Getting Lost and Found in the Archives

In his article “Archives and Museum Informatics Technical Report #9,” David Bearman argues that archives are failing because their methods are inadequate to meet the goals of the profession. The major purposes of archives – selection and appraisal, retention and preservation, arrangement and description, and access and use – have their own unique problems, but overall each is failing because archivists neglect to recognize that they are part of the history of objects, not an apolitical collecting force, and because they do not think of the needs of the user. Potential solution recommended by Bearman for these problems are to share information across platforms, create one centralized database language to improve searchability, and to track the kinds of questions asked by the public. This would shift the archives core goal to usability by the public, instead of preservation alone. Written in the late 1980’s this article is somewhat out dated. Though all archives do not use interconnected standards, many use Encoded Archival Description standards.

Run through the Library of Congress, Encoded Archival Description (EAD) provides the exact kind of standardized archival language called for by Bearnman. The “de facto standard for the encoding of finding aids for use in a networked (online) environment” have been in place since 1998. The site provides standards in the two syntaxes RNG and XSD, with each of these containing information on how to standardize dates, titles, location in archive, and more. The Encoded Archival Context for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families (EAC-CPF) also provides standards for archival encoding, but for corporation archivess specifically. By teaching archivists and their web-developers simple code this site provides the tools through which a more user friendly archive environment can be created.

The EAD roundtable was also created in 1998 to “handle the informal aspects of EAD implementation.” This roundtable sheds more light on the continued use of EAD, with information from the 2012 annual meeting. This is helpful because the Library of Congress EAD homepage did not mention any updates after 2002. Though this article shows at least somewhat the scope of EAD use, with information about organization itineraries, participants, and grant recipients, it is still unclear exactly how widespread this practice is. Though creating the standards is a wonderful first step, if they are not nationally used they will create fewer meaningful connections for users.

The Social Networks and Archival Context Project, or the SNAC, tackles this question of actual improvement to the experience of archives users. Using university, regional, and national archives this project “will use digital technology to ‘unlock’ descriptions of people from finding aids” to “create an efficient open-sourced tool” and help “provide more meaningful access.” The blog ArchivesNext by Kate Theimer, a one time archivist for the National Archives who spent six years working with EAD standards, also looks at how these standards are being implemented in archives and how successful they are. Judging by the tone of these projects it seems that while standards have been created they are not used across the board, and that emphasis on the user experience is even less widely used.

This is disappointing because archives which use these standards are pretty user friendly, as evidenced from the University of Michigan’s Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections. An archive focused on U.S. forces in Russia during World War One, the information can either be browsed by collections, personal names, geographic location, military units/ organizations, media types, or by subject. Each of the browsing types is helpful, with all coming to the same item format of title, creator, dates, extent (number of folders or files), and an abstract. Additionally the “search terms in context” function which links the data you had with other similar information was particularly useful. Though the information within the archive is largely not digitized, which would be ideal, this finding aid does make it easy for a user to find what they need, no matter what information they arrived with. However, it is still unclear how much this site tracks the needs of its users or uses crowdsourcing to help improve their site, potential areas for improvement after almost 30 years since Bearman’s initial recommendations.

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Digital Exhibits – Museum Exhibits, Digital Tools, and Case Studies

The readings for this week focused on the creation of digital exhibits and how museum exhibits evolved during the twentieth century.

In his book Do Museums Still Need Objects? Steven Conn looks at the changing role of museums in the U.S. from their golden age in the nineteenth century through the twentieth century. Looking at each of the six kinds of museums first envisioned by the early Smithsonian visionary George Brown Goode – art, natural history, history, anthropology, technology, and commercial – Conn shows that though the architecture of the museums, their teaching aims, and their communication styles have changed that museums remain central to the education of Americans and the development of a public sphere for civic identity. While he laments the loss of the centrality of objects, the move from general education to youth entertainment, and the overall retreat from infrastructure of public engagement in American society, Conn still believes that museums play an important role in bringing large cross sections of the public together.

Though this book had its interesting moments, such as teaching about the demise of the commercial museum as a museum type and the weaknesses of repatriating objects, overall I found it muddled. Conn lost track of his central question, “do museums still need objects?,” in his tangents about public good and architecture which were never brought back around to dealing with this issue. Perhaps if Conn had considered museums into the twenty-first century or looked to the digitization of their objects and catalogs he would have come to different conclusions about the continued centrality of objects.

While Conn focused on museums exclusively, Krugg focused on digital tools exclusively. Stephen Krugg’s Dont Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability is a manual for beginner and amateur web-designers. It goes through the basics of design standards with the goal of making sites more easily understood and used by visitors. In order to achieve this Krugg stressed the importance of frequent user testing. Other important elements of websites emphasized in this book were that they meet accessibility standards for users with disabilities and that they be considerate to your users – meaning that they answer those questions which are most important to the user in a way that is straightforward. These last two points stood out to me as key takeaways from this book because I do not always think of them in my own designs, but I should. This book will be helpful to show the nuts and bolts of how to make a successful digital exhibit with regards to form, while the articles for this week focused on content.

The article “Digital Storytelling in Museums: Observations and Best Practices” by Wyman, Smith, and Godfrey uses their experiences at Second Story interactive studios to outline some of the core challenges to museums in the digital age and ways to overcome them. They acknowledge museums’ hesitation to embrace new technologies and social media, but say that the true issue at hand is how to best frame their content in a way that is most useful and desirable to their virtual and in-person visitors. The rise of the virtual visitor means that experiences are no longer very tied to venue, a huge shift in the museum world and a realization that could have helped Conn’s argument. The authors outline a series of strategic and tactical recommendations (pp 465-467), with the greatest takeaways being that having a clear message about what you would like to communicate and choosing the right tool, not necessarily the flashiest tool, will lead to the most successful projects.

The article “Enhancing Museum Narratives with the QRator Project: a Tasmanian devil, a Platypus and a Dead Man in a Box,” looks at the QRator project to show how mobile devices and interactive labels can be used to create new user generated content and new learning opportunities. These new technologies allow people to experience objects in new ways. This happens both by allowing them to have access to more content about the object through the web, and by contributing their own information. Despite fears from staff about graffiti, this user generated information was on topic and relevant 83% of the time. One potential weakness of this project is its reliance on information sharing through Twitter, which is not embraced as a tool by a cross section of the entire population.

In the article “On Air, Online and Onsite: The British Museum and the BBC’s ‘A History of the World,’” the authors look at the project “A History of the World” which used 100 objects from the British Museum to tell the story of the history of the world. This project featured in museum exhibits, radio broadcasts, a website, social media voting campaigns, and the capability for visitors to nominate their own personal objects for consideration through partnerships with BBC programs such as “Antiques Roadshow.” With these many varied approaches of forums through which to experience the project, the exhibit was hugely successful, reaching up to 1/3 of the UK’s population and shows the possibilities for learning from a truly dynamic exhibit.

Both of the articles this week which focused on developments in science museums, “Iterating for Visitors at the Exploratorium” by Eric Socolofsky and “Museum Games: Some Strategies for Achieving Project Goals” by Elizabeth Goins, focus on the importance of user testing throughout the life of the project. In looking at science museums neither of the authors seem to think that this museums overwhelming appeal to children over other audiences is a problem the way that Conn does.

The reading from Contents Magazine which stood out to me in connection to this week’s readings about digital exhibits was Sally Whitting’s article “Digital Archives and the Content Strategist.” This article argues that content strategists should think of themselves as archivists for digital projects, mining information and presenting it to users in the most straightforward, helpful way possible. It also argues that archivists should think of themselves as content strategists with regards to digital archives, asking more active questions about curation instead of passively thinking about what visitors want alone. Showing the interaction between these two seemingly different professions reveals the ways that traditional, object based institutions can move into the digital realm without completely abandoning tenets of the profession.