Friday, 19 July 2013

I'm an alien I'm a legal alien, I'm a Shambrarian at an Archives Conference

I don't drink wine I take real ale my dear,
I like my data nice and flat,
You can see it in my resource discovery tools,
I'm a Shambrian at an Archives Conference

A Pilgrim in an unholy land?

Between Thursday 27th June and Friday 28th of June, I was fortunate to attend and present at the Apex Conference 2013: Building infrastructures for archives in a digital world at Trinity College, Dublin. The opportunity arose out of the collaborative project I was involved with together with the National Library of Ireland (@NLIreland) and the National Library of Finland  add archival data to VuFind.

Archivists discover two librarians shambrarians in their midst?
There's a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indiana and his father end up in Berlin to reclaim the latter's Grail diary. Upon arriving at a Nazi rally, Henry Jones Senior exclaims "My boy, we are pilgrims in an unholy land". I have to admit to a little trepidation at gate crashing an archives conference, suffering as I do with virtual archive illiteracy. The first session I attended by Daniel Pitti on "The emerging archival metadata landscape" almost had me reaching for my emergency parachute as it was a veritable orgy of acronym dropping. Had I been playing the buzz word bingo drinking game I would have been paralytic by 10.40.

Thankfully, my fears were soon dispelled as I realised that the concepts of data use I learned from libraries are universally applicable and that the folk gathered in Dublin were a thoroughly decent bunch, despite their use of strange acronyms and nested data sets. I should also clarify that the Apex Conference was nothing like a Nazi rally - far from it - no books or precious manuscripts were burned in the process.

"What do you think of Elves now, Sam?" ... "I reckon there’s Elves and Elves. They’re all elvish enough, but they’re not all the same."

How I imagined an archivist conference
So says Samwise Gamgee to Frodo Baggin in Lord of the Rings and the same is largely true of anyone working with cultural data. As I listened to each of the presentations, it struck me that Librarians, Archivists and [collective term for Museum curators] all have the same problems in classifying items and their solutions are largely the same - the major differences necessitated by the form of the items they are describing. Libraries largely deal with individual items which do not require context whilst archives deal with items where context is critical. Context and meaning is achieved by a cataloguing system which represents this nature, making it accessible to interested parties and archives do this according to geographical location, author (in the loosest sense of the word) and item. For an outsider looking in, it is easy to be overwhelmed especially as there appear to be many competing standards [1], but this is the nature of the archival beast. The challenge that Apex (@APEx_project) has taken on it to take this complexity and create standards and best practice which will allow archives across Europe to present their collections in a meaningful way to a digital world which is not necessarily the purveyance of experts. For archives and archivists, this is essential as accessibility is becoming a critical measure of value. For interested parties, as full paid up members of Generation Google, it is de rigueur.

Fascinating Jim...

I attempt to scan some archivists

Taken as a whole, I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into the world of archives. Archives have enough in common with libraries to ensure that I wasn't completely at a loss and exploring their differences kept things interesting. The technical nature of some of the presentations likewise perked my interest and there are clearly some very talented people working with archival data. In total, I attended 16 presentations on day one and 4 sessions on day two. It's not possible to do each presentation justice in a blog post so I'll limit my review to some of my favourites.

Maud Medves's presented on the CENDARI Project ( @CendariProject) which aims to integrate digital archives for medieval and modern European history. In developing their product, they needed to produce a custom EAG Cendari data structure which was producing using an innovative use of Jira & SVN.

It was great to get some perspective on Apex from Susanne Waidmann who gave a great exposition of its funding, structure and staffing through to its purpose, tools and value and this was followed by Bastiaan Verhoef's review of Apex's primary output, the Archives Portal Europe, was particularly intriguing as it revealed that the back end of the software was very much the same as VuFind, as it utilised the powerful Solr search server.  Apex make all of their EAD tools available for free and even if one is not submitting data to the Archives Portal, they may be of use for local archives who wish to normalise their data.

I was astounded by the amount of work one man development team Jochen Graf had put into the Monasterium Collaborative Archive which collects historical documents as digital copies and provides an interface to both view an annotate the digital copies in an open, collaborative framework. This was the first in many presentations which highlighted projects which are using crowd sourcing to augment and enrich data. Similarly, @petralinks suggested on Twitter, "Facilitating multilingual descriptions is a repeating theme in all presentations on metadata and standards for digital archives".

The first session in the afternoon was given by Julia Fallon of the marvellous Europeana project (@EuropeanaEU) which collects digital objects from Europe's leading galleries, libraries, archives and museums,  making them available under agreed licences. The presentation was primarily about open data and licensing but I was mostly intrigued by the way in which Europeana handled digital objects. Europeana really has embraced social networking with aplomb and has an active presence on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Google Plus. The talented folks who work there have also developed a media rich, free iPad App which is well work a download from the App Store.

As if Europeana wasn't enough to get me drooling, Julia then went on to mention,one of Europeana's mini-projects which records and preserves 89 first-hand accounts from individuals who experienced the fall of communism and the reunification of Europe in Poland, Latvia, Germany, Estonia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. As part of the project, they submitted their data to History Pin which uses a map rich interface to allow users to explore history at a particular time period by geographical location.

European 1989: History Pin

After a brief hiatus where an angry archivist shouted a presenter from The Historical Archives of the Pontifical Gregorian University for being denied access last year, the theme of captivating projects was continued by Constanza Gianccini's expose on which aims to "map and publish in a critical edition the extensive correspondence of European intellectuals with the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt over a period of more than half a century, from 1842 to 1897". Burckhardt Source uses to allow users to add metadata to its letters. appears to be an incredibly powerful open source tool which effectively creates a collaborative research community which may not be limited to subject specialists. By giving web documents semantic context, they can be enriched with data from countless sources.

Given the clear successes that most of these projects were experiencing through integrating social media into their platforms, it was apt that the first session of Friday morning was presented by Laura Gould (@LauraLGould) of the Lothian Health Services Archive (@lhsaeul) and Guinevere Barlow of The Carmichael Watson Project (@coll97CW) who talked about the use of social media in their workplace. Both use Facebook, Twitter and Flikr to augment their website and the key to the increased interest they have received in their projects is interaction; having a social media presence is not enough - users want to engage with experts once their curiosity has been perked by a particular post or article. A benefit of this approach is that it has actually attracted staff to internships at Lothian Health Services Archive who regard working with social media as a desirable employment opportunity.

The last session I attended at the Apex Conference was given by Tom Cobbaert () on ArchiefWiki, a community for Dutch archivists (which happens to have a Wiki) centred around opening up data and sharing knowledge. ArchiefWiki supports the Archivist’s 2.0 Manifesto which essentially makes it a kind of Fight Club for Archivists.

Tom Cobbaert at an ArchiefWiki event

Finally, on Friday Afternoon, my experience of universe as inhabited by archivists sadly came to an end. After a lengthy chat with my fellow presenter Eoghan O'Carragain of The National Library of Ireland (@NLIreland)* on digital repositories over a cup of Barry's Tea, it was time to board my plane back to Cardiff where I had the following thoughts:

1) Aer Arran really need to work on how they tell passengers that a part on the plane is "defective" (The engine, the pilot?)
2) Archivists and Librarians have a lot in common
3) The Apex conference was full of fun and talented people
4) Individual projects really are achieving great things but greater collaboration and openness could greatly reduce the amount of money and effort institutions have to put into their projects
5) I wasn't able to find one archivist willing to have a photo taken with me in white gloves

An archivist in traditional attire
* another institution which makes fabulous use of Twitter