Re-Inventing On-Line Access

Chris Hurley

The methods I most want to re-invent are description and federation of access.   I have been interested in this for thirty years and have recently re-entered the lists with A Modest Proposal for Improving Access to Archives and Other Records by using a Wiki. This was discussed at a Recordkeeping Roundtable Workshop earlier this year.  The results of that Workshop should be known by now and the Modest Proposal … itself, along with some sample pages, should be up on my website[1].  There is near universal support for federated access but uncertainty still about how to achieve it.  Here is a distillation of some of the issues as I see them. 

What do we want to improve access to?

I want to support on-line access to materials regardless of whether or not they are “gathered” (i.e. transferred to archives authorities, AWM, manuscript libraries, “collecting” archives) and to in-house archives, churches, businesses, schools, etc. Also local historical societies and museums; small amateur collections kept by groups or individuals; persons, families, and small businesses (like the UK National Register), ungathered material that is in series with deposits already made, estrays. I want to include records that may never be transferred (e.g. data sets maintained as open data in government departments, universities, research institutes etc.). Since the method chosen must have the capability to access ungathered records, a model requiring description under archives rules is not suitable. Does it matter if some of this comes within the jurisdiction of an archives authority?  Can the holders contribute in their own right or must they be mediated by the archives under whose jurisdiction they fall?

Do records need a different approach?

Yes. Unless handled as discrete items, they must be described and managed “in depth”.  This involves presenting layers of contextual and structural description on top of an array of item descriptions.  At item level, the volume would swamp the returns in the TROVE and Ancestry engines – not because the volume is too great but because archival description at item level is so lousy that the descriptions of hundreds and thousands of items in virtually identical and undifferentiated terms would be unhelpful unless they are enhanced (in some way) by joining them to (or harvesting metadata from) the customary contextual and structural descriptions.

What are archivists doing now?

Descriptive standardisation and encoding recognise the difference but have emulated (too much) approaches from other fields, in the hope (presumably) that if ever they stabilised and became widely adopted they would support global access.  Providers would follow standardised rules and/or procedures so descriptions of different origin can be blended and searched – cf. Archives Canada[2] and Archives Portal Europe[3]. ICA’s current initiative to develop a “conceptual model” (EGAD[4]) is an attempt to bring these two strands closer together rather than a re-think of what has been done and how it might be (or have been) done differently.

What about everyone else?

The National Archives of Ruritania, housed in a tin shed with an earthen floor, having an uncertain electricity supply, and with phones that only work on Mondays and Fridays, may struggle for many years to reach entry-level capability for co-operative merger of their barefoot descriptions with those produced by better endowed and more technically advanced archives.  Small to middling archives everywhere with scant funding, amateur and voluntary bodies with small holdings, and hybrid bodies whose archives represent only part of their mission, may also be unable or reluctant to meet the gold-plated standard.  Owners of ungathered data sets (e.g. land data, life data, meteorological data, geospatial data, statistical data, etc.), even if they could afford to do so, may not be interested in applying archival description.  Mine is a different proposition : let everyone go on describing their stuff as they please and provide an agreed framework within which non-standardised, unmediated descriptions can be pooled and linked without the discipline of uniformity.  This is the (descriptive) road not taken – based on nurturing relationships and preserving context (as archivists always do) and then normalising the presentation of resulting views not in their appearance but in the ways in which they are structurally connected.

What do users want?

They are impatient with discovery aids designed to help them thread the maze that archival description plants in their way.  Our finding aids are seen as complicated, time-consuming, and unhelpful.  We have produced tools that are obstacles rather than aids to use.  Whatever tolerance there was on the part of knowledgeable academics and researchers, mass internet users won’t stand for it.  They will not travel attenuated discovery pathways that deliver information about organisations, fonds, groups, functions, agencies, and series.  They don’t want to learn our terminology or have to travel discovery routes built on our concepts.  What they want is direct access to the “stuff”.

Will things stay like this forever?

Digitised and born-digital content comes with metadata because that is integral to the digital process[5].  A portal focussing on digitised content is Europeana[6].  Increasingly, such content will make up more of the whole and that will progressively alter the terms of this discussion.  Search pathways to digital content carrying its own metadata will not necessarily mirror those we are now building to carry descriptions of content (both digital and non-digital). ICA and EAD are exploring the mystery of relationships. A renewal of interest in functions is under way. So far from building on a set of stable and settled standards and practices, we are entering a new era of innovation and development in archival description.

Can we enlist “citizen archivists”?

Wikis support participation by users in expanding and enhancing data.  Archives are beginning to enlist users in tagging and indexing their stuff – cf. NARA’s Citizen Archivist[7] site.  To what extent will archivists want users to “tamper” with their descriptions? How might it be done? A Wiki would have a “Talk” button to provide for user suggestions, an “Edit” button for approved users, the ability to reserve parts of a page for user participation, a capacity for users to tag terms (to highlight synonyms, for example, also to add terms/links reflecting discoveries they have made), and a capacity for users to make contribution pages describing holdings where the custodian has declined do so.

What about the items?

They are what the customers want and what other portals try to deliver.  Our item level descriptions are poor and non-standardised, search results are patchy and yet still voluminous.  Some descriptors are duplicated between series and item descriptions but more often found only in one or the other.  Our theory requires the two to be read concurrently (along with contextual descriptions). Should we integrate enhanced data about items only from small series/deposits whose custodians may not provide on-line searching anyway and for whom the Wiki would be their on-line finding aid? Items from large series/deposits, more likely to come with sophisticated on-line searching at item level, might then be treated as stand-alone “data sets” with series descriptions as a kind of gateway to them.  Alternatively, we could look for ways to harvest series-level descriptions to enhance item level data.

What about terminological control?

Unified control of the terms is minimal.  Absent thesauri and taxonomies universally applied, contributors will use terms of their own that will not gel with terms employed by others.  This creates problems for search and filtering, since an exact or approximate match with the user’s search term will be rare and alternate terms covering the same idea used by other custodians will be missed.  These problems are not uniquely ours and we can look to others (who are better at this stuff than we are) for solutions. It is worth noting that in the land of the Wiki links (relationships) are heavily used and this is our bread and butter.  Rather than controlled vocabulary to deal with synonyms, name changes, and concept-hierarchies, it may be that mark-up of some kind, by both custodians and citizen archivists, is a partial solution.

What about digitisation?

Where non-digital content has been digitised, many custodians simply link a description of the non-digital content to the digitised object – usually at item level and often for selected items only within a series or a deposit by link to a web address. Should there be a depository of digitised items for smaller holdings described nowhere else on-line (see above)?

What about funding?

There is grant money (on a small scale) available through the Community Heritage Grants (CHG) Program[8] to assist single custodians with documenting “collections”. How silly it would be if grant money can’t be found to help establish a tool to better document holdings collectively instead of one-by-one. The concept should not be stifled at birth by dwelling on problems.  Let’s decide what we want to do and then work out how to do it.

About the author

Chris Hurley has been a recordkeeper for over forty years, in both government and the private sector. He was Keeper of Public Records in Victoria in the 1980s and A/g Chief Archivist of New Zealand in the (then) National Archives in the early 2000s. He now works for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. His particular interests lie in the areas of description, accountability, and archival legislation and he has taught and spoken extensively on these matters. Most of his many published articles and talks are now available on his web site






[5] But quick-and-dirty digitisation without proper attention to description will still produce poor metadata.




About Cassie Findlay

Digital recordkeeping, archives and privacy professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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