Archives and manuscripts. Vol. 37, no. 1. May 2009

It’s taken me a long while, I confess it.  It’s not that I didn’t want to, or that I couldn’t, but rather, as the ad says, A&M is ‘full of chunks of meaty goodness.’

May 2009 starts with a review by Sebastian Gruciullo who, like me, has taken over from the amazing Shauna Hicks.  I suspect that Sebastian got the harder role, but he does it well.

The first article, ‘Clipping Mercury’s wings: the challenge of email archiving’ is by Mark Brogan.  Mark’s area of interest is in digital recordkeeping and the challenge of digital archives.  Mark starts with a brief overview of the history of the email debate in archival circles, starting with David Bearman’s 1994 article in A&M.  He goes on to look at the way in which software, processes and procedures have been predicated on the assumption that if we build it, and mandate it, the user will save it.  As surveys in 1996 and 2006 indicate, most users are unable to decide what to keep or how to keep it.  Their behavious falls into three main categories – spring cleaners, no filers and frequent filers – with no filers being around 1/3 of users (I’m a spring cleaner).  Recognising this behaviour, software solutions are now being created based on automated capture, indexing and imposition of machine generated sentences on all messages.  This is, as Mark points out, a focus on content rather than context, which in itself has implications for the appropriateness of the sentencing and the role of a more nuanced appraisal.  Mark offers no solutions, but suggests that now might be the time for a greater conversation between archivists, records managers and IT professionals.

Following on from Mark, Joanne Evans, Sue McKemmish and Barbara Reed, speak to the need for rich metadata to enable the sustainable use and re-use of ‘born’ digital records in “Making metadata matter: outcomes from the Clever Recordkeeping Metadata Project’.  Using the mantra, ‘create once -use many times’, the Project (CRKM) looked at the creation of content rich metadata capable of interplatform transfer and re-use, both in part and in full.  The project looked at the creation of a prototype metadata broker, to enable the second part of this ambitious project.  The project found that two preconditions, neither of which currently exist, were required for this visionary approach to begin – first the need for standards compliant metadata across a whole range of fields (if we can’tget people to decide which email to save, how will we ever get them to describe it), and integrated service platforms.  Clearly the sort of people who ‘never say die’, the project team started to focus on how metadata might be transferred across platforms, and eventually wound their way to evaluating service oriented architectures (SOA), and thus to Web Services – ‘ a set of standards based around using XML as a neutral and standard way of representing structure in a machine-processable form, an Internet protocols for communication between services.’  They conceptualised a metadata broker that might work in such an environment, and tried to discover both what it would require and what it could achieve.  The CKRM team believe that using SOA and webservices, and products like the metadata broker may provide a way in which standardised metadata may be captured, stored and transferred, with a degree of machine intervention which may in part circumvent the requirement for behavioural change by users.  Projects such as theirs, the CKRM team hope, are at the forefront of a new  evolving recordkeeping paradigm, which will ‘move us from the Wright brothers to mature and robust digital recordkeeping systems.’

Talking of evolving technology and social and behavioural adaptation leads to the article by Bob Pymm, ‘Television and archives: Friends, Neighbours or Get Away?’ Although television has been identified as a major cultural force, and a mirror of society, it would appear that very few public organisations collect television material, and it is correspondingly difficult for a researcher looking to use these resources to identify what might be held where.  In order to test how accessible the many hours of television created and broadcast in Australia over the last 5o years might be, Bob decided on a survey strategy, using the winners of the Logie awards as his research base.  TV documentaries are well represented, long running serials and current affairs programs less so, although the longevity of some series can cause collection maintenance problems, as Bob identifies.  Children’s programs suffer somewhat (Fat Cat may be even more silent than we thought), but sports is clearly under-represented, especially given that we pride ourselves on being a sporting nation.  But, though Bob is satisfied that the nation’s TV heritage is being collected as well as can be expected and that, where major institutions are involved, it’s preservation is in hand, it is very difficult to access.  Almost his first finding was how disparate the finding aids are across the institutions, and how differently they are described (standardised metadata anyone?).  As Bob says, ‘One of the major difficulties researchers will encounter is in the nature of the public access catalogues, which for the major institutions… are not particularly well designed for general access…” In a profession where access is a keyword, we may do well to take a second look at how well we do at providing it.

Finally, Stephen Yorke looks at access from a different perspective in ‘A Pepys into the future’ – when the physical content of the record is assured, but cannot be read or interpreted, as was the case with Samuel Pepys diaries, written in shorthand in the seventeenth century.  Unread, and potentially unreadable for over a century, they were finally analysed in the 1820s and have been published continuously ever since.  Stephen doubts that there will be a record such as Pepys in the future, in part because of the fragility of the media on which we now produce diary like equivalents – Facebook, blogs, etc, but also because Pepys wrote for himself, rather than for a broader audience.   While 17 year olds may regret at 20 the things they said today, many conscientious bloggers and diarists are also conscious bloggers and diarists.  The format stays the same, but the medium and the intent has changed.

Due to some delays with the November issue, the May volume includes a slew of book reviews and news notes.  It also includes a case study on arranging and describing the Diane Elizabeth Barwick collection at the University of Melbourne, by Ann McCarthy.  Barwick’s material involved extensive anthropological data on aboriginal people in Victoria, so required a sensitive and culturally adept approach.


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Archivist, historian, avid reader

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