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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Archivist, historian, avid reader

One thought on “Referencing archives: part 2”

  1. While looking for citation examples in my thesis, I discovered some minor digital preservation issues, relating to software upgrades and external add-ons. I can’t view the footnotes in the latest iteration of Word, and the bibliography is missing if I open it in LibreOffice. It does exist as a pdf in the University of Melbourne thesis repository, so that is the archival representation.

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