Monday, 18 July 2011

Archivists' focus group

King's College Archives recently hosted a focus group comprising leading London archivists familiar with using AIM25. The purpose of the focus group was to understand how Linked Data approaches might speed up the behind-the-scenes editing work of the archivist and improve the front-end user experience. Representatives of Senate House Library, the London School of Economics, Wandsworth Heritage Services, the London Metropolitan Archives, the British Postal Museum, the Institute of Education and University of London Computer Centre were in attendance. Development work on new AIM25 records was showcased.

Real-time use of OpenCalais was demonstrated and tested by members using sample data and the results compared. Subject-term creation was shown to be an area of potential concern - OpenCalais was developed by Reuters as a news and current affairs-support service and terms tend to reflect this focus. More input from archive vocabularies was called for to enable OpenCalais's corpus to be enriched with Higher Education and other terminology. It was also suggested that Linked Data could provide fuzzy matching between formal if rather arcane UNESCO-style subject terms and terms that are in more popular use, to encourage discovery and take-up. It was suggested that the UK Archival Thesaurus could be enhanced and made available in a SKOS version.

The practical use to hard-pressed archivists came up time and again as a topic of conversation. Most archivists have neither the time nor budgets to engage in experimentation but need practical tools that they can plug into their work without fuss. Quantifying the benefits of Linked Data is vital to sell the approach to funders and institutional management. Cross-domain services are an important attraction in surfacing and linking archive information with books and museum content. The benefits of linking to Wikipedia services (DPedia) were raised - Wikipedia lies at the centre of the Linked Data universe. Biographical content could be imported wholesale from other sources and adapted for use in a particular record, which would save time researching and writing one from scratch.

The plans of proprietary suppliers like Axiell and Adlib was raised as an issue - are they planning to incoporate Linked Data tools in future versions of their archive management software? The role of Google was discussed. Do they have any Linked Data plans and if not, why not?

The issue was raised of which fields in ISAD(G) to include in Linked Data work. It was argued that focusing only on Scope and Content was a mistake, not least because of the value of authority records (Admin/Biographical) and related records fields. Linking to the NRA to surface related collections was discussed.

Indexing was discussed by panel members. Editors of AIM25, the Archives Hub or similar tools should be able to draw on Linked Data to improve or enhance the personal, corporate and place names of new and existing records (and the ability to retrospectively run existing records through OpenCalais was flagged as an important requirement - archivists are more likely to embrace LD if they can painlessly re-index their current content). Linked Data provides the opportunity for more automation  and speedier indexing, which are particularly useful for smaller archives without cataloguing expertise.

Next steps included further development on the indexing tools in order to compare workflow with traditional methods; build a prototype front-end delivery system to enhance collection level descriptions and engage in conversation with Google and others to identify best practice.

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