Tom Scheinfeldt Made Me Write This Post!

Sort of…I’ve been on an “anti-social” network kick for a while as I have been busy working on the Connecticut Digital Archive project. Lots of tiny details related to infrastructure that I thought would be completely uninteresting to anyone. My mistake. The beauty of blog posts is that they are in the moment and ephemeral, so if it is boring a reader or follower can just skip it. If the next one is interesting you can read it. The point is to toss it out there and add to the conversation, in the long run everything necessary will get said and everything unnecessary will be forgotten.

What does this have to do with Tom Scheinfeldt? Nothing directly and that is the point. Tom is teaching a class here at UConn about Digital Culture–I’d recommend it to anyone at UConn who has an opportunity to take it. His syllabus includes a mention of Andrew Sullivan, a former editor at the Atlantic who is of course a blogger, but who wrote an article way back in 2008 called “Why I Blog.” (Full disclosure here. I didn’t find this out for myself, I was alerted to it by my colleague Jean Nelson–who found it from one of Tom’s tweets–thanks for the tip Jean!)

Sullivan describes the blog as “the spontaneous expression of instant thought … its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory.” And, unlike print journalism or book or journal authorship “It is accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers and other bloggers, and linked via hypertext to continuously multiplying references and sources.”

It is difficult for those of us who were brought up in research disciplines to “blurt” our thoughts before we have defined, refined, and attributed them to evidence.  What I ultimately understood about blogging from reading this article came from some advice Sullivan attributes to Matt Drudge that “the key to understanding a blog is to realize that it’s a broadcast, not a publication. If it stops moving it dies. If it stops paddling it sinks.”  Brevity and immediacy is the currency of the blogosphere. This doesn’t mean that posts should not be well-considered, just that they can contribute to the world without having been vetted and edited, because its value is in how it makes connections with others thinking the same thing.

The social network relies on immediacy, shout outs, and sharing, something hard for a dinosaur like me to embrace, but I will do my best. When I have something to say, I won’t worry about who wants to hear. In some ways the internet is the ultimate “build it and they will come” environment.

Special Collections and Digital Scholarship

The Reading Room at the British Museum

In the early days of digital scholarship, “real” scholarship and web delivery were seenas incompatible and even the most innovative scholars published in traditional journals. Gradually, with the development of online article archives (originally limited to pre-prints or post prints) and the emergence of the Open Access movement that model began to change. Concurrently, the development of software and systems designed to disseminate digital scholarship (DSpace and the Open Journal System for example), and course material sharing and collaboration sites, such as Rice University’s Connexions, and MIT’s Open Courseware among others, helped to alter the attitudes of scholars and tenure committees toward the idea of web-based publishing and scholarship.
This revolution is by no means complete, but the tide is definitely running in favor of electronic publishing, in either traditional or more importantly in new more open and flexible models. SHERPA/RoMEO has become the de facto aggregator of publishing rights information, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) now numbers more than 6,000 titles, and the development of the Creative Commons has permanently changed the landscape for intellectual property management.


This revolution in scholarly publishing has spawned a complimentary revolution in access to research data. In the print environment, citations were the chief means of referencing supporting evidence and data. Libraries housed untold volumes to support citation following. Even so, references to primary sources or unpublished research meant that this material remained almost permanently unavailable to all but a few scholars. Digitization of historical sources and digital repositories, as well as access to digitized printed works are changing this model. This revolution was pioneered in what has become known as the digital humanities. Most notably, and somewhat surprisingly, this occurred first in the classics and archaeology and then spread to the hard sciences.  Today, research data, in both the humanities and the hard sciences is being deposited in open-access repositories and being made available to scholars worldwide. Combine that with the permeation of electronic versions of printed works and you have a scholarly experience that mimics the link-following behavior of the web. I can read a scholarly work and click to look at the data that supports a particular point, or I can read an entire letter that is only briefly quoted in an article and tell immediately if the author took the quote out of context.


As they have for centuries, libraries can remain standing at the nexus of scholarly communication if they can pursue traditional services in modern ways. Winston Tabb of Johns Hopkins University recently made the point that “data centers are the new library stacks.” As more published information is available electronically from cloud-based providers, local libraries can become the stewards of unique scholarly data (and by scholarly data we mean all the resources used to create scholarship and new knowledge) created by faculty, and students, that contribute to the growth of knowledge. Libraries have the organizational structure and ability to potentially support long term preservation of not only the digital content, but the permanence of access that is required for scholarship. Additionally, libraries, with their understanding of copyright and ethical values of information exchange, can support Open Access publishing in its own right by leading the movement in both thought and action by becoming not only the stewards of scholarly content, but the distributors of that content as well.


It seems to me that this approach to thinking about the library, and increasing the visibility and prominence of its special and unique collections, will help libraries, especially Special Collections libraries, not only avoid the fate of Blockbuster Video, but remain relevant and important in the world of scholarship.

Video is the Snapshot of the 21st Century

The other day my family and I were at the local “Pumpkin Festival” and we ran into another family we knew from my daughter’s pre-school class. As we walked around the festival, I was snapping photos with my “pro-sumer” digital SLR when I noticed that our friend was holding his phone up in front of him most of the time.

The still image, an obsolete documentary form?

“Oh I don’t take pictures anymore” he said when I asked him what he was doing, “I only shoot video. We don’t even use a camera nowadays.” I didn’t tell him that he was, in fact using a camera, but it was instructive to hear that HE didn’t think of recording video as “taking pictures.” Still photography, even digital still photography,  to him was as archaic as wet plates or daguerreotypes.

I thought this was a telling development, and one that archivists will certainly need to navigate sooner rather than later. Digital video is becoming the preferred method of recording the 21st-century family events and history that social scientists and historians will want to study. Are we ready for it? Do we have the means to store, manage, and provide access to this new ubiquitous media? This again points to the necessity for even local historical societies (often the recipients of this type of family material) to have access to digital repository systems. Technology aside, I wondered how we would manage to catalog this in a way that makes it discoverable.

Then I thought that maybe it isn’t the potential problem that it could be. I mean, the digital video comes complete with a time stamp (Month, Day, Year, Hour, Minute, Second), lots of other metadata (duration, camera, settings) and most importantly, geographic location. And, if we have any kind of luck, we will have some sort of donor information that will give us at least some indication of the creator. That’s a darn sight more metadata than the vast majority of analog prints in most archives ever have.

So, is it fair to say that digital video has replaced the snapshot as the family history recording medium of choice? If not now, then soon, I think. I also think it IS fair to say that video will provide historians with a snapshot of life in the first half of the 21st century.

What if Ramond Loewy Designed Our Access Tools?

S-1 Locomotive (Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

Known as the father of industrial design, Raymond Loewy practically invented the look of “modernism” in industrial and consumer products. The iconic S-1 locomotive with its streamlined design became a model for everything from locomotives to automobiles to toasters in mid-century America.

The point is not that we need streamlined access tools (well we DO, but not in this way), but that maybe we should look to industrial designers as inspiration for the design of our access tools as much as we look at information architecture. This thought was inspired by a conversation I had at the recent IMLS WebWise conference here in Denver a couple of weeks ago. Jodi Allison-Bunnel of the Northwest Digital Archives and I were talking about building user interfaces and how the idea of user-centered design could lead to stagnation unless it was possible to translate users often unarticulated desires into something completely new. At which point I pulled out my iPhone and said something like “If somebody had asked me what I wanted in a handheld communications device I wouldn’t have described this!” Yet the design of my iPhone (and other smartphones) suits the needs of my mobile information seeking activities very well even if I couldn’t have explained it to someone ahead of time.

University of Wyoming Libraries web site

Does this mean we should design all of our discovery portals to mimic the experience of my iPhone? Perhaps, perhaps not. I know that there is an entire academic discipline of Human Computer Interaction, and there are Information Architects galore. But maybe we need to broaden our thinking a bit and reach out to people who are not necessarily in the world of information management but are a part of a world that makes useful things elegant as well as utilitarian.  Should I feel a sense of joy or excitement when I use an archival discovery and delivery system rather than just satisfaction that I discovered something? When we designed our access tools we spent a lot of time thinking about the functionality, and by and large we got that right. Maybe we should have taken a bit more time to think about the elegance of the tool as well. Maybe we will pretty soon.

From Being to Becoming: Archivists Confront the Twentieth Century

Ten years into the twenty-first century we are beginning to see a movement among archivists to move forward into the twentieth century. All this really means is that Archivists are beginning to understand the balance between being and becoming. The idea that constant change, balanced and tempered by a consistent theoretical foundation, might just be the roadmap for the profession is slowly permeating the ethos of more “modern” or forward thinking archivists.

Howard Besser says that most new technology is used at first to mimic the old ways in a new form. “The conceptual steps [of technology development] typically include first trying to replicate core activities that functioned in the analog environment.”  So it stands to reason then that before we could invent new forms of access we had to re-invent the paper finding aid in the form of EAD.

However, it seemed that in doing so we raised the finding aid, rather than access to the material itself, to the level of an objective and actually prevented archivists from providing good service in the Internet environment. Before the age of computers and digitization,  there really was no point in providing highly granular content information to users. You still had to come to the repository and interact with the content in ways that did not disrupt the physical order of the boxes and folders. This filing system approach, while efficient and effective in its time and place, was a barrier to use. Everyone understood this, but no one had any real idea of how to do it better or differently. Thus, archivists became the interpreters of collections, a kind of human finding aid.

As with any bureaucratic system (and I mean this in the most positive possible sense), once it was devised, a class of apparatchiks grew up to tend the system and became vested in its perpetuation. The essential conservative nature of archives also contributed to the idea that the finding aid was sacred and that the Archivist as gatekeeper was the best possible way to provide service. I’ll wager that this access method was never satisfactory to the general user, but then, the only “serious” researchers were supposed to use archives anyway.

I don’t want to say that the parents of EAD didn’t do creative work. But they were working within a context of thinking from which they were unable to break free. It would have been surprising if they had, and if they did, perhaps no one would have listened to them anyway.

My own introduction to formal archival education came just before the introduction of EAD, and since I came from a research and teaching background, my idea of what an archives could or should be was based on user-centered ideas (although I didn’t know that term at the time).  I wanted to get to the “stuff” and draw my own conclusions, after all, that’s what I was there for. Most of my work when I was a classroom teacher centered on teaching with primary sources. It was always surprising what a group of students would see in a set of documents that I had never seen.

When I crossed over from researcher/teacher to service provider, I always believed that keeping the researcher as close to the content as possible was the most important thing an archivist could do. Give them the stuff and get out of the way!

Although it is obviously not quite as simple as that, we do have the capability to do this now. The Internet and digitization makes this all possible. But just how will we do it? By constantly trying new ways to present our archival material.

A couple of years ago, I gave a presentation at the SAA meeting in Chicago that I called “Where Have All the Binders Gone?” That introduced an idea that we should try to manage and provide access as close to the content as possible. This later evolved into the theory of quantum archives and is the inspiration for this blog.

The Quick Start Guide to Becoming a Professional Archivist

When we were first developing a productivity-based  processing workflow system for the Digital Collections and Archives at Tufts University, we had a whiteboard on which we wrote motivational phrases that reminded us of the things that were important for us to remember. These guiding principles were later codified into what we called the “Quickstart Guide to Becoming a Professional Archivist.”   It had two sections, one on archival principles and one on attitudes about processing. We used the Quickstart Guide as a introductory and training tool for new staff members.

The Guide introduced concepts like “lumpers vs. splitters” and “ruthless efficiency and dogged persistence.” as ideas related to archival processing as well as asking more philosophical questions about the role of the archivist in creating knowledge.

Back then the Quickstart Guide was mostly focused on processing paper records. As time went on and I began to use the Quickstart Guide as a teaching tool, I realized that in the born digital age, processing had changed significantly and that the old Guide was a bit out of touch. For example, the original Guide emphasized that good archival description proceeded from the General to the Specific and moved down that continuum as time and resources allowed. Quantum Archival theory turns that idea on its head, and says that good archival description focuses on specifics first and moves to generalities as time allows.

So I went back and revised it for the digital world. The result is the Quick Start Guide 2.1.

The Quick Start Guide, 2.1

The key change was to emphasize that “management is not access.” That is, the way we manage our collections is not necessarily (or even desirably) the way we want users to access our collections. The ability to separate management from access is one of the key values of digitized and born digital archival content.

The Quick Start Guide remains a central statement of what I consider to be “good” archival attitudes. It is the first thing I teach in my classes.

Cyberinfrastructure and the Archives

In 2004, the NSF released the “Report of Blue-Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cyberinfrastructure” that outlined an ambitious program to provide for scientists and science scholars a network of support that went beyond mere bandwidth and computers that would encourage and enable discovery, collaboration, and progress in scientific inquiry.

Not to be outdone, two years later the American Council of Learned Societies’ Commission on Cyberinfrastructure produced, “Our Cultural Commonwealth,” the Humanists’s perspective on supporting scholarship in the digital age.

Since then there have been numerous initiatives relating to cyberinfrastructure in both Higher and K-12 Education, Science, and Humanities scholarship. Yet, to my knowledge nothing has been written concerning the impact or use of cyberinfrastructure on archives or the work that archivists do.

Cyberinfrastructure is “more than a tangible network and means of storage in digitized form, and it is not only discipline-specific software applications and project-specific data collections. It is also the more intangible layer of expertise and the best practices, standards, tools, collections and collaborative environments (italics added) that can be broadly shared across communities of inquiry.” (From “Our Cultural Commonwealth”)

At the heart of the cyberinfrastructure vision is the development of a cultural community that supports peer-to-peer collaboration and new modes of education based upon broad and open access to leadership computing; data and information resources; online instruments and observatories; and visualization and collaboration services. Cyberinfrastructure enables distributed knowledge communities that collaborate and communicate across disciplines, distances and cultures. These research and education communities extend beyond traditional brick-and-mortar facilities, becoming virtual organizations that transcend geographic and institutional boundaries. (from the NSF’s “Cyberinfrastructure Vision for the 21st Century” 2007)

In short, cyberinfrastructure is what underlies the modern academic world of collaborative, interdisciplinary research, teaching, and learning. It is the network of associated technology, middleware, and visualization tools and services that enables interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration and supports the development of innovative teaching and research.

Thinking of it this way, I think an important question we must ask ourselves is how can we integrate primary resources under our stewardship into the cyberinfrastructure of our institutions, our regions, and the world? Alternatively, how do we, as archivists, document and manage digital content that lives everywhere and nowhere at the same time?

Again, I’ll come back to a recurring theme, we need to make it possible to de-contextualize our collection objects so that they can be re-contextualized by scholars or anyone who has a use for them. This is not so different from traditional research, as the research function is all about creating new knowledge from primary resources (what “primary” may mean is another topic altogether). Secondly, we need to project those objects to the places where people are. In an academic setting, that means things like courseware tools or other places where students are encountering the building blocks of their work.

The Quantum Archivist Manifesto, Part I

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.