Gerald Aylmer Seminar 2019: Digital and the Archive

A sunny day at the National Archives

It’s been a regular-ish part of my calendar for a few years now to attend the Gerald Aylmer Seminar which has been held annually since 2002. This year’s theme was Digital and the Archive – so of great relevance to my current work and anyone engaged with digital preservation. It’s a great opportunity for historians and archivists to get together and share their work and experiences – something that ought to happen rather more often than it does.

In fact I’ve been very interested in how we might start to present our legacy born digital holdings to our users and potential users – what do researchers want from these kinds of sources? Do they yet know themselves? Jane Winters, who was one of the Keynote speakers, has been asking these very questions and it was great to hear about this her outlining some of the challenges of getting researchers to interact with born digital and pointing out some of the difficulties which still remain about capturing born digital resources and making them available.

John Sheridan completed the tripartite keynote, begun with Alice Prochaska looking back on a glittering career in digital librarianship and scholarship, by delivering a “call to arms” to archivists to develop the necessary archival practice to meet the challenges of capturing today’s digital sources (not just preserving yesterdays) and suggested we do not (yet) have the right levels of advocacy to achieve this. I do agree with this although I am not convinced it is an entirely new problem. I also recognise the tensions inherent in constantly both managing legacy collections as well as keeping up with the material which is being produced right now.

The next session focussed on the “hybrid” nature of the archive with Jen Mitcham talking about her work on the Marks and Gran archive which she has blogged about here. This came at a good time for me as I am currently taking my first steps in digital forensic work which I will be blogging about very soon. Something which I really took away from Jen’s talk was reminding us of the “user experience” of working with legacy born digital files (in her case with word processing packages from the 1980s) where the whole design and probably use of the software package was to produce a physical document. This is an important factor to bear in mind when considering (as I am doing) how to represent some digital objects from the archives. The theme of the user interaction was further taken up by the following speaker Professor James Newman from Bath Spa University who had recorded a presentation on his work capturing the user experience in video games (specifically Super Mario Brothers (you can read all about it here!)

In the afternoon we heard about the fascinating work which has been undertaken by Ruth Ahnert on Tudor State networks which opened up huge possibilities using metadata derived from calendars and catalogues, as well as stressing the improtance of linked open data in reconstructing netowrks of these kinds. Again her work is available here to read.

Rachel Foss from the British Library gave a fascinating insight into their “enhanced curation” work where they gather a huge amount of supporting information about the people whose papers they take – groundbreaking and innovative stuff which I am sure there is much to be learnt from, even if we can’t all get a trip to the south of France to record the ambient sounds of the valley where John Berger lived…

It is interesting that the British Library do ask authors questions about their writing practices in terms of engagement with digital technologies, something which gives key insights to understanding the digital collections. It would be interesting to see how this information is represented in the metadata made available to the researcher.

Adrian Glew from the Tate introduces a huge community engagement project which the Tate was involved in the outputs from which have been shared.

The final presentation was from Naomi Wells talking about working with London’s Latin American Community on documenting their experiences. there were some very interesting findings in relation to attitudes towards digital and physical heritage – websites and other digital resources were seen as inherently ephemeral as opposed to physical objects. It was difficult to get the same level of engagement for the digital legacy.

The day ended with a panel “provocation” led by Margot Finn from the Royal Historical Society with Kelly Foster (blue badge guide and wikimedian), Jo Pugh (National Archives) and Jo Fox (Institute of Historical Research) all contributing to a thought provoking discussion. Foster drew out the power of open data and of licensing both to give appropriate credit to voices which are often obscured from the narrative and ended on a call to “open up” data and metadata. It’s something I’m going to take away with me and start acting on!

2 thoughts on “Gerald Aylmer Seminar 2019: Digital and the Archive

  1. Pingback: The erasure of records, digitization, and 1990s Hollywood films – History Hermann

  2. Pingback: The erasure of records, digitization, and 1990s Hollywood films – Wading Through The Cultural Stacks

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