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Archival Context and Description – Taking It to the Next Level

In her post Describe, display, explain… [1], Jill Hurst-Wahl of the fabulous Digitization 101 [2] talks about being more ambitious and committed to describing things well. This resonated very strongly for me, for so much of what I believe about enhancing access to and understanding of archival records online is tied up with describing them well. I don’t mean this solely in the traditional use of the term Description [3] as it is used in the archival arena – but more in terms of the Five Ws [4].

They are not so very different really. The best finding aids and item level meta data can give you the same type of background information that would make any journalist proud. Who created these records? What are they? Why were they created? Where were they created? When? How?

This gives me a great chance to point people again to the Library of Congress American Memory Browse Collections page [5]. I fell in love with it back when I was doing research for the paper that became my SAA 2006 Poster [6], but I couldn’t put my finger on how to explain why I liked it so much. I think it goes back to that basic journalistic approach to thinking about things. Am I interested in who created the records and why? Browse by topic. Am I interested in where the records were created? Browse by place. Am I interested in when the records were created? Browse by time period. You get the idea. (In a perfect world, there would be an advanced search option that would let me specify more than one of these interests at a time – but that is a topic for another day.)

So much of this goes back to some of the basics of web design. If you care about this sort of thing and you haven’t yet read Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think [7] – do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy. It is an easy, quick and fun read – and it will leave you wishing that you could force it on the designers of every frustrating website you have ever been forced to muddle through when trying to get things done.

What would it be like if users of online archival collections didn’t need to learn new terminology in order to get the most out of the records? What if you never had to hunt to find the background history for a record because it was so obvious where to click? While I love the idea of thorough item level descriptions – I understand why that is not a reasonable expectation for most digitized archival collections. What I want is the context for any record an easy and obvious click away.

Of course if you want the dreamy version, then I would encourage folksonomy [8] tagging and end user descriptions of digitized items. I know this would not work many places – but I suspect some experimentation with this kind of model with the right sort of collections would take the “Do you know who is in this photo” [9] sorts of appeals to the next level.

I remember asking in my first Archives course if the archivists take information from the users of the records and add that information back into the finding aids. The answer was of the “maybe… sometimes” variety – followed up with an explanation of how archivists often have private files about a collection that are not shown to patrons. The thought was that perhaps an archivist might add a note there. My thinking was that since one of the biggest challenges with archival records is that it is possible that any single researcher is looking at a record for the first time since it was created (at least in any intent sort of way) – wouldn’t you want to harness that attention and use it to help others know what that first person found there?

This is already being done at the University of Michigan with the Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections [10]. They permit entry of comments at the item level and support search of the text in those comments. Every time someone adds a comment they are extending the description of the item. Take a look this comment on the Silver Parrish diary [11] item (this was listed as the most recent comment just know when I looked at the site).

So thank you Jill for making me think about description again – from a new point of view. The more we do to describe everything fully, make it easy to find that information and let our users add more information to the mix – the more dynamic, usable and alive archival records will become.

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