I’m reading a fantasy novel, by an Irish archivist and records manager. There are references to archives, libraries and the necessity for good recordkeeping throughout, and on page 217 this:

Dr Boru took the file and, reading the name, said, ‘I can hardly believe Fen has a file called Miscellaneous.’

She could hardly bring herself to say the word which was absolutely forbidden as a name for any file.  If it is important enough to file, she always said, it is important enough to have a proper name. You can call your children and your pets anything you want, but name your records correctly.

Susan Maxwell, you are a genius. The same applies to ‘General’, and the principle can be extended to making notes on files. If it is important enough to note, then it is important enough to deserve real paper. You can put your dentist appointments, and shopping lists on post it notes, but use your records correctly.

Good Red Herring, Susan Maxwell (2014), Little Island Books.


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Avoiding binary oppositions between digital and analogue


While I’ve argued that ‘digitisation is the death of history’, the reality is that any technology, be it pencil sharpeners or digital cameras, has the ability to affect the way we interact with and understand our collections.

Originally posted on Available Online:

There are a few points of worth in Professor Tony Edwards’ comments on digitisation in the Times Literary Supplement. But one gets the general impression of someone of someone who does not want to engage with the twenty-first century. Some of the comments could have been sorted out with a bit of investigation; others come across as just being snobbish.

One idea I found jarring was his insistence that the digitised copy is simply a surrogate of the original – a Platonic insistence that the digital is just a pale copy of the original, a poor reproduction made simply to allow mass dissemination (‘entertainment’, in Professor Edwards’ words)

Of course, anyone with a bit of a experience of the digital will know that the relation between the digital and analogue is more complex than that. One is not a pallid reflection of the other.

Yes, of course dealing with…

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Referencing archives: part 2

The problem with having a family of talented cooks, who are only mildly over-competitive, is that, at this time of year, there are a lot of opportunities to cook.  I’m not a bad cook, myself, but I am by far and away the best at washing up (not that I’m a whizz at it, just that they are hopeless). And if the rule that if you cook, you don’t wash up, is the standard, then there is a lot of washing up.   I therefore find myself avoiding the kitchen, both to avoid large knives competently deboning a chicken or scoring the rind for the perfect crackling, and the aforesaid washing up.  I’ve read all the books in my house, and my iPad is flat (my eldest daughter’s cat eats cables – we were unable to get or make phonecalls for several days until we noticed the phone cable in three neat pieces).  I have yet to finish shopping for Christmas, and I can’t face the mountain of washing that needs folding. So I am trying to teach myself how to build a Zotero translator, one which will work with the instance of Accesstomemory we are installing at the SROWA, but which hopefully will have a greater utility.

I don’t code. I did a course in Basic way back before most of you were born, and I can read html and edit wikipedia, but I don’t parse it. I was excited therefore to find that Zotero has a little addon for Firefox, called Scaffold, that is supposed to take the pain away.  As if.

I have dutifully dowloaded Scaffold, and Firebug, and I have been plugging away at Scaffold for a few hours.  Scaffold has some very nice features, including a tool that enables you to test your website against some of the translators that have already been built, including the elegant National Archives of Australia translator by Tim Sherratt, and several other translators for Canadian Archives, Archives UK and NARA.  There are also translators for Old Bailey Online, the Internet Archive, and the Prince of Edward Island  (PEI) Archives. If you click on the ‘code’ tab in Scaffold, you can see what other people have done and how they have structured the code.  Of the various translators I have tried today, I like the NAA and PEI Archives the most – the NAA works at a number of levels in RecordSearch, while the PEI Archives has some of the fields that I recognise from AtoM (probably because they are from the Canadian Rules of Archival Description ?).  I’ve downloaded the code(s), and I’ve been looking at how to make the different connections. However, the problem I alluded to the other day, that citation software is not compatible with archival description, continues to raise its ugly head. There is capacity within the Zotero system to create a ‘collection’ level item type, and then individual items with in it.  However, this is a long way from the contextualised and hierarchical description identified in ISAD(G).

Tim has made links to series and item in the NAA translator, by equating them to the ‘manuscript’ and ‘letter’ item types in Zotero. (Zotero makes the work of finding the complete list of item types difficult, and does not provide scope notes for any of the types, which contributes to the frustration).  The PEI translator uses the ‘book’ item type for fonds. Neither of these is particularly satisfying, and, although there is much discussion on the Zotero discussion boards about an ‘archives collection’ item type, I’m not really convinced that this one will work either.  It’s not a problem that is unique to Zotero; Endnote and other citation software similarly struggle with archival references.

For example, in my thesis I cited letters between the Colonial Secretary and various officials and settlers.  The footnote looked like this : Colonial Secretary to Comptroller General, 8 July, 1871, Comptroller General (Cons. 1156, C53, SROWA). The bibliographic reference was located first by archival institution, then the archival authority (creating or responsible organisation), and then to the consignment (location in archive) and item ID: Comptroller General, cons 1156, c53.  If I had been trying to meet APA 6th or Chicago referencing styles, it should have looked something like:

Colonial Secretary (1871)

Colonial Secretary (1871, 8 July) [Memo to Comptroller General] State Records Office of Western Australia (Comptroller General, Correspondence, cons. 1156, item c53), Perth, Western Australia.

Had I only a few letters from the Colonial Secretary, and had he been the same man all the time, it might perhaps have worked. But with a prolific writer or a government agency, the system breaks down pretty quickly.

Part of the problem, I think, is that while we want our users to be able to identify individual letters, photos and maps for intext citations and footnotes, it sometimes makes more sense at bibliography and reference list level to cite the item (file/folder/dossier) within the overall heading of the series, record group or fonds, and to group them by the archival institution in which the works were located.

This would be somewhat akin to listing all works from Facet Publishing before the ones from Taylor and Francis.

I’m not sure what the solution will ultimately be – but I’ll keep thinking about it, and, in the meantime, if you are looking for leftovers or understand how to write in javascript, drop me a line.

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Emails and Paper Trails


An interesting take on the Sony hack, with some comments on the role of archives, and the influence of digitisation on the writing of history (about which I have written, and spoken, elsewhere).

Originally posted on Historians are Past Caring:

There are two things I don’t understand about the Sony hack. First, why does anyone with the ability to accomplish such an impressive hack want to live in North Korea, when they could clearly sell their IT skills for millions in the global market?

Another film that caused offence Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Another film that caused offence
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

And second, why are people such idiots that they continue to write stupid or outrageous comments, and put them in emails saved to the company’s mainframe? A similar example happened recently at the University of Sydney, where Barry Spurr, a professor of poetry, had his racist, sexist, obese-ist and generally nasty and stupid emails revealed by the press. He resigned this week.

One of my favourite email stories comes from the 1980s, when news about a secret deal between America and Iran – the Iran-Contra scandal – was…

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Referencing archives

I’ve long been a user of Zotero (the referencing software from George Mason University and the Centre for History and New Media). Like all referencing software, even one ostensibly built for historians, it does not cope well with archives – is it a letter, a manuscript or a document? What if I don’t want MS as a prefix? Where are fonds or series? How do I cite an archival map, image or database?

Today, I found the Harvard University Research Guide to archival referencing in Zotero, and while it does not answer the questions above, it does provide a starting point:


Now all we need to do is talk to the various referencing style gurus, and get them to include correct archival description in their style manuals.



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It’s all about the fonds, respect des fonds

Because we know it’s all about the fonds

’bout the fonds, no worries

We’ll Respect des fonds, ‘spect des fonds, through series.
When boxes come, to the archives door

We want to list them, list them

So they’re requested more.

‘Cos we’re usin’ series to keep up to date

With all the right files in all the right places


We’re reading Schellenberg, recitin’ Jenkinson

Sharin’ thoughts by Richard Cox

Describing collections.

We’re listing series, series, Aussie style

Using Muller, Feith and Fruin to the works of Peter Scott


See how archivists like to keep all your files together

So that users can know who did what and why forever

Describing series and items and organisations

Means you can now discover

truth about your family relations


Because we’re all about the fonds, respect des fonds, no worries


We’re putting order back

Context relationships is where it’s at

We’re tracking where its from

Through the records continuum


See, now, archivists like to keep all your files together….

( With apologies : Source: http://www.directlyrics.com/meghan-trainor-all-about-that-bass-lyrics.html)

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December 6, 2014 · 2:28 pm

Beyond #digitaldinosaurs

A month or so ago, the CSIRO, Australia’s federally funded science research body, released a report on the way in which GLAM (for which read, Art Galleries and Museums mostly) should engage in digitisation in order to support the NBN and avoid becoming digital dinosaurs (A recent op-ed from the UK puts the opposite position, that the viscerality of the GLAM experience will be of ongoing importance  – http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/is-there-a-future-for-the-traditional-museum-9855822.html) My assessment, on this blog, was not entirely flattering.  The report could, and should, have been so much more.

Today, I received notice of the final report from the Royal Society of Canada into Libraries and Archives Canada – The Future Now – http://rsc-src.ca/sites/default/files/pdf/L%26A_Report_EN_FINAL_Web.pdf . It covers the things that the CSIRO report did not, notably the roles of libraries and archives in the current and future environments. Rather than suggesting that libraries and archives must change to survive, it identifies both the things we do well now, for now and the future, and the things we need to work on.

What fascinates me about the library and archives project is that it too
has many faces and can be many things to many people. It will always
be relevant; yet it also needs to change with the times in which we live.
Our job is to prepare our institutions for the coming generations, not
with restrictive definitions and practices, to give them the tools with
which to see and learn, to ensure that the many voices, both past and
present, continue to be alive and not dead.
(Gerald McMaster, in The Future Now, p. 39)
It looks at the impact of budget and budget decline ( a not inconsiderable concern in Australia and elsewhere):
Whatever the budgetary imperatives facing LAC (and LAC still benefits
from a $90 million annual budget going forward), the fundamental statutory
objectives are not being met whether in preservation of the patrimony for future
generations or the facilitation of access to the documentary patrimony for

present-day research…

LAC needs far more support than successive governments have been prepared to show (p.42)

Convergence is also on the table, with the report noting that ‘In Australia, New Zealand, and the EU the merger of LAC is presented as an appalling model to be avoided by libraries and archives.’ (p.42). By way of contrast, the experience of the Bibliothèque etArchives nationales du Québec (BanQ) from which the new Director of LAC comes, is put forward as a positive. Harmonisation, rather than assimilation, is the watchword, and ‘absolute respect for the specific characteristics of each discipline, library and archival sciences’ (p.45).

Section D looks at the general context of archival collaboration and co-ordination. The discussion touches on, but does not explicitly mention, ‘total archives’, and also the idea of some form of federated or national collection.  The recommendations are somewhat lukewarm, and generic. Section E looks at collaboration across libraries and archives, and specifically at the way in which archives and libraries could share digital repositories or manage cloud services for institutional archives.  The discussion here seems a little at odds with the support for ‘respectful’ collaboration between the professions, and may need to be further developed. Section F looks both at digital access to collections and concerns about personal and private archives.

Section G:II (based curiously in the section on academic libraries) look at some of the issues that the CSIRO report examined, from social media to digital collections and access. Section H:II Public libraries, considers those who are not well served by the current distribution of information resources, from remote and regional communities, to individuals with functional illiteracy due to education, language, or disability, and those without access to the facilities, be they digital or phsyical.

There is a detailed discussion of Canadian copyright law and the impact that has both on collection and distribution of information materials, and on the impact of open access models.  Open data and open government are not concepts discussed in the report.

Aside from a somewhat disconcerting loss of the letters ‘fl’ in combination (re  ection, in  uence, etc), this is a thoughtful investigation into a major institution and the various organisations and professions that support and rely on it.
  Four stars from me.

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