A place where I can talk about my research and other interests -- history, magic, ham radio, technology, and making things.

Friday, October 5, 2007


In a recent class on archival practices, the instructor made the comment that in multi-level archival descriptions of collections, item descriptions are often not included. Items are the lowest level in the hierarchy of archival descriptive practice, and are the individual pieces of the collection. Typically, an archivist's time cannot be devoted entirely to creating item descriptions for each piece of the collection, and so it just doesn't get done.

A historian, researcher or user of archived material primarily interacts directly with those items for their work, rather than just the macro-level collections. They are the end users of the material, and interact with it in ways that archivists may not have time or the inclination to do. Descriptions of the items in a collection could be very useful to those researchers.

This situation possibly suggests a disconnect between the creators of the descriptions and the end users of a collection. One way to handle that disconnect has been to ask the archivists for assistance. Although item descriptions have not been written, archivists have worked extensively to preserve, catalogue and describe the collection. This intimate work with the collection has likely left elements of various parts of the collection in the memory of the individual archivists.

What can be done if the archivist who has that knowledge in their mind does not happen to be at the archives on the day you are in to do your research? Or, what happens when the archivist retires or leaves that collection? Is that knowledge lost as well? The gap still exists, and there are no long-term or permanent initiatives to bridge that divide.

Perhaps wiki technology can mediate that gap.

Multi-level descriptions are useful for finding and identifying material and portions of the collection of interest to the researcher. They are well-defined, clear to understand, and aide in narrowing down where material relevant to the researcher's work may be. These could be left intact, and would form the base of the collection descriptions. They could be made by the archivists, as they currently are, and would not be part of the wiki portion of the descriptions.

The descriptions could then branch from highest level to the lower levels. The upper levels, made by the archivists, would be fixed and unchangeable by users. The lowest level -- the item descriptions -- would be the wiki. The users of that material could voluntarily add descriptions of what they are working with to a wiki as they use those items. As more material gets used, more of it will be described. Others who return to the same material have the option of updating those descriptions by adding their own. They may have even been led to that material by reading the earlier description(s).

This approach would have the advantage of creating and providing more information about the collection. It would bridge that gap between the end users and the creators of the collection descriptions, and provide useful information that otherwise would not be a part of the descriptions. On a conceptual level, it would also involve the end user in the creation process of the descriptions. This might create a greater connection between the user of the material and the collection as a whole.

Issues of trust appear to be one of the major concerns of wikis, but the specialized case of archival descriptions mitigates those issues. The current users of archives, and therefore those who would be most likely to use a system like this, are probably a very small but highly interested portion of society. Disclaimers could be provided at the item descriptions to make it clear that the information there was not created by archivists but rather by the users of the material, and that it can be updated by others. Finally, since archival material is typically used within the confines of the archival institution, limits could be placed on the IP addresses that can post material. In that case, only computers physically in the archives could update the descriptions while they are with the material. Users are often required to sign in with the archival institution upon arrival, so authors of entries to the wiki, even if anonymous or pseudonymous, could likely be determined by the institution.

Moderated wikis also exist, and that could be one other means to control the information if that was deemed necessary by the archival institution.

The item descriptions would result in a richer database for use by researchers. The wiki could be made available online for anyone interested to read and look for information. Researchers could then go back and read their own descriptions if they wanted to it, or see how others described the same material. How descriptions change over time may also prove to be valuable information. The knowledge would be more durable, more complex, and provide an added resource for the users while making them a part of the archival process.