. It’s very exciting to get to this stage, as it’s been a long time in the planning! Next week I’ll start to put the first ‘proper’ records in the catalogue. Eventually the plan is to make the catalogue available online, along with some digitised records, such as photographs – watch this space…
- I’ve also been discussing the records retention policy with our administration manager. Each year it evolves slightly, especially as more of our records are now just held electronically. Making sure that we don’t have a big gap in the archives for the first part of the 21st century as a result of electronic records not surviving is a challenge. There’s lots of discussion in the archives sector about digital records. Part of the problem is that software and hardware very quickly goes out of date. Someone can find some photographs from their schooldays fifty years ago, and there’s a good chance the photographs will be in good enough condition to look at. If someone finds digital records fifty years from now, there’s a good chance that they won’t be able to look at them.
- We often use images from the archive for greetings cards, and it’s time for a new design, so we’ve been choosing a new photograph and I’ve been designing the card.
- I’ve been continuing with the research for a project about the First World War, linked with the history department. We’re hoping to be able to track a number of Old Scholars who were involved in the war in different ways. I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading through the magazines from the period, which had a lot of news about what Old Scholars were doing. I’ve been struck again by how powerful the stories of individuals are – events that can seem distant and inaccessible come to life when you read letters and start to see the individuals behind the numbers.
- I’ve also been researching Old Scholars who died during the First World War for a researcher who’d seen the ‘Subtle Resistance: Scraps from a Bootham Diary in the Great War’ play (the play was written by Morven Hamilton and performed by Bootham students).