Archive for the ‘Archives’ Category

  • Archivist or Programmer?

    Date: 2012.03.24 | Category: Access, Archives, Cataloguing, Digital Humanities, Digital Preservation, Programming | Response: 0

    Is there such a thing as a ‘typical Archivist’?

    This question was posed by a friend on the Archives NRA Mailing List recently and prompted a series and fairly animated responses, mostly along the lines of ‘there’s no such thing as a typical archivist’. It was suggested that such a phrase may even be detrimental to the image of Archivists and suggest that the profession is more uniform than the reality. I’d certainly agree that it would prove problematic to define the ‘typical Archivist’ beyond saying that we list, make available to the public and preserve material of historical significance or otherwise deemed worthy of long term preservation.

    I suspect however, that the way in which the Archivist goes about this role has changed significantly, not least in the methods used to make material available. The development of the computer (originally used to manage payroll in Lyon’s Tea Shops) and software specifically for the cataloguing of archive material, has fundamentally changed the way people create, disseminate and access information. Without an ability to embrace the face paced development of technology, there was a significant danger of repositories being left behind in terms of how they promote or provide access to their collections. Initatives for putting catalogue records online such as The National Archives’ Access to Archives and AiM25 made significant early inroads into tackling the problem.

    An awareness of these types of initiatives and an understanding of how they work are becoming increasingly vital in the work of a ‘typical’ Archivist. But just how far does a 21st Century information professional have to take this understanding? Historians have made some attempt to tackle this issue following the emergence of the field of digital humanities and practices such as the use of XML markup to display material online. There is even an online book available – ‘The Programming Historian’ – that provides an introduction to programming and the variety of uses that a little but of Javascript can be put to. To me, this is a massive step in the right direction, and one that I think at least some Archivists should be embracing. There has been some discussion on Twitter recently about what sort of demand there might be amongst Archivists for learning programming skills, and it would seem that there are plenty of us out there willing to have a go.

    As someone who is confident is using computers and who has a programmer for a boyfriend, I am confident that there are more effective ways of doing things with a computer than those that are currently practiced by most Archivists. A few pointers on how to use macros in Excel and how to program a query in Access could make the world of difference to your average Archivist. Why spend half a day manually searching through various spreadsheets for data when you can run a report from a query in 30 seconds? I appreciate that this may be specific to my work environment, and/or that there are other contributing factors that restrict the use of technology within an organisation, but you get the idea!

    The original blog post requesting input from any technically minded Archivists who want to learn to program, posted by Alexandra Eveleigh, is here. Have a read and please do comment on why you would want to learn and what you think it could help with in your day to day work.

    I’m certain that there are a whole host of different things that programming (and other general IT knowledge) can do to enhance to work of Archivists, and I hope that something comes from the invite to learn together with a group of like minded professionals.

    So, does an Archivist ned to retrain as a programmer? I don’t think so, although a little bit of knowledge could go a long way to improving the final output of Archivists in terms of web presence, online resources and use of material. Initatives such as Code Academy will go some way to bridging the gap that exists at the moment, provided people have the time to devote to it. Where this is not possible, meeting with a group of like minded people in a relaxed setting or working through basic tutorials delivered online might well be the solution we are looking for.

    To return to my initial point, I am not sure there is such a thing as ‘a typical Archivist’ but I do think that programming/computer science based skills need to become increasingly ‘typical’ in newly qualified Archivists if we are going to keep pace with emerging and changing technologies.

    I for one hope to be blogging a bit more on this sort of thing and perhaps providing information on a few things that I’ve found useful, but in the meantime I’m getting my head down on Code Academy and reading ‘The Programming Historian’.

  • ‘Smelling the Digital Flowers’

    Date: 2012.02.19 | Category: Archives, Digital Preservation, Reading | Response: 0

    The title from this post came from a talk given by Andrew Featherstone of the Museum of London that was given at  the DPC event ‘Digital Preservation: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started’. The meaning behind this statement was that, when considering digital preservation, it is very easy to get bogged down with solving the immediate problem, without taking the time to read around the subject (project reports/presentations/standards etc).

    I’ve been mulling over what to do for my next blog post, and have even got several half finished posts drafted on my dashboard. I suspect this one might actually make it onto the blog though (perhaps even later today!) as the idea that we should all take time to ‘smell the digital flowers’ really struck a chord with me.

    Earlier this week, I tweeted about needing a day off just to go through some of various links to information on digital preservation that I have found while trawling the net. Today, I’ve finally found the time to sit down and go through a few things and have found some really useful bits and ideas to follow up on.

    Firstly, check out the Digital Preservation Coalition website. They are a key training provider on all things digital preservation and one on the main collaborators who are driving development in this area. They run regular events for all levels of information professional and publish helpful Technology Watch Reports on the challenges of different types of digital material. I was unable to attend their latest event (‘What I Wish I Knew Before I Started’) but have been able to read the slides and ponder the issues raised.

    As well as reading around the subject I’m also planning on attending more events based around the challenges of digital preservation. One of the underlying themes of the subject as a whole seems to be collaboration. Quite often when one reads reports of events, the delegates are initially concerned about whether they will understand the technicalities of digital preservation, but come out of the event feeling empowered once they understand that archivists already have most of the skills required to deal with digital material. I was certainly excited after attending my first event of this type ‘Getting Started in Digital Preservation’ (also run by the Digital Preservation Coalition) – in fact, I think that event is what started me thinking seriously about a possible future as a ‘digital archivist’.

    There is an abundance of really good information out there for anyone interested in digital preservation, and an increasing amount of events to attend and to meet other interested parties. The problem is not one that is going to go away, and it is not something that can wait for the ‘perfect’ solution to come along. Information professionals should be encouraged to experiment as much as possible and to communicate with other interested parties regularly.

    I’m hoping to play around with a few more tools and to write something up here (although I can’t promise anything more coherent than a stream of consciousness!); in the meantime, check out these links and start ‘smelling the digital flowers’! <<JISC Beginners Guide to Digital Preservation << Digital Preservation Coalition << ‘Excuse me…some digital preservation fallacies’, by Chris Rushbridge << ‘Ensuring the longevity of digital information’ by Jeff Rothenberg

  • The Archivist and the Geek

    Date: 2012.01.21 | Category: Archives, Digital Preservation | Response: 0

    I’m a geek. I have been since I was 7 playing Buggy Boy incessantly the family Atari ST 1040. Anything to do with computers, the internet and gadgetry in general and I’m all over it.

    I’m also an Archivist (not an activist or even an anarchist…an Archivist), meaning that I spend my working day cataloguing historical documents, repacking books covered in red rot in acid free paper, answering historical enquiries relating to collections, and anything else that I can find to do with myself.

    I’ve always been interested in history and the idea that documents from the distant past can be preserved for future generations and, after my work experience at 16 when I was taken to a strongroom and shown an anglo-saxon house deed (wow!), I began to realise this was something I could do for a living.

    You would be forgiven for thinking that these two elements of my personality must be entirely independent, after all, how many Latin reading computer programmers do you come across? (Perhaps a little extreme but you get my point!) However, I am increasingly discovering that a lot of what I do in my spare time on a computer has come in very useful in my job as an archivist, and have developed a specific interest in digital preservation (ensuring that digital documents/video/sound files remain accessible for future generations).

    The humble document, the basis of an archivist’s role, no longer means a piece of paper in a folder on a desktop. Indeed, even a ‘folder on a desktop’ has a different meaning in a digital context. The way we create material is changing, and the role of an archivist has to change with it. Job specifications increasingly require ‘good IT skills’, including the occasional ‘familiarity with XML/EAD/METS (plus any number of additional obscure acronyms) and I for one think it could and should be easier for archivists to access simple information of the management and preservation of digital records.

    The aim of this blog then, is to chart my interest in digital preservation, and provide some notes, personal thoughts and links to interesting or otherwise relevant information.

    Current ideas of future posts include open source software, computer science basics for archivists, simple, practical digital preservation solutions and the changing role of the archivist.

    Thanks for reading – new posts should be landing soon!



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