| The impact of computerization on archival finding aids: A ramp study |
This study has considered in turn the kinds of archival finding aid produced in a computerised, environment; the perceived benefits and problems particularly associated with computerisation in this field, many of them methodological or technical in nature, but some more a question of management and resources; and thirdly the principal areas of concern, as represented in current research into such matters as standards for archival description, data exchange formats, the establishment of computer networks, and experiments with new computer technology including optical disks.
Computers have the potential to make us look afresh at the elements of information about archives and the ways in which these may be manipulated, merged and presented to users. The data need not be static, as it is in many finding aids of a more traditional kind, but may instead be dynamic, constantly kept up to date and cumulated with other data to allow more extensive, and better directed, searching. Databases, some already of prodigious size, are quite different in concept from finding aids of the precomputer age.
Computers have facilitated the production of every kind of finding aid both for the management and physical control of the archives and for their intellectual control for access by readers. In turn, automation has encouraged the creation of summary guides to holdings of individual repositories and of inter-repository guides, and has enhanced the ability of archivists to explain provenance and authority in relation to each fonds, concepts which although central to archival description are still little understood by the mass of users.
The overwhelming impression from returns to the questionnaire is that computerisation has brought substantial, if still imperfectly measurable, benefits in this area, as well as a host of problems, which in some measure all computer users have experienced, but to which on the whole solutions have been found, or are being sought in current research.
Among the broadly 'methodological' problems, the agreeing of national and international standards for archival description may be singled out for special attention. Six countries replying to the questionnaire (Australia, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States of America) included this among their priorities for further development. Although such standardisation, would be equally beneficial in manual systems, it has special relevance in this context as a means of facilitating the transfer of archival data from one computer to another, on which much else may depend.
Many of the 'technical' problems, on the other hand, (the choice of a suitable system, the means of communication between one computer and another, etc) appear to be characteristic of computerisation in general rather than specific to its application in the field of archival finding aids which was the primary concern of this report. If one problem particularly associated with finding aids stands out from the returns as causing continuing concern it is that of converting word-processed text into database structures, more particularly in larger archives where the volume of information already word-processed is substantial.
It is clear, however, that the problems demanding the most urgent attention differ from country to country and even from archives to archives according to the stage of computer applications and development that has been reached. The examples considered have ranged from those archives wondering how best to take the first tentative steps in computerisation to those that have already traveled so far and so fast that they now find it a time for serious stock-taking and longer-term strategic planning to make the best use of computer resources for the future.
The terms of reference for this study did not call for any recommendations. But some final reflections arising from the evidence collected during the survey seem appropriate in conclusion.
Those archivists just beginning their explorations of computerisation need to know how to avoid some of the problems encountered by their now more experienced colleagues. This means that the dissemination of news and views about archival computer applications will continue to be of paramount importance.
In some countries this is already being well provided-for at national level, through the professional associations, the professional and technical literature, and computer user groups.
Internationally, the ICA has promoted communication, through its conferences and publications, and particularly by means of its Committee on Automation, which brings together experts for the exchange of information and ideas and publishes technical papers. ICA has also maintained valuable contacts with other international bodies representing the information professions, and with the International Standards Organisation.
Unesco for its part has assisted developing countries through expert consultancies and bilateral programmes during the formative phases of their computerisation Its freely available CDS/ISIS software (see p.22) is being widely adopted. A number of its RAMP studies have dealt with aspects of archival automation. In view of the major costs of computerisation financial and technical aid seems likely to be a continuing need.
By building on the existing partnership between individual archival institutions, the ICA and Unesco, it should be possible to go further in pooling experience on archival information for wider benefit, whether in publications, commissioned research or practical training.
1. There is a demand for guidelines on how to plan and implement computerisation for archives, on systems analysis and the preparation of operational requirements, and on how to assess and evaluate software applications and packages. Some guidance already exists at national level, but it could usefully be consolidated and brought up to date for international use.
2. One respondent to the questionnaire suggested that it would be helpful to distribute information about individual systems, to commission specific tests and reports, investigate particular problems, and ultimately to develop software for archival application. This proposal extends well beyond the specific areas of this report. ICA might wish to give it further consideration. A special study could, for example, be made of the application of CDS/ISIS for archives. Insofar as current trading practices permit, archives which have developed their own software applications or have found particular commercial packages to be useful could also be given an opportunity to draw these to wider attention. There might eventually be scope for a deliberate reduction in the number of different applications covering what are in many respects similar archival operations, and for the selection and development of the best for wider dissemination.
3. Training, too, will continue to play an important part. Sometimes there is no alternative to self-help, from the available literature or by direct experience of the computer system, and some have in any case found this the best form of instruction. But workshops, for example in database applications, which have proved valuable at the national level, might be further extended to an international audience, whilst more specialised workshops might bring together those archivists and other experts working at the frontiers of our science, in areas such as artificial intelligence/expert systems, the development of standards for the communication of electronic records and the creation of networks. National and bilateral initiatives have already been taken in these areas. The effort may now need to be extended over a wider international front.
To return finally to standards for archival description, the essential groundwork has to be laid at national level or (experimentally for the time being) among neighbouring countries with similar archival traditions. Those countries with a common or closely related language or history might work together to address common problems, as some of the examples cited have already shown them to be doing in other fields. They should then be encouraged to share their experience more widely if appropriate.
Discussion of standards should involve the widest possible constituency, certainly of archivists but probably of other users also, in order to ensure that any resulting standards command the widest possible respect and following. There is no virtue in establishing purely hypothetical norms to which nobody will subscribe. The ICA's working party on descriptive standards (see p.34) will provide a focus for the wider exploration of these issues, in consultation with ICA's committees, sections and branches. It seems likely that a number of parallel consultations, on such matters as authority control, will be necessary as this work proceeds.