We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Archivists, we are all Librarians.
(with apologies to Thomas Jefferson)
There has been for years a tension among librarians, archivists, and museum collections managers over how to manage and make available their collections. Each seeks to serve his or her own community, and within that narrow sphere each method is reasonably internally coherent. Researchers who wanted to cross the disciplines for their research normally learned the language (structure, syntax, and semantics) of the discipline in which they wanted to study and worked from there.
The advent of electronic systems and the desire to exchange and aggregate information was the first indication that this arrangement was not sustainable. Next, the advent of the Web and web search engines brought the possibility that non-professional researchers would want to discover things without learning the language of libraries, archives and museums made it imperative that everyone learn to speak the language of the masses instead of requiring the masses to learn the language of the elite.
Metadata schemas based on traditional practices developed as each group searched for the high-ground of metadata (or cataloging as it was called then) authority. Libraries, by virtue of their early adoption of standardized metadata in the form of the MARC record, took the early lead in the schema development, while museums and archives often insisted that their collections were too “unique” to be constrained by a standard descriptive approach. Nevertheless, time, as they say, marched on, and archives, museums, art galleries, and other cultural heritage organizations embraced metadata as it came to be called, and developed descriptive schemas of their own, EAD, VRA, CCO, etc.
Libraries evolved into digital libraries, cataloging “atomistic” objects and applying descriptors in order to group and arrange them. Museums, concerned with provenance and cultural meaning, managed and described their objects based on origin, with less regard to subject description. Archivists, also concerned with provenance, were more concerned with “original order” and developed Encoded Archival Description to mimic the structure and style of the paper finding aid (the infamous “black binder”) and preserving in digital form the conventions of the past.
The new Internet researchers, blissfully unaware of the controversy swirling around them, just typed a word into the Google search box and used what came up in the result list. Computer scientists, who took the lead in digital library development, ignored, or were ignorant of, the whole controversy and focused on relationships among digital objects, the only things that mattered to them. This idea of concentrating on the relationships among objects is the kernel of the idea of quantum archives.
When it comes to digital objects the traditional approaches of descriptive methodology can be discarded. Digital object management allows us to manage our collections in one way, present them in another, and exchange them in any way we choose. The idea of quantum archives begins with the idea that digital objects deserve individual attention and management. The question arises as to what a digital object actually is. Is it one file, metadata plus a primary content object? a SIP, DIP, or AIP? Complex objects, made up of dozens or even thousands of pieces are possible. Well, it doesn’t really matter, everyone can define their “quanta” and each quanta can be different in different situations. The objects float freely in cyberspace, with the ability to find their own level. In short, everything is metadata!
Using this principle, I can create a “traditional ” finding aid, arranged by provenance and original order, and in another context, take that same group of objects and arrange them by another principle, say format, or subject, or any other attribute I can define in a metadata field. Freed from the constraints of “traditional” management and description in any of the disciplines, the smallest indivisible pieces of digital content can combine and recombine in endless permutations. And, just as both position and velocity cannot be known at the same time about sub-atomic particles, for digital objects, order or organization is relative to use or context at a particular moment in a particular system, and cannot be fixed for all time and places.
This is a good thing.
Adopting the quantum approach to digital objects frees us from quibbling over schemas, order, and the “right” way to describe objects. We just let them go and they will find their place.
We will continue to explore the idea of the quantum archival object in other posts.