Since researching born-digital records in manuscript repositories to write my master’s paper, I’ve been interested in how archives are handling electronic records — their appraisal, acquisition, processing, preservation, and access.  This week’s review focuses on an article that delves into the processing and access piece — “Bringing Things Together: Aggregate Records in a Digital Age,” published in the Fall 2012 issue of Archivaria.  Geoffrey Yeo worked as an archivist for the Corporation of the City of London, for St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, and for the Royal College of Physicians.  He taught archives and records management at University College London (1995-97 and 2000-14).  He also served as programme director for the MA/Diploma/Certificate in Archives and Records Management and the MA/Diploma/ Certificate in Records and Archives Management (International) at UCL’s School of Library, Archive and Information Studies (2002-5).

Yeo laid out an ambitious path for archivists in his abstract (44):

  • “build multiple overlapping record series to meet different needs or realize different conceptualizations of series boundaries”
  • “bring together aggregate records and present views of context when they are required”
  • develop “scalable and user-friendly systems that enable the construction of
    aggregate records as well as ‘non-record’ aggregations, and also preserve information about logical contexts and about physical arrangements imposed in the past”

Unfortunately, this article identified more of the problems rather than the solutions to these intriguing challenges.  For background, Yeo delved into the concept of a record, collections vs. fonds, series, and files.  He then elaborated on David Weinberger’s concepts of order from his book Everything is Miscellaneous as a framework for analyzing digital records.

  1. The first order of order — physical objects cannot reside in more than one sequence at the same time
  2. The second order of order — alternative sequences are enabled by “laborious representational surrogates” (i.e., indices) (57)
  3. The third order of order — “resources can be arranged into as many sequences as may be desired and users can organize their work independently of the limitations imposed by analog systems” (58)

Yeo acknowledged that these notions of fluidity could make archivists wary, but he embraced the third order of order, encouraging multiple collections alongside the repurposing and reuse of content by users.  Contrary to the notion in the paper world that there is “this single correct arrangement” (59),  he urged a different approach to digital records.  Where original order has been used to support provenance and authenticity, he asserted, “Not all users seek evidence of the occurrents that records represent, or look for groupings of records based on contextual provenance” (68).

Yeo seemed to be prioritizing the user, allowing for the possibility of new combinations, new learning, and regroupings to suit the needs of the user.  He suggested that the types of cross-boundary collections and search and discovery that are available to users in other domains will also be expected in the archival realm (e.g., creating a collection on Flickr).  The paradigm shift for records management is from controlling aggregate records in a stable physical form to “ensuring that aggregate records can be constructed when we require them” (71).

He acknowledged the literature that suggests some users do not demand contextual information, especially when their research purpose is prooftexting.  In this brave new world, “memory and identity (as perceived by those alive today) supersede
history (of the world as it was, or as it might have been)” (74).  Yet Yeo seemed adamant that context matters, concluding:

“If we are to allow or encourage users to create their own collections and construct their own hierarchies, we also need to find ways of presenting larger or previous contexts and of enabling users to contextualize each item in their collections” (75).

Yeo returned to the idea of original order as it relates to digital records, acknowledging that many individuals and organizations use a hierarchical system of electronic record organization that mirrors the paper storage system and that these orderings can “tell us something about the priorities and perceptions of the people concerned” (77).  He provided two examples of repositories that combined linear descriptions with third order flexibility — however, Yeo provided no information about the time and other resources necessary for these undertakings.

Yeo concluded with a list of ingredients necessary for preserving contextual information and orderings while providing the ability to aggregate records:

  • Granularity: Yeo asserted “the item is the paradigmatic unit of control in the third order” (80).
  • Relational modelling: Yeo acknowledged that this possibility necessitates rich metadata, which depends on both manual and automatic capture.
  • System interfaces and functionalities: “Unconstrained by paper paradigms, systems and interfaces should enable archival resources to be presented in many different ways, reflecting their various ‘original’ orders, different interpretations of context, and other orders newly desired by users in the course of research and experimentation” (85).

My frustrations with the literature on born-digital records persists after reading this article.  To my mind, the goals set out in the abstract  were not met in any concrete way.  I long for some middle ground between theoretical stabs in the dark and dull procedural manuals.  Perhaps the problem is simply that the people with boots on the ground do not have the time to write about their work, but we need a louder voice from accomplished practitioners.