Evaluating Symposium talk on Open Archives

I learnt as much as I could of my script and relief mostly on my queue cards. This was difficult and I found that my nerves not only meant that I was looking down a lot, but that some of my words were mixed. Below I will ‘quote’ my script and write evaluative text throughout.

Script

What is the purpose of an archive? Stephen Plant, the records manager, from the University of London suggest that archives “form a unique and indispensable record for researchers.” (Plant, 2005) Often conventional archives are thought to be well structured, catalogued and preserved, and when we would think about an archive we might expect to see something like this photograph by Stuart Whipps. His essayist, Catherine O’Flynn, suggests that “Archives are not accustomed to the public gaze. Concealment is one of their defining features.” (O’Flynn, 2011) However, over the last twenty years, physical archives have been migrating onto the digital landscape; this means that information that was bound by these boxes is becoming open and available to view. However, embracing the digital landscape comes with its further responsibilities of findability, usability and digital longevity.

I found the introduction difficult: I wanted to highlight that not only archives important, but they are losing their original feature of concealment and now becoming more viewed with digital technology. I wish, had I more time, that I could explain further why I am interested in archives and especially their movement to the digital landscape.

“Information wants to be Free” is a term coined by digital activists since the Hacker’s conference in 1984. However, what do we mean by free? Its definition is ambiguous as it means both libre and gratis. In digital terms libre translates to open, liberated information, while gratis means zero price.

My original question explored whether archives can be ‘free’ in both senses; I kept this in though because I thought that it shows I understand that ‘free’ archive information can mean two things. Defining that there is the monetary side to free, I hope meant that the audience could then understand what I meant when I was describing the difference between public and commercial archives.

Currently there are three different forms of archives, all of which are migrating to the digital spaces. Commercial, private and public and I am going to be focusing on examples from the commercial and public sectors. Commercial companies, such as Getty Images, uses its archives to make a profit by selling licenses and rights to photographs. Meanwhile, public archives are owned by the government and funded by tax-payers; they are open and allow free access, such as the Library of Congress or the British Library.

I referenced Library of Congress and Getty Images because I was going to be using them as my case studies.

Based on “information wants to be free” an archive would have to not only endorse a zero price tag to consumers, but also an easy-to-use platform to liberate the information. Cory Doctorow supports the importance of having ‘open’ information so that one can “build on earlier works in order to create new, original works because this is the basis of all creativity.” (2010) Findability of this information through website navigation, in my opinion, is key for its online liberation.

I wanted to identify further that opening archives from physical boxes is considered important. Although Cory doesn’t specifically talk about archives, he refers to information, which, I believe, can be related to archive material also. I wanted to make my first point that website navigation is key for archive information to be ‘opened’: it can be uploaded onto the web, but if it is not easily found, then there isn’t much point in it being there at all.

In 1994, the DIGI Plan funded 147 public bodies a division of £50 million to digitise their archives so that the general public can view them. Yet, in the 2004 evaluation, it indicates that the focus was spent more on the digitisation process and less on the distribution tailored for its online audiences, leaving a legacy of poor website navigation and usability. This makes one think, what is the point of having archives digitised if users cannot find them? This legacy of concealment of archives would continue. We must remember though that in 1994 the Internet didn’t have the same capabilities of what it has today. This raises the point for online archives to keep updated with digital technology to make information findable, something that archives never had to do before.

This is a small case study I found which really emphasises that even the public bodies recognise that money should not only be spent on the digitisation, but the process in which users find the information once it is digitised.

With this in mind, larger public archive The Library of Congress, does embrace both a zero price service and a web design tailored for easy and precise searching. Cory Doctorow believed that “[people] want open access to the data and media produced at public expense” (2010) and they are entitled to find information easily and fuss-free through this archive website. The Library of Congress’ interface has a search function with a sidebar navigation to filter results so users can find what they need precisely. This design is not too dissimilar to Amazon and other common ecommerce websites, making them more recognisable and easy to use. Therefore I believe that larger public archives have the means to ‘open’ the information in terms of findability.

Here I wanted to begin to use my case study, the Library of Congress: I wanted to indicate that it has a good navigation. If I did this again and with more time allowed for the talk, I would show a demonstration of how to use the platform to indicate that there has been a great deal of investment into the database and design.

The state of how liberated and ‘free’ information can be not only relies on its website design, but its content management systems. Stephen Plant emphasises the importance of content management because, if archives should preserve and provide information, then corrupted and lost data will undermine the integrity of the archive and its ability to liberate information at all.

This is the introduction to my second point: digital archives are thought to be very shortlived. Technologists are defining the last 50 years as the ‘digital dark age’ as we adopt different and new materials to store information: information once on VHS, floppy discs etc aren’t often read because the technology is outdated. It’s important to keep up to date so that information isn’t lost because of the digital materials it’s bound by.

The Library of Congress holds “155.3 million” items and has been digitising its collection since 1994 onto CDs before the Internet became more accommodating. However, it is estimated that up to 1 in 10 of its CDs are faulty and unreadable (Cohen,2005); in turn meaning 1 in 10 cannot be liberated online, unless the information is redigitised, costing more money.

The statistic is actually between 1-10%, however, I felt that stressing the 10% would highlight my point further. However, this isn’t the best reflection of me as a reliable source if I exaggerate my research.

Librarian, James Billington, at the Library of Congress, worries that  “we are in danger of losing history itself because the artifacts that historians have relied upon for centuries may not always be available when they are increasingly only obtainable in the more fragile, evanescent digital world” (2003) For an archive’s accountability and for the purpose of liberating information, it is of vital importance that content management is updated and backed up, allowing for long term preservation of information.

So it is important to have sustainable findable information for a digitised archive to embrace free. Since 2008, public archives have been uploading its photographic content onto Flickr The Commons. Flickr’s statement that it is “almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world” (Flickr, 2014) isn’t modest, but it implies that for archives it will act as a ‘back-up’ and will increase interaction with archive photography.

This is the start of my next point: that findability and preservation of archive photography can be prolonged by using other platforms to store and share it, such as Flickr.

Bronwen Colquen PhD researcher in Flickr The Commons indicates that social media platforms “[have] the ability to generate broad interest on a large scale” (2011) and therefore can help liberate digitised photography for different audiences.  Flickr The Commons is a space whereby users can explore 78 archives free of charge to tag pictures, comment and add to their own ‘favourites’. This notion to tag and share is the currency of Flickr and this easy to use platform means that accessing archives doesn’t and shouldn’t be restricted to researchers and historians.

I wanted to highlight that Flickr the Commons means that more people can learn and view archive photography, so that it is open to the masses and not to the elite researchers. The more people that become interested in the archive, the more of an ‘aura’ there is around it, which adds value the contents.

But does this invitation for users to tag and share archive information mean that the authoritative role of the curator is being diminished? User-generated tagging is categorising photographs by contemporary terms, which on the one hand makes them more findable, therefore giving a sense of value and purpose to the information. But on the other hand, this user interaction has been argued to undermine the qualified curator’s role to catalogue archives in context.

I for one, thought of this argument: if people can tag what they like to an image, to what extent does the original context get fogged? For example, on Instagram, people may tag a picture with ‘black, white, dog’ and listing everything what can be seen in it… If this is our culture now, it’s worrying, for me, how that may affect archives.

For example, this user’s ‘favourites’  folder has photography from the Library of Congress and the Florida archives from Flickr the Commons, next to two contemporary photographs from Flickr. It could be said that this user is taking the archive information out of its original context and recataloguing it into a new collection. Despite this fear, the image’s metadata and source is still linked, identifying that the image is a copy from its ‘original collection’. Flickr is not trying to be an archive, it acts as a platform to encourage user-engagement and interest in the archive. And it will be in a researcher’s responsibility to judge that this is Flickr’s purpose.

But looking into this argument and, especially looking at Flickr the Commons, I judged that Flick’s purpose is for sharing and isn’t there to replace or be the face of the archive. I wanted to make this point clear.

Nevertheless, the Library of Congress (the co founder of Flickr the Commons) has openly stated that never will all of its archives be digitised and the curators have the power to decide where information is distributed. Only 0.2% images from the Library of Congress have been uploaded to Flickr.

Flickr The Commons acts as a repository for duplicate archive photography as any tagging that is made on Flickr will have no direct effect on the collection on the main archive site. The nature of current online behaviour to share information over social media means that although the curators can dictate where they upload the content, where and how information is shared from there is uncontrollable. Yet, as I discussed before, sharing information makes it abundant and findable; if an archive isn’t findable, there isn’t much purpose of it being digitised.

Flickr does not only host public archive information but commercial giant Getty Images. Getty has the largest photographic archive in the world of which only 1% is digitised. However, none of the 1% images from the physical archive have been uploaded onto Flickr. But of course, Getty’s purpose is to make money and their archivist has said that the company’s main focus is on contemporary work to make profit and archive material isn’t in as much demand to make it worth digitising more of the collection. But is Getty missing out on something? If Flickr is ideal for increasing conversations around archive imagery, then perhaps in turn this may lead to more traffic to purchase its analogue collection.

I wish that I had more time to go into Getty further: explaining that they do use other social media such as Twitter to increase discussions about their archives. However, I got Tania to ask me that question in my Q&As so that I did get the chance to answer that question… I would have preferred to also go further into talking about this ‘aura’ around the archive which social media can help generate. However, again, this was discussed between Shaun, Pete and I in the heated Q&As session.

The Getty Images website allows users to browse and view its collection free of charge, until a user wants to use the image and must purchase the rights. This website looks again similar to something like Amazon, which I have already suggested is a good thing, and it is, users are not required to pay for anything until the very end, should they even want to. Other archives require subscription fees to browse making us consider that the purpose of the archive has a huge influence on how free it can be.

These other archives, I wanted to explain about Time Magazine’s archive and their subscription fee. I felt like this point was very quickly brushed over; but I wanted to include the point that commercial archives are variant in how ‘open’ they are before a user parts with their money.

Archives are undergoing a paradigm shift from physical to digital; and in this shift, some of its defining characteristics are changing. The requirements to fully embrace digital technology goes a lot further than copying pictures to the web. Archivists must address the longevity of the digital archive: without aforethought to preservation and updating information, the content may not be accessible in the future, restricting their findability and above all usability. I’ve concluded that the preservation of the digitised archive can be prolonged with the photography being distributed onto other platforms such as Flickr. Flickr will build audiences to the archive and with this openness, researchers, historians and creatives alike can use the archives to build new work. Yet, if the archive’s purpose is to make money, then in turn, the extent to which archives are freely available is restricted, continuing their defining feature of concealment.

As I felt that I was concluding throughout my talk so when it came to my final conclusion, I was a little stuck and felt like I was actually just repeating myself. However, on reflection, this means that my audience is reminded of my earlier conclusions throughout the talk. Overall, I thought the talk went well: I regret somewhat being first in my group, only because I had numerous interruptions with people walking in late and talking: I found this very distracting and made me very nervous. I stuttered over some words and found that I had to improvise my script when I said words in a different way to what I had learnt; but, I don’t think that this was too noticeable.

As for the Q&As, I had two from my peers: one I answered about how Getty uses Twitter and that I don’t believe this is the best platform to discuss archive photography: it is fluid and conversations aren’t easily recorded or even found after a few days; however, Flickr is a database in itself which I think makes it better. Anotehr question from Hollie, I had to answer what I meant by ‘open information’. I explained that I understand that there is different degrees of ‘open’ so there is information that is findable, then information that is open to download and use: I made it clear that I was discussing the findability and less about the download and use, although public photography in Flickr the Commons isn’t licensed which does make it ‘very open’. After those questions it got interesting: I had to explain ‘who cares about the archive’ to which I spoke about Magnum and Getty, but also public institutions which are digitising all of their archives which so happens to include photography. Furthermore, it is important for the history of photography that original artefacts are preserved and shared somehow; whether it be digital or not. I had to make the point that archive photography is only valued for its physical state once there is an aura and interest in it; which I believe is now sparked by the digital versions. As my peer Alex Edwards pointed out: you see pictures of the Mona Lisa everywhere, but is just makes you want to see it for yourself in the flesh. The Q&As for me turned into a debate, which I didn’t mind, because I feel confident in my subject and I felt that I executed it well.

I would like to really look further into how we can make more of the ‘aura’ of the physical archive so that there is a worth and interest in it; therefore, there may be more of an effort to preserving smaller archives better. I am also interested in making artefacts about the archive: I have recently seen some of Gary Hall’s writing and he discusses how we must value the archivists who make these archives happen. I want to apply this to my project with Jinx Rodger: she is the glue of the George Rodger archive.

1 comment on “Evaluating Symposium talk on Open ArchivesAdd yours →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *