Hidden collections – archival description projects and philanthropic funding

Today, I have suddenly found myself with a little time for reading and thinking. The luxury of time to read, and review, cannot be overstated. Marking is in that strange place where I am waiting to do some moderation, before frantically getting all the marks uploaded in time for Boards of Education, and writing lectures and assessments can be safely put off for a few weeks.  I’ve got a presentation to give for my other work in a few days time, but I think that I can wing that (mostly). And, out on twitter, I get the nod to the US Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) recently published proceedings on their Hidden Collections funding and research symposium – Innovation, collaboration and models. 

Working with the Mellon Foundation, CLIR have been working for over seven years to fund projects that improve the findability and discoverability of archival collections, through better cataloguing, inter-repository collaborations, and outreach programs. Over these years they’ve funded 129 projects, and over 270,000 item descriptions, where items means not files and folders, but individual letters, manuscripts, pictures, plans and objects. It’s an impressive set of figures, and the projects from which they are derived are also impressive, as detailed in these proceedings.

The introduction by editor, Cheryl Ostreicher, sets the mood admirably. The goals of the CLIR and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are clearly set out, and Cheryl then goes on to explore the work that was done and the way in which archivists, librarians and archival practice have been enhanced and supported through these projects and the funding.

CLIR “aspires to transform the information landscape to support the advancement of knowledge.” (quote from the Editor, Cheryl Ostreicher, p.2)

This is done through the development of close relationships, shared professional experience, and above all, a willingness to collaborate and innovate, as identified in the title.

The theme is picked up by the keynote speaker at the symposium, Professor Jacqueline Goldsby, Yale University. In her paper, Parting the waters: CLIR’s pathways into the archives, Professor Goldsby invokes the image of Charlton Heston, parting the waters of the Red Sea, in the Ten Commandments, as her icon for the way in which the hidden collections funding has improved access to archival resources.  She goes on to discuss the concept of ‘relational archives’,which draws on the ideas of performance art to engage with and respond to an audience, and is something that I’d like to explore further. Goldsby sees evidence of this ‘relationality’ in the tag clouds created to provide additional access points to collections, in the collaborations put forward for funding, and in the growing use of and requirement for interoperable descriptive schemas to link collections and materials together. She identifies the way in which federated searches through portals like the CLIR registry are enhancing and improving scholarship, which Clive Hurley and Sue McKemmish, among others, have been discussing.

There are too many papers to do justice to all, but a number spoke to me about the way in which we work, and in which archivy as a profession can evolve. “All history is local: expanding access to American Jewish archival collections” looked at the challenges associated with establishing common metadata and descriptive practices among organisations with differing levels of resourcing and expertise. “The challenges of sustaining a long term collaboration: reflections on the Philadelphia hidden collections” also looked at this, and raised the alarm as to how long a private institution might continue to support an aggregation site.

“Collaboration and education: engaging high school students with EAC-CPF research” looked at educating school students into archival descriptive practice, and history research techniques.  I’ve long thought that one of the problems archivists face is a lack of archival awareness at school level (primary school children can read a MARC record, even if they don’t know what it is), and this was an ambitious project. However, it also flagged that high quality research and description is not always easily achieved.

“The Churchill Weavers collection: an American treasure uncovered” looked at an unusual collection of textile samples, and considered a range of descriptive and cataloguing practices, with the development of a hybrid system in a museum catalogue software system. Not only did the project catalogue and identify the material, but it also included a preservation component and, with separate funding, digitisation for access.

And all of these are before the section on Arrangement and Description.

There are a number of other things that this publication has identified for me. The US is, seemingly, blessed with a range of philanthropic institutions and funding bodies who seem to take libraries, archives and history research seriously. There is the National Endowment for Humanities funding from the US government, the world renowned Carnegie Libraries and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, not to mention the Getty Institute and many others.  Australia is not so lucky. While there have been a number of large and recent philanthropic donations, particularly in Victoria, the scope and vision of the funders is more limited, often funding a single institution. In addition, the range of portals and aggregators for archival collections available highlights the paucity of the same in Australia, particularly as the Directory of Australian Archives is no longer actively maintained. Nevertheless, it is as important for Australian archives, and archivists, to channel their inner Heston, as it is for those fortunate brethren whose projects make this work such a delight.

I’d respectfully encourage all of you—and CLIR—to channel
your inner Charlton Heston-as-Moses and lead the publics you serve to the Hidden Collections Registry more assertively. This shouldn’t be a hard story to sell. The recovery of so many original, fascinating, inspiring, never-or-hardly-used archival collections—and the labors archivists and librarians expended to organize them—is a mediagenic story that should be spread as widely as possible. The work that you’ve accomplished deserves publicity on the scale of a Cecil B.DeMille spectacle! (Jaqueline Goldsby, p.11)



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Although looking at a non Australian legal system, questions about authenticity and evidence resonate throughout archival theory and practice.


Source: Summoned

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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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