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Description

Look here for writings on archival description and documentation.

in reverse chronological order

Note : this site is under construction.  Links that are not yet live and will be activated progressively as more content is uploaded.  Some of this content appears also on the RCRG: Records Continuum Research Group website.

RiC at Riga – ICA-SUV Conference held at Riga 21-24 August 2017

I attended this three-day conference on Cultural Heritage Materials – University, Research & Folklore Archives in the 21st Century. On the last day, there were two sessions that paid special attention to RiC. I was asked to chair one and Stefano Vitali the other. We were each asked to make some remarks of our own and these are mine, worked up from notes I used on the day.

Records in Context (RiC) 1.0 – Comments on First Draft (2016)

In September 2016, the ICA Experts Group on Archival Description (EGAD) released Records in Context: A Conceptual Model for Archival Description – consultation draft v01. The draft was open for comment until early 2017. A listserv was set up and I made four contributions, reproduced here-
  • Relationships in RiC (1) 17 Sep 2016
  • Relationships in RiC (2) 24 Sep 2016
  • Entities in RiC 11 Oct 2016
  • RiC: Quo Vadis? 30 Jan 2017.

RiC is described as a “comprehensive descriptive standard that reconciles, integrates, and builds on the four existing [ICA] standards”. It is a puzzling document. The authors state that it covers - “…all of the essential content of the four existing ICA description standards, except “control.” It thus includes the core descriptive entities, the properties or attributes of these entities, and essential relations among them. Further specifying and defining the relations among the entities remains an outstanding task, as the relations in the current draft are intended to be suggestive and not complete or normative. RiC-CM also does not yet offer a model of the role of the archivist and the activities he or she performs in the formulation and ongoing maintenance of description. EGAD will extend the model in this respect as a next step…”

This draft is not, therefore, a conceptual model at all but a set of elements that might be utilised in any one of the many possible conceptual frameworks that could answer the fundamental questions: viz. what are we trying to describe, why, and how are we intending to go about it. The purposes of description are said to be management, preservation, and use but we don’t yet know how these entities and relationships are intended to be used to support those purposes. That will all be added in later (see p.2). If the present draft is “suggestive and not complete”, as stated, we need to guess what it is suggestive of –

  • augmentation of the descriptive philosophy originally underlying the ISAD suite (“fonds-down”) or
  • its repudiation and replacement by something else (“multi-dimensional”; entity/relationship) or
  • what is more likely, continuation of conceptual ambiguity pragmatically supporting either approach?

But surely it is not too early to state whether or not it will be normative. Time will tell, I suppose.

Maybe we have been told. They say that “efforts to realize … integrated access [that] have focused on developing a shared standard [by] reducing the different descriptive practices to one is intellectually and politically challenging.” You bet! But it is not acknowledged that shared standards can operate (differently) at different strata – from the highest level of principle and concept down to the most basic level of implementation. David Bearman taught us many years ago that diversity of method can operate within a harmonisation of functional requirements. They continue “[t]his objective though, does not require such a reduction, as the communities need only identify and cooperate where there are shared (or largely shared) concepts and practices.” Hmmmm. So, what is to be standardised: what we agree on or what is important? This anti-reductionist formulation begs the question. If we don’t need to standardise what we can’t agree about, why do we need to standardise anything at all? I could understand “we only need to agree about and standardise what’s important” or “we must agree the requirements, not the methods” but that is not what has been said. What then do we agree upon? What are our shared (or largely shared) concepts and practices? Do we even know what’s important and what’s not?

The draft speaks of “established” archival principles and practices but we don’t have a statement of them. That which is claimed, without specifics, to be established, agreed upon, or acknowledged seldom is in my experience. In the early 1990s a Statement of Principles upon which the first draft of ISAD(G) was based drew forth such ferocious dissent in Beijing that I was added to the drafting Committee to argue for alterations to it that might meet some of those objections. But that document was shelved at the very first meeting I attended in Stockholm on the grounds that it was now “an historic document” – pretty obviously a ploy to avoid further discussion of concepts and practices – and I found myself the odd-man-out in hassles over drafting that could never be resolved because there was no common ground. That was good politics but bad policy. The uncorrected Statement could not be appealed to as an authority for “established” concepts and practices nor used as a point of reference for further development of the standards, even though that is how it was regarded by everyone in the room but me. I have since argued that we would be in better shape today if that Statement of Principles had been dealt with properly before rushing ahead to develop the four standards that came to be in the ISAD suite. I hope history is not about to repeat itself.

On-line access to archives (and other records) in the digital age (2016)

Paper presented to Australian Society of Archivists Conference, Parramatta (October 2016)

This was a last minute addition to the programme. I took the opportunity to do three things:
  • restate and expand upon some of the issues raised in the Mass Digitisation thread;
  • link those issues to the Modest Proposal;
  • present an idea for supplementary use for the Modest Proposal framework arising out of a session about Documenting Australian Society given at the 2015 ASA Conference in Hobart.

» Postscript : Structures, Boundaries, Contingency, and Proportion Are Good for Recordkeeping

This presentation was a last minute addition to the Conference programme and, with the exception of the last part on Documenting Australian Society, was simply an opportunity to re-present old ideas. Unexpectedly, the Conference provided a context in which this old wine found itself in need of new bottles. For some years, new and exciting approaches to use (and re-use) have been whirling about and they were notably on show in Parramatta. The contours and terminology of this new landscape are not settled but, in order to compare and contrast, I will proffer a summary that will serve until a better analysis emerges.

» Documenting Australian Society: Status Report and Needs Analysis

During the 2015 Conference of the Australian Society of Archivists in Hobart, a session entitled Documenting Australian Society: Just how well is it being done? was presented by Sigrid McCausland, Adrian Cunningham, Maggie Shapley, Kim Eberhard, Stefan Petrow and Kylie Percival. Afterwards I contacted the moderator, Michael Piggott, with suggestions on how the framework developed for the Modest Proposal could be used to meet some of the needs identified in that session. This is referred to again in my paper to the 2016 Conference in Parramatta. In August, 2015, I addressed the following remarks to Michael.

Mass Digitisation of Archival Heritage Resources

Google Groups: archives-and-records-australia (April – June 2016)

With the permission of the participants, this thread from the archives-and-records-australia listserv is copied here more or less exactly as it is on the list archive. Minor changes to format and spelling have been made. It is not a finished or polished presentation. Some of the authors (including me) would want to modify, improve or even change what they said. Re-presentation maintains the cut and thrust of live debate while preserving the great merit of a listserv format which (as I see it) allows for slightly more considered presentation of views than on-the-floor discussion and much more so than the ghastly tweet. Along the way (as several of us pointed out) there were many other issues that deserved attention and I doubt that this thread exhausts even those more narrow matters that did get an airing.

This is intended as a conversation starter and should be read in that spirit in the hope that the issue will be further ventilated. The main protagonists are Andrew Waugh and I.

  • We ended up agreeing (or at least not disputing) that online searching of digitised resources has immense benefits, with the further potential for re-presentation by third parties. I suspect, though, that we may all have different ideas about what that involves and what the benefits are.

  • I’m not sure we agree about the relative merits of content searching vs contextualised searching (for want of better terminology) but Andrew is certainly not alone on his side of that argument. That issue deserves to be better thrashed out another time – not least because the two approaches are to some extent apples and oranges (one is mainly about finding and the other is mainly about understanding).

  • Bubbling away underneath is the question of whether global online access to archives/records has requirements specific to our class of material that would or might be vitiated when access is integrated with other heritage resources (bearing in mind that one form of access does not preclude having the other also). What are those requirements and how far are they being met? Is there even agreement on what the boundaries of the descriptive endeavour are – cf. Cassie Findlay’s comment about access to ungathered records? Can we reconceptualise description to satisfy those requirements once we have identified them?

  • The focus of this thread is on two as yet unanswered questions (so far as I know) : what part of the archival heritage can realistically be digitised in the near future and what can be done to integrate global online searching for both digitised and un-digitised heritage resources? Tangential to this question is an issue being raised (apparently) within the research community – viz. whether digitisation (and the resulting facilitation of access to some but not all resources) is distorting research capabilities by privileging some sources and their users over others.


A modest proposal for improving access to archives and other records (2014)

Paper prepared for the Sydney Recordkeeping Round Table, 31 March 2014 Published online 2014

This paper explores possibilities for on-line federated access to archives (and other records).  In part, it is a recapitulation of the ideas I first put forward in my 1986 report to the Australian Council on Archives, updated to suggest that a Wiki could now be used. Like the original 1986 proposals, it represents an alternative approach to standardised descriptive norms and encoding – one based on relationships rather than on how native descriptions themselves are constructed and made to look.  My assumption is that there will be many solutions to this “problem”.  This is not a finished proposal or the Wiki entry in a contest, but the start of a conversation.  Is this, or something like it, a good idea?  How might it work?  What might it be capable of?  How could the design be done, the infrastructure be managed, and the funding found?  If this is a future we can imagine for ourselves and a collaborative endeavour some of us, at least, would like to embark upon? How do we move from a modest proposal to the next step?   In addition to the paper itself, which contains as appendices examples of search and discovery results, I offer four examples of how Wiki pages might be constructed.


In Pursuit of Provenance : when Societal met Parallel with a view to Relationships (2013)

Paper delivered in Adelaide (21 June 2013) and Sydney (17 July 2013) Published online 2014

This presentation was my contribution to an Adelaide symposium, conducted by the South Australian Branch of the ASA, looking at Michael Piggott’s book, Societal Provenance. I repeated it (without Michael) in Sydney a month later for a NSW Branch event. It was primarily intended to support the idea of societal provenance as an instance of parallel provenance. As someone who has (I think) fair claims to be the father of the latter term (if not of the meaning sometimes assigned to it), I was also anxious to dispel what I see as misconceptions in the increasing uses made of it. People will use the term as they choose, of course, but at least I can try to be clear about what I mean by it.

Some things archivists do – description and arrangement (2012)

Pre-Congress Workshop on Description at ICA Congress, Brisbane, August 2012. Published online 2012

Barbara Reed gave a workshop on Description (the Australian Way) on the day before the Congress opened and asked me to give a presentation of “my stuff”. This is a write-up that presentation - to which I have added some commentary on the Congress sessions I subsequently attended that dealt with matters descriptive. Two Handouts given to workshop participants are also added. The Commentary appears as six Panels interwoven into the text :
  • Panel One : A new conceptual model?
  • Panel Two : A descriptive paradigm shift.
  • Panel Three : Work of ICA-CBPS on Relationships
  • Panel Four : Putting a new face on it
  • Panel Five : What about the metadata?
  • Panel Six : News from Finland and France

The Hunting of the Snark : Searching for digital series (2011)

Paper delivered to the Sydney Recordkeeping Round Table, October 2011 Published online 2012

Nothing much here that is new. The focus is different, however. The idea that a digital series might be found in a view of the data, rather than its construction, was thrown out by David Bearman on a visit here many years ago. That off-hand comment didn’t address the question of which view(s). The answer, of course, is the view(s) that reflect and sustain recordkeeping activity. That is to be found in logical structures arising from the activity in which data takes part and not necessarily (or entirely) in those of the data architecture.

In this piece, I marry that idea with post-Scott developments in descriptive theory. In particular, the abandonment of the Series as having any special status as a descriptive entity, the establishment of entity-types in place of stipulated instances of each entity type, the annihilation of taxonomically based relationships in favour of scaleability, and the multiplication of structural assembly in place of the singularity represented by the traditional view of the Series.

Strength below and grace above : the structuration of records (2011)

Key note address prepared for Fourth Conference on Archival Information Databases, Brazilian Archivists Association, Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa, 4 May 2011 - Rio de Janeiro (not delivered).

The Brazilians kindly invited me to give a key-note address to their 2011 conference.  Unfortunately, I never got there.  This is the paper I would have given.  Prepared for an international audience that I assumed might be unfamiliar with a lot of Australian writing (and with mine in particular) it partly duplicates previously published material.  For the first time, however, in view of the conference theme, I took on display/ discovery issues, which (though I have recognised their importance) I have hitherto treated as something we could leave until after we got organisation and description issues settled.  This was a mistake.  The danger I now saw is that “generic” discovery tools will be relied upon to the detriment of the unique searching requirements for archival materials.  I didn’t have any answers, but I try to open a few doors.  Here are some of the issues.
  • Data Re-Use and the Return of Distributed Custody
    I give examples of the doctrine of data re-use on the web sites of ministries and agencies.  This is a form of archival access without involvement of the archives.  The sole Australian example of archives’ involvement given by the Information Commissioner in a 2011 issues paper is National Archives’ digitisation of the Central Army Record Office (CARO) archives.  This (then much desired) transfer was arranged many years ago but, with benefit of hindsight, was that a good idea?  If they had not been transferred they would probably have been digitised anyway out the massive Defence budget under the data re-use doctrine.  NAA could have applied scant resources to other things.  How far does the doctrine of data re-use revalidate the idea of distributed custody?  Should archival programmes be digitisers of last resort instead of joining the race to find low-hanging fruit?  Should they, as I would argue, be concentrating on gateway issues?

  • Signals and Structure
    As the Egyptian President discovered in 2011, the Internet passes a lot of control from the information provider to the information user.  How does the functionality of search engines impact on the way we should be describing records and constructing finding aids?  How relevant is the distinction between searching and reading in cyberspace?  Can we prompt users towards structuration and away from flat, item-based discovery?  How do we achieve a fit between order/provenance and web based searches?  It seems to me that organisation/structure issues (arrangement) and metadata/contextualisation issues (description) once twinned in the archival discourse have come adrift from each other.  A re-synthesisation is badly needed.  Is it likely to happen?

  • Gateways, Search Engines and Contextualisation
    In the paper, I make a point about the invisibility of archives in global search engines and the parochialism of sites put up by single institutions.  Where are we (should we) be going with dedicated archival gateways that point to a sector – cf. Archives Canada and Trove?  To what extent should such gateways be pointers to data re-use sites maintained by non-transferring creators (as in the UK)?  How should dedicated sectoral and cross-sectoral gateways be constructed?  What should we be doing to construct the contextual framework that envelopes the searching functionality?  As far back as 1986 I suggested co-operative development in Australia of such a framework for archival description and discovery.  This goes back to a job Peter Scott gave me when I first started (and never got very far with).  He wanted to provide a common contextual framework (today we would call it a gateway) for all governments in Australasia (colonies, states, federations, etc.) - one which might also encompass non-official activity.  If we had a such a thing now, how much better off would we be?  What else could be done, along similar lines, at the granular level – by us or by using the work of others?

HCPR : Hurley’s common practice rules for the documentation of archives and other records (2009)

Published online 23 February 2009

This is a template. It does not actually contain any detailed descriptive rules. It is an abstraction that is intended to provide a common framework into which all other rules can be fitted.

Its practical use is to allow users to cut and paste their local rule book into the template, thus standardising their rules without pain and highlighting possible departures from standard practice. Unfortunately, it hasn’t attracted much interest so it remains a template for standardisation according to my ideas rather than having universal application.

What, if anything, is the Australian (“series”) system? (2008)

Published online September 2008

This is Part 1 of the valediction to 40 years of the system. It was added to the Monash University RCRG website two months after Part 2 which appears as Documenting archives and other records. To read them together, you need to start here. I have not since print-published anything. I find the peer review process tedious now and time-consuming and they keep wanting me to make changes. I believe in peer review and I would not recommend that anyone else follow me and stop print-publishing. Peer review underpins professional standards and integrity. But I will say something here about the review process as I have experienced it (and practiced it, as I still do from time to time). I try to make sure that I never impose my views or opinions on any author I review. They must take their chances with their readers – as I do. If I disagree with what they write, I will say so and why. But I try to make it clear that it must be their choice whether or not to accept it and modify their text. I never make such disagreement a basis for my recommendation on publication, frequently dividing my comments under the headings : Necessary Changes and Suggestions.. My recommendations on necessary changes are confined to matters of facts, citations, and train of thought. Or, at least, that is what I try to do. Any adverse recommendation of mine will be owing to flaws in research or reasoning. Unfortunately, I do not feel that some reviewers of my own work have always followed this course towards me. I have always resented reviewers who try to get me to substitute their thoughts for my own. I am now of an age when I can indulge a cranky refusal to submit to it any longer.

Documenting archives and other records (2008)

Published online July 2008

In 2006, in part to mark the 40th anniversary of Peter Scott’s American Archivist article, I wrote one if my long, discursive pieces as a valediction and to review progress (or lack of it) since then, also the current situation, and what still needed to be done in my view. It was submitted, in turn, to nearly every professional journal in the English speaking world (except for Archives & Manuscripts to which I have not submitted anything since my trouble with ASA over Archivists and accountability in 2005/2006). The whole piece was rejected by each of them in turn as too long, too diffuse, and (the Canadians thought) too repetitive of material already published which was heartening in a way because it was evidence that at least some of the peer reviewers had actually read what I had already published.. I found it difficult to understand how a retrospective could fail to rake over past work, but there it was. The most disturbing comment was from the UK where I was told that the material covered matters too remote from the British audience. This was hard to bear in light of the Canadian comment about being repetitive of material the readership would already be familiar with and I could not forebear from remarking that if the British readership was unfamiliar with this stuff it seemed to me the best possible reason for publishing it there. It was then divided into two parts and put up on the Monash University RCRG website. This is Part 2 of the original manuscript. Part 1 (What, if anything, is the Australian “series” system) was still being evaluated for publication and, after its rejection, was added to the website two months later.

» Documenting archives and other records - a guide for dummies

Published online August 2008

I went to the ICA Congress in Malaysia in 2008 and incautiously attended a session on descriptive standards. I became so enraged that I penned this on the plane during my return journey. The model set out here articulates the final realisation of the three-entity approach first broached in What, if anything, is a function (1993) and Ambient functions (1995).

Parallel Provenance (If these are your records, where are your stories?) (2005)

First published Archives and Manuscripts, 33 (1) 2005 and 33 (2) 2005

This is my latest (and probably last) original contribution to the evolution of Australian thinking on descriptive practice. It is the culmination of thinking about simultaneous multiple provenance first examined in Problems with provenance (1995). In What, if anything, is the Australian “series” system (2008), I draw a contrast between Australian thinking and Australian practice. This is definitely an example of the former and no one should be fooled into thinking that anyone in Australia uses parallel provenance as a corrective to inadequate description. As I say in the article, it is a symptom of poor contextualisation. The cure is not to practice parallel provenance but to eliminate it by contextualising what we describe better. That’s not happening either.

Relationships in records (2001 – 2004)

First published in The New Zealand Archivist Summer 2001 (Pt.1), Winter 2002 (Pt.2), Spring 2002 (Pt.3), Summer 2002 (Pt.4), Autumn 2003 (Pt.5), Autumn 2004 (Pt.6), Winter 2004 (Pt.7), Summer 2004 (Retrospective)

While I was in New Zealand, Rosemary Collier, bless her heart, invited me to contribute to the New Zealand Archivist. I began this long discursive analysis of my thinking at the time. But I never seemed able to get to the end of the road. In part, I believe, this is because there remains too much work left to do in getting our thinking straight about relationships – hence the title of these articles. Eventually, I returned to Australia and the journal folded. I think there is much valuable ground-clearing going on here but the ultimate goal, never attained, was to apply Australian descriptive practice at the granular level and demonstrate the validity of my thoughts on scaleability. The focus of Scott’s articles was on the intersection between provenance and collectivities of records (fonds and series). My contention is that the same approach works (and is required to work) at all “levels”. Thus the same approach informs how we must manage single transactional records just as it informs how we must document collectivities. Unfortunately, I never quite got there. Whether, in retirement, I will ever take up this unfinished task remains to be seen.

The making and keeping of records (2) : the tyranny of listing (2000)

First published in Archives and Manuscripts 28(1), May 2000

This is Part 2, taking the ideas developed during the 1990s – ideas which can most simply be summarised as simultaneous multiple provenance - to a logical conclusion. Here, I am still hammering away at the limitations (as I see them) of the ICA standards and EAD. I am still exploring the need to describe records within a flexible, multi-dimensional framework rather than fixing them into a single view based on transmission. These articles represent my final emancipation from the false application of the doctrine of original order (a doctrine that remains true in principle, however) as set out in my first article on Personal papers and the treatment of archival principles. It had been quite a journey.

The Making and Keeping of Records: (1) What are Finding Aids For? (1998)

First published in Archives and Manuscripts, 26 (1) 1998.

This along with Part 2 was done after I had removed to a new job in New Zealand. By the time I left the Public Record Office, Victoria, it was plain that all the useful work we had been doing on description in connection with possible developments of ARCHIE was not going to prosper or survive. This article was intended to capture as much of the conceptual underpinning of what we had been trying to do there before it was lost. By this stage I had already served for some years on the ICA’s descriptive standards committee and I was committed to voicing the critique I had (without profit or effect) articulated concerning the ISAD and ISAAR standards. To this I was now adding a critique of EAD and its offshoots.

Problems with provenance (1995)

First published: Archives and Manuscripts, 23 (2) 1995.

It was here that I began to have trouble with journal editors over the length of pieces I was writing. This manuscript was much truncated before it was included in Archives and Manuscripts. It is a sore point with me still. This was the piece in which I launched into simultaneous multiple provenance – later expanded upon in “Parallel provenance - if these are your records, where are your stories?” (2005).

Ambient functions – abandoned children to zoos (1995)

First published Archivaria 40, Fall 1995.

By 1995, we had made substantial progress in our functions analysis work at Public Record Office, Victoria, first reported in 1993. Begun as an adjunct experiment in taxonomy control to support automated description in the ARCHIE system, it had morphed into another kind of entity (functions) that joined records (Documents) and Creators (Doers). We hadn’t quite worked out yet how this all fitted together but we were well on the way to the conceptual solution outlined in Documenting for dummies (2008). By this time, I was Australia’s representative on the ICA Ad Hoc Commission developing descriptive standards – that eventually produced ISAD(G) and the first draft ISAAR(CPF). This was very frustrating for me. I was trying to get them to reconceptualise the principles upon which the descriptive standards rested – not to make them do it our way but to have standards that would enable us to do it our way and them to do it their way. I had no doubt this could be done and, indeed, it was to some extent accomplished in subsequent editions developed after I left the scene. But during this time, all my suggestions were treated as objections to wording and they simply redrafted the words without altering the concepts (the meaning) in any way. I was frustrated and they were too because they could not see why I wasn’t satisfied with this. In this article, I began to have some fun with them and to blast away at hierarchical relationships which then lay (conceptually) at the heart of what they were trying to do.

Data, systems, management, and standardisation (1994)

First published: Archives and Manuscripts, 22 (2) 1994.

This was a follow-up to my 1990 “Recapitulation” (below) of the argument first launched in the 1986 Report to ACA on standardisation. It attracted no more interest this third time around than on two previous occasions and I more or less gave up on it after this – apart from the odd whinge as an aside in subsequent work. By this time, I was Australia’s representative on the ICA Ad Hoc Commission on Descriptive Standards and it was more rewarding having a go at them. To some extent, though, I have always seen my 1986 proposals as an alternative path to the one chosen internationally (through ICA’s work on descriptive standards). The two threads are brought together here in an examination of the 1986 Report, the work I was currently involved in with ISAD(G), and other approaches such as RAD and MAD. I didn’t try to argue the respective merits of the alternatives. I was more interested in making the argument for standardisation (of any kind) in view of what I thought was indifference on the part of the Australian community. This was the last time I offered any extensive examination of “the path not taken”. From this point on it was much more fun getting stuck in to what I perceived as the shortcomings of ISAD, ISAAR, EAD, EAC, etc. etc.

The Australian (“series”) system – an exposition (1994)

First published in The Records Continuum: Ian Maclean and Australian Archives first fifty years, Edited by Sue McKemmish and Michael Piggott Ancora Press in association with Australian Archives, Clayton, 1994.

Sue McKemmish was now in the halls of academe, at Monash University, and she asked me to write a chapter on the CRS System for this celebratory volume. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the System had received attention from overseas. We had always supposed that it was self-explanatory and that Peter’s own writings said all that needed to be said. Terry Cook, amongst others, convinced us that this was not so. When I was invited to do this chapter, I began by attempting to make plainer what Peter had already written. As it was being developed, however, I came to see, under the influence partly of Bearman’s visits, that what made the “Series” System important was not its refocus away from Groups and onto Series as the object of description but the underlying methodologies and entity management processes that had been developed to do it. Along with colleagues such as Sue, Frank Upward, and Barbara Reed it was becoming plain to me that these processes were valuable in figuring out how to deal with the challenges of electronic recordkeeping. My chapter in this book, reviewed pre-publication by both Cook and Bearman, came to open a door on this idea – which I have elaborated on in successive articles ever since.

What, if anything, is a function? (1993)

First published: Archives and Manuscripts, 21 (2) 1993.

This was the first fruit of my period of bastardisation at PROV (cf. About Me). One thing I was able to do, because it was so far below the radar, was a continuation of the two most significant PROV achievements of the 1980s : computerisation (ARCHIE) and the Summary Guide. I did this, somewhat furtively, working with Marg Burns and her Context Control Team at the Laverton repository west of Melbourne. In compiling the Guide and the accompanying Digest, we had assembled an impressive volume of data about how the Victorian Government had operated since 1836. I had also concluded that the CRS System (as then practiced) did not adequately deal with the early administration of Australian Colonies (pre self- government) or with some aspects of State Administration (schools, hospitals, courts, local government). We made many adaptations. We also concluded that relationships between Agencies and Series, with both like and unlike entities, were far too crude and needed to be made more explicit by addition of function descriptors. ARCHIE had been developed for us by Peter Feeney who went on to build up a significant business but continued to service our needs (I suspect) because he had a warm spot in his heart for one of his early clients. He gave us function descriptors for relationships and we happily developed a thesaurus to manage these. Eventually, however, we came to see that much of the data clinging to Agency and Series descriptions was actually a description of Functions. With some trepidation, we went to Peter and asked how difficult it would be to introduce a new Entity to replace the function descriptors he had added to our relationships. He laughed and said “no trouble at all”. When we had asked him for descriptors to be added to relationships, he had simply created them as a new Entity type in ARCHIE and just hadn’t told us. In short order, we were able to populate a new set of entities and redevelop ARCHIE on that basis. This article announced that development to an indifferent world.

Digest of the public records of Victoria (1990)

Published as part of Public Record Office of Victoria, Summary Guide (1990)

While we were developing ARCHIE, we were also augmenting the data that was to go in it. At first, PROV had little beyond item lists and series titles. We had to expand and deepen the series descriptions greatly and develop almost from scratch the contextual descriptions to go with them. Extensive and intensive research into the administrative history of Victoria (and its parent Colony, New South Wales) was undertaken involving almost everyone on staff outside of the repository. We decided early on to depart from the practice of the National Archives and not to fully articulate the network of relationships between creating agencies. Our resources simply didn’t permit that kind of approach. So we re-introduced “groups” based on the ministry to which creating agencies belonged. This was not actually a return to the Record Groups proscribed by Peter Scott but a legitimate (in my view) adaptation of the System to our particular circumstances. I have always maintained that the term “Record Groups” at PROV was a kind of insiders’ joke but I was surprised some years later to learn from Sue McKemmish that I had neglected to make this clear. The connection between two agencies was documented by describing which ministry(ies) they belonged to. Non-ministerial agencies (e.g. courts, hospitals, schools, municipalities) were grouped into categories of our own devising. All this was brought together in the Summary Guide in 1990. The Guide was the work of many hands, but special mention must be made of Sue McKemmish and Marg Burns who brought it all together in the final 12 months and made its realisation and the 1990 release possible.

Other innovations, originally prompted by the need to economise, led the way to modifications of the “Series System” that actually enlarged and improved upon its conceptual underpinning. Vast quantities of school and court records would have consumed enormous resources if they had been arranged and described into “true” series. Most consisted of tiny pockets of documentary material. So, we “grouped” them together also into sets within the one series – I would now call them sub-series. Done as a practical measure to begin with, it led to the insight that there’s nothing special about series; they are just instances of a conceptual type and its instances are scaleable. But that is another story.

As the Guide came together, I realised that there was something missing – an overall road map to the entire descriptive system. Taking the high level descriptions of the 90 or so Record Groups we had established I personally did a precis of each one, accompanying this with an crude assessment of the strength of PROV’s holdings in each Group, charts, an introduction to how the system worked, and an index. This was released as a component part of the Guide. To my astonishment, when a review appeared in Archives & Manuscripts it concentrated on the Digest and not surprisingly, having virtually ignored the thousands of pages of COM printout that accompanied it, the reviewer thought it was a bit thin!!! It would be more useful if there was actual description of the records!!! The index to the Digest was a stepping stone along our journey towards functions and the three entity model. To get a description of each Group into less than one page, required a high order of summarising complex material. By my own assessment, I succeeded spectacularly well in about one-third of the cases, another third were OK, and the remainder were passable but not brilliant. The Digest represents an example of the kind of gateway work I had been assigned by Peter Scott as one of my very first tasks when I arrived in archives in 1971 and that I had outlined in the 1986 ACA Report. Peter’s Handbooks, if they had ever been realised, would have looked something like this on a broader scale (I imagine).

The Digest was prepared while I was employed as Keeper of Public Records and is accordingly an official publication. It appears here by kind permission of the current Keeper who has asked me to make it clear that it in no way represents the descriptive direction subsequently taken by PROV.

Developments in computerised documentation systems at the Public Record Office of Victoria (1989) with Helen Smith

Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 17, no. 2, November 1989
Authors: Chris Hurley and Helen Smith

So far as I know, PROV was the first government archives in Australia to migrate its finding aids successfully onto a computerised platform and release a computer-generated set of finding aids. This was something since we had precious few finding aids in any format to begin with. We also had pathetically few resources and we were working within enormous constraints. This article outlines what we did and how we did it. Our system was called ARCHIE. It used a simple database to manage the dynamic “directory” data about entities and WordPerfect files to hold the bulk of the “inert” descriptive data as text. The reports brought the two together into a single view. By 1990, we were able to publish a comprehensive, computer-generated Summary Guide in COM (computer-output-microform). Whatever else was achieved in my time at PROV, this was one I was especially proud of.

Report on standardisation for the Australian Council on Archives (1987)

Presented 1987

I can no longer recall how or why I was commissioned to undertake this report for the (now defunct) ACA.  It was presented, late at night, in a windowless and airless room in Perth to a group of people who had just dined and had re-assembled grumpily without conviction that there was any need to do so.  They scarcely tried to disguise their lack of interest or comprehension.  It was a milestone for me, however, The problem (as I saw it) was finding a way to “integrate” the descriptive work of many hands without necessitating its re-editing to conform to new standards of description.  For the next 25 years, I was involved in one way or another with descriptive and metadata standards aimed at regulating descriptive activity in order to support meaning and discovery.  This 1987 report took the other way – use of contextual frameworks to fashion “views” of diverse and otherwise unaligned or incompatible descriptions in such a way that, notwithstanding the randomness of their compilation, they could, nevertheless, be found, read and understood using a common gateway.

Archival description accomplishes, or provides the basis for accomplishing, many things including –
  1. content discovery
  2. resource discovery
  3. explication
  4. consolidation
  5. authentication
So far as I can see, only the first of these is facilitated by digital copying and data mining approaches.  Even that could become complicated if many imperfectly contextualised copies if the same thing are made available on the Internet with insufficient description to enable the user to verify easily that they are duplication (of one kind or another) or transformation of something else.  All other requirements need something further to be done to enable resources to be mapped somehow (in relation to each other and to common context).  I am unconvinced by prototypes and test beds involving data mining because so little data is currently being mined.  Once the volume of data becomes astronomical (as it must do) they will collapse.  Standardisation of descriptive rules (including much of the metadata discourse) seems to have become the preferred way.  The alternative proposed here anticipates (I think) the inversion of traditional approaches to discovery of archival resources that is now common-place in web based discovery – viz. instead of using structure to establish discovery pathways, use global searching to discover and structure to filter the results.

The question is where to find the structure to use as a filtration mechanism and how to do it in a way that does not require those deploying the resources to modify their descriptive practices or re-tool the data.  I think I discovered how to do this methodologically in an approach that anticipated filtration (although it was not, of course, conceived as that at the time).  It was an eye-opener for me then because it was the first time I freed myself from the shackles that still bound users of the Australian (“series”) system to logical constructs and it introduced me to the perspectives I have since come to style “scaleability” and “parallel provenance” in which unlike entities can align and like entities can appear as strangers.  As I came later to consider the randomness of archival discovery (cf. “Strength below and grace above ...”), it seemed to me that this approach still had its relevance – not as an alternative to the other kinds of standards but as an augmentation.  This is the road not taken in description and I have often wondered, as the standard-setters keep on seeming to fall short of their aspirations, whether it might have been the better model after all.

» Standardisation 1987 : Appendices

This is a selection of material appended to the 1987 Report

» Standardisation 1987: A Recapitulation

Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 18, no. 1, May 1990

Three years later, no interest had been expressed in doing anything about my report.  I wrote this to give it an airing before a wider audience.  Again, to no avail.

Personal papers and the treatment of archival principles (1977)

Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 6, no. 8, 1977

This article was originally published in the pages of Archives and Manuscripts vol. 6, no. 7 (February, 1977), pp.351-365.  It is here reproduced without corrections, word-for-word exactly as it was published then.  Since it has been cited a number of times from the original publication, the pagination used in vol. 6, no. 7 is shown here by use of square brackets to indicate where, in the original text, a new page begins – e.g. [351] indicates that what follows is on p.351.

It was my first piece of published professional writing.  It was written in response to an article by Graeme Powell of the National Library entitled Archival principles and the treatment of personal papers and there is a sub-text.  Graeme and I were writing into an environment of poisoned relations between our respective employers – the National Library of Australia and the (then) Commonwealth Archives Office.  CAO had broken away from NLA and the acquisition of personal papers remained an issue between them.  CAO wanted to be able to take in the papers of ministers and bureaucrats and NLA wanted CAO to be prevented from doing so.  I was deeply involved in the bureaucratic skirmishing because I was in charge of the personal papers programme at CAO.  The Library argued that personal papers were “different” and I was called upon over and over to lay out examples for bemused departmental officials to show that they were not.  Usually these officials were able to distinguish, to their own satisfaction, what was official and what was private.  But in every case they drew a dividing line at a different place.  After a while, I was able to use this : “That’s interesting,” I would say, “Mr So-and-so [preferably some pooh-bah of greater eminence than my interlocutor] thought very differently.”

One of the themes in Graeme’s article was that manuscript librarians were better fitted than ‘government archivists’ (his term) in dealing with personal papers.  This goes some way to explaining the liveliness of my response.  A close reading of these articles will reveal that we were tussling over whether or not personal papers are indeed “different”.  Graeme argued they were and therefore deserved to be treated differently (and, by implication, better by librarians who knew about these things) and I was arguing that personal papers needed to be treated just like any other kinds of records (and, by implication, better by archivists who knew how to handle that kind of material).  The issue was not finally resolved until passage of the Archives Act in 1984.  Although Graeme and I were foot-soldiers in this campaign, I don’t mean to suggest that either of us was not genuine in the views we expressed. 

In a 2008 article, Heather Macneil has examined the concept of original order (“Archivalterity: Rethinking Original Order”, Archivaria (No.66, Fall 2008), pp.1-24).  Inter alia, she examines a “growing body of archival literature ... that critiques the classical archival theory of arrangement ... an emerging awareness that a body of records that survives over time will contain multiple logical and physical orders, each of which is worth studying in its own right” (p.20).  She cites neither Graeme’s article nor mine – not surprising since, so far as I can see, she cites no Australian material at all.  In this early piece I deal (obviously) with the arrangement of physical items in terms suggested by Graeme’s piece – viz. given the necessity of making a choice, which approach should be favoured.

Much of the Australian writing since 1977 (my own, but much more besides), generically described as continuum thinking, can be read as an exploration of original order and what Macneil calls “the inevitability and legitimacy of alterity ... the open-ended and complex histories of records”.  By what I can only assume is some kind of bizarre misunderstanding, some of the writers referred to by Macneil have come to view continuum thinking as hostile to this insight.  The reverse is the case.  The Australian (“Series”) System is a perfect technical device for documenting “alterity”, for describing multiple orders – as the appearance of the same series on more than one inventory of series (as described by Peter Scott in 1966) and my own work on simultaneous multiple provenance amply demonstrates.  There is no doubt in my mind that simultaneous multiple provenance (I cannot bring myself to use the term “alterity”) is the key to documenting electronic records.

Subsequent Australian thought has explored how this may be used in the construction (making) of records and in their keeping “over time” to be sure but also simultaneously and in parallel contexts.  I am surprised that Macneil ignored it.  My own thoughts are set out most fully in the two articles on description I released also in 2008 but it was also to be found in my 2005 article on parallel provenance which preceded Macneil by enough time for the richness of Australian insights into this matter to have been appreciated.  Little of this is hinted at, however, in my 1977 article.  I am happy, though, that I was clever enough way back then to quote Hilary Jenkinson with approval when he said that a respect for order was important but that it must be grounded on larger principles applied invariably and not on rigid procedural methods.  Even then, I think, my mind must have been prepared for David Bearman’s instructions to us in the 1990’s on how to deal with new challenges arising from electronic recordkeeping – viz. to reach out for the functional requirements without regard to the methods that had hitherto been used to satisfy them.