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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