A Day Devoted to Standards- UKAD Forum 2014

Joanna Loxton, Record Reviewer for the British Council in London, writes about her experience when she attended the UKAD forum back in March.

UKAD image

I was not perhaps the most ‘standardised’ delegate to this (my first) UKAD forum, held at The National Archives. To me ‘standards’ meant ISAD(G) and ISAAR(CPF), with a smattering of UKAT thrown in. EAD is something that happens to other people. But I was in for a shock; there were standards flying around that I had never heard of. “Barely started in the profession”, I thought, “and out of date already!”

There was a great turn out and never had I met such a friendly and engaging multitude of archivists.

There’s lots of information about the day on the UKAD Forum website, including links to the posters which brightened up our lunchbreak; so I have focused on what I feel were the key themes of the day

–       Standards does not equal Standardised

Many of the speakers were there representing data aggregators – the Archives Hub, and AIM25, as well as the Archives Portal Europe (APE) – which connects repository and collection descriptions from archives across Europe; and the Social History Portal, which provides access to digitised archive and library collections based around this theme.

A common issue they faced was how to bring together multiple catalogues into one system. Since many of the source institutions used the same standards (EAD for example) this should (in principle) be a relatively simple job. However, it turns out there are as many ways to input information, even when using a standard, as there are to skin a cat.

Therefore, a lot of work goes into correcting this – for example the Archives Hub converts new catalogues to their own ‘flavour’ of EAD; whilst the Social History Portal uses a range of huge, terrifying mapping spreadsheets.

From another perspective, Malcolm Howitt from Axiell explained that cataloguing systems do not cope well with flexible use of the standards which underpin the system workflows – but that customers (archives and users) continue to have diverse expectations.

Would it not be better – in this age of multiple standards, multiple entry points, and the potential to access data on multiple platforms, to sharpen up the existing standards – or is something new needed?

–       Mapping between standards is difficult

Had the huge and terrifying mapping spreadsheets not been enough to convince us, we had the opportunity to test this truism during ‘the World’s first mass metadata mapping movement’.

This involved wearing a sticker which described an element from one of three standards (ISAD (G), Premis and ISO 23081-2) and then locating our equivalents from the other standards. (I was ‘existence and location of originals’ from ISAD(G)).

Suffice to say, the success rate was lower than speed dating. Part of the problem was that genuine matches were hard to find – rather we made do with partially related elements. Aggregators – I salute you.

–       Users need to work harder

One effect of an aggregated catalogue is that the pool of possible hits is vastly increased. To demonstrate this, we searched for ‘Churchill’ on the as-yet-unavailable Beta version of Discovery (TNA’s catalogue, integrated with the National Register of Archives, A2A, Archon and the Manorial Documents Register). The search also brings up records which have the keyword within their hierarchy, as well as in the item description itself, which pulls out related records which the former search would have missed.

From the 40,000-odd results, we then made use of a number of filter options, including record location, associated places and record creator, to drill through them.

During the lunch break we were given the chance to play with it, and personally I think it’s a powerful search tool, with an attractive interface. However, I have no doubt it would also be bewildering, especially for new users. Education, user guides, and time should be at their disposal.

–       Make your data work harder!

Data standards can push your data into more places, make it easier to find through google searches, and present it in weird and wonderful ways. For example, the Archives Hub can make its content available through multiple portals (other than its own website) through the use of RDF/XML (which supports the creation of linked data); and API which (as I understood it) allows the Hub’s catalogue to link with other portals – Genesis for example.

Geoff Browell from AIM25 explained how, by ‘wrangling’ data so its content is embedded within it, it can be used in more user-friendly, inspiring and beautiful ways – for example through visualisations of relationships – check out Linked Jazz!

Standards can prepare your data for the digital marathon.

–       Standards are not enough

In a change from standards, we were treated to an enjoyable discourse on copyright by Ronan Deazley, from CREATe. Copyright is a major bar to archival discovery, particularly large-scale digitisation projects, owing to bizarre clauses covering unpublished material, and the rigidity of the law surrounding orphan works.

When you want to digitise, do you embrace risk or do you leave out uncleared copyrighted material? Ronan advocates the ‘embrace risk’ approach, showing examples of ‘take-down policies’ and a number of heartening case studies in which up to 98% of rights holders had allowed free use of material.

Standards and a risk-based approach to copyright do not make easy bedfellows, institutions such as the Wellcome may be unusual in their enthusiasm to take on risk, but Ronan for one believe the times, they should be a-changing.

–       Focus on the story

For those of us left feeling obsolete by the move away from ‘traditional’ archival approaches and increasing dependence on unfamiliar technologies, words of comfort could be found.

Geoff Browell encouraged us to focus on our interpretative skills – how to fashion stories out of the records in our care. The onus is on us to keep up with technological developments, and widen ways in which users can access our material, but the most important thing is to draw audiences in, showcase our collections, make them appealing and ‘impactful’ to that widened audience. This led to my quote of the day – ‘access without impact doesn’t butter any parsnips’.

An enjoyable, sometimes overwhelming, day. It was some comfort to me (during the mapping exercise) to hear “has anyone ever USED Premis?” uttered more than once. It left me simultaneously thrilled at the potential uses of standards, and nervous at how much there is to learn. It certainly reaffirmed their role in archivists’ ability to empower information, so that it can be accessed by the public in all manner of inspiring ways.

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