Opening Up Archives, now in its second year, is a collaborative project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, The National Archives, and a number of host organisations across the country. You’ll be hearing from most of the 13 trainees in the coming months as we share our thoughts about what we’ve learned working and training within the sector.
Part of my role here as a trainee at Nottinghamshire Archives is to investigate how digital media can be used to bring the public closer to some of the archival collections we care for, and Nottinghamshire’s history more broadly. To that end, I’ve been tweeting as a frustrated 18th century spinster, developing an online presence for a youth heritage conference, and coding away at things which I hope to share very soon. I’ve also been learning a bit about the importance of digital preservation, but there are more knowledgeable people around here who can tell you about that.
Mundaneum, early web concept - CC Matthew Burpee - http://www.flickr.com/photos/mburpee/2589663547/
Working at the intersection of old records and new technologies, I’ve been thinking a lot in recent months about how digital culture is changing the world of archives, and I was surprised to learn that these changes aren’t entirely unanticipated. In 1910 Paul Otlet, a man described as ‘one of technology’s lost pioneers’, envisioned a ‘city of knowledge’ that the Belgian government soon offered him funding to build in a wing of the Palais du Cinquantenaire, which he eventually named the Mundaneum (there’s a museum dedicated to it today in Mons). Otlet and his friend, the Nobel Prize winner Henri La Fontaine, used the Universal Decimal Classification that they had already invented to sort and store some 12 million index cards and documents at the Mundaneum, although this vast quantity of material called for an increasingly large number of workers to curate it.
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In June, we hosted a discussion between Professor Lisa Jardine CBE and Professor the Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield sub-titled ‘openness and the national collective memory’. The distinguished historians explored the value of our archival heritage and considered why ‘sustaining the collective memory of the nation is a first-order requirement’.
The event was live-tweeted with the hashtag #sptrail and, while lots of digital topics were touched on, we want to re-visit and expand on some of the key themes that were raised. On Thursday 30 August, between 13:00 and 14:00 BST, we will host a live Twitter debate on the #digitaltrail @UkNatArchives featuring contributions from our Director of Technology David Thomas, Head of Digital Preservation Tim Gollins and Research and Policy Manager Valerie Johnson.
Listen to the podcast of the original debate and please do join us on Twitter on Thursday, using the hashtag #digitaltrail, for an undoubtedly fascinating review of our digital past and future.
Topics that we’re keen to discuss include:
Quantity – will there simply be too much information?
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Wouldn’t it be cool if every digital file created could be identified with a signature or ‘magic number’ of some kind? This would make preservation, and the concept of knowing what you’ve got in order to be able to preserve it, that much easier.
By design or otherwise, for some file formats this is actually the case. The title of today’s blog post provides two such magic numbers used to identify Java class objects and Java pack200 files. These aren’t the first examples to use magic numbers but 0xCAFEBABE is the one I find the most striking as an introduction to the concept. You can read more on the origins of 0xCAFEBABE at Wikipedia. Continue reading »
I’ve had this quote scrawled on a piece of Christmas wrapping paper that I’ve been carrying around since, well Christmas. Boxing Day to be precise.
It comes from Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, chapter 19, The Mold Gold Cape. He describes how the removal of the skeleton at the dig site meant that they lost so much more potential information about the way people lived at the time. The story of the cape was only half told.
“For although the precious finds will usually survive, the context which explains them will be lost, and it’s that context of material – often financially worthless – that turns treasure into history.”
You might say that for our records it’s what turns documents from Peter and Jane into Shakespeare…
We’ve already spoken of the importance of context in managing information, but this is IMPORTANT. So let’s explore further. A few days after I was leafing through someone else’s Christmas presents, The National Archives released a set of Margaret Thatcher’s files. One of the elements that caused so much attention was her hand written notes in the margins of the papers. They bring so much more context to the documents, an insight into her thoughts and personality.
We're often faced with issues of missing context
I consider myself to be a sane and rational human being. Friends and colleagues may disagree. However, like most of us, I am a follower of the path of least resistance. I do not seek to make life more difficult for me than it needs to be.
For those of you asking what that has to do with managing records, the answer is ‘everything’. Continue reading »
In 1999 a daring young man with brilliant blue eyes stood atop the Uncompaghre Plateau in Western Colorado. Jaw held tight to stop his quivering bottom lip, he looked up to the azure sky and fought back the tears.
‘Sorry kid. The Brontosaurus doesn’t exist.’
In five simple words (and one Latin one) the last remnant of his childhood lay dashed upon the hard dirt floor of the Dry Mesa Quarry.
That young palaeontologist was me and while my site director did at least offer gentle words of condolence for my loss. I was left wanting.
‘How could there not be a Brontosaurus? Why were people not angrier about this? And if Brontosaurus didn’t exist… whose giant shin bone was I currently wrapping in plaster?’
Colossus electronic digital computer, 1943 (Catalogue ref: FO 850/234)
I hope by now that you’re starting to get the idea that The National Archives is a bit of a dark horse when it comes to innovating in technology. We have, as far as I can tell, won more technology awards for more separate projects than anyone in the public sector except for the NHS, and we’re a little smaller. This culminated in a Queen’s Award for Enterprise and Innovation last year for our digital preservation technologies across all sectors and a public sector digital award for legislation.gov.uk. It doesn’t stop there – we also innovate in education, and the physical preservation of our collection, saving a lot of energy in the process.
So I thought it might be interesting to describe my view on our approach. I’ll look at technology, cost, and culture.
Considering the word ‘digital’ makes up one third of my job title, you might consider it an oversight to have not used it once in my last blog entry. That may be an indication of variety in work – or perhaps forgetfulness – but I will make up for that today when I consider the union and mutually-beneficial relationship between open data and the archiving of datasets.
A colleague recently asked me what a dataset is. This is not necessarily as simple a question as it may appear: I side-stepped. I think the answer really lies in the term ‘structured data’; namely that the text of an email could not necessarily be termed a dataset, but a table in a PDF, a CSV (Comma-Separated Values) file, or an XML (Extensible Mark-up Language) file could. Also, a dataset can be analysed quantitatively, and is not a collection of different electronic files, like a database. However, the discussion rages and the terminology is so uncertain that the Government has even consulted on the word itself.
In this post I plan to take you on a trip back through history to a time when Tony Blair had been Prime Minister for just six months, Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer and ‘The Teletubbies say “Eh-Oh”‘ was at the top of the UK singles chart. Yes, I am describing the year 1997. I’m aware that 1997 is not long ago in relation to some of the records held at The National Archives, but as my colleague Mark Merifield explained in his recent post, the last few decades have seen drastic changes in the way that public records are produced. A majority of records are now digital and many are made available through the internet.
I work as part of the Web Continuity Team and we are responsible for archiving the websites of UK Central Government departments. The first departmental websites were launched in the mid-1990s just as general use of the internet began to take off. As government use of the internet increased, The National Archives recognised that valuable information was at risk of being lost and in 2003 we began a programme of archiving websites. We worked with the Internet Archive, a US based non-profit organisation which had started archiving websites from around the world as early as 1996. Fortunately for us the Internet Archive had archived several early UK Central Government websites. Some of these early archived versions are now available through the UK Government Web Archive.
One of my favourite examples is this instance of the HM Treasury website which was archived in December 1997.
Viewing the earliest captures in the archive is like a step down memory lane for me. I’m transported back to the dark days of dial up and having to wait through 10 minutes of strange noises while the modem dialled several phone numbers before finally connecting to the web. Then after all that having to disconnect a few minutes later because someone else in the house needed to use the phone!
I know we’ve only just met but I want you to do me a favour. I want you to lean over and pick up a sheet of paper. Done? Excellent! Now write something on it. Great! Now put it in a box, label it and put the box on the shelf for twenty to thirty years. As long as it hasn’t rained too much you should be able to pick up the box, take the paper out and still be able to read it. A little simplistic but you’ve just taken your first steps to managing and preserving the paper record. Congratulations.