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DigiCULT
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Info
45
car dealer, which was of little or no use to
us, stuck on a forest track miles from any-
where and with no signal on our mobile tel-
ephones, the limitation of the digital. My
sister had to take a lift in the offending lorry
to a neighbouring cottage and resort to the
analogue. There is a lesson here. When help
arrived, the motor mechanic shook his head
and said, `Oh dear, this is going to be expen-
sive, cam shaft's gone, I shouldn't wonder'.
He later turned out to be a British secu-
rity services expert in retrieving bodies and
objects (including documents) from deep
water!
O
ne thing that distinguishes these two
essential manuals is the continual
reminder in the NINCH guide that every
choice involves costs of the `Good heavens, I
had no idea it would be so expensive' varie-
ty, just like getting your cam shafts fixed. For
archivists accustomed to tight budgets and
accompanying scrimping and saving, these
are salutary warnings. What neither guide
does, probably because it was not in their
brief, is to address the question of why we
should drive into the flood in the first place
and incur all this expense. It is a poor excuse
to say we were simply following someone
else. This in a sense is what both manuals set
out to do either implicitly or explicitly and
I would recommend that they be consulted
by every archivist before being seduced into
digitisation projects.
W
e do well to remind ourselves
that these publications were not
addressed to archivists alone but to all those
wishing to make analogue assets from the
heritage community in the widest sense
available on the Web, largely to tap into its
supposed effectiveness as a distribution chan-
nel. This is a worthy goal but raises impor-
tant, if unspoken, issues about the role of
archivists as information providers. Although
both guides confuse online catalogues with
the creation of digital surrogates from ana-
logue assets, neither confronts the question
of how mediation is to be achieved. Curators
of heritage assets differ in their approach
in the analogue world. Museum curators,
because their main means of distribution has
been through exhibitions, are well versed in
the mediation of knowledge and are com-
fortable with the use of experts in help-
ing to write catalogues and selecting objects
for inclusion. Librarians are aware of what
is involved in the privileging (some might
call it censorship) of their holdings, although
they are not generally as good at retain-
ing audit trails of their decision making. You
have only to think of Library of Congress
Subject Headings (LCSH),
54
which are reg-
ularly updated and amplified without any
record being kept of the dynamics of the
process.
A
rchivists are, on the whole, uncom-
fortable with such overt mediation
of individual objects in their care but it is
implicit in everything they do from appraisal
to cataloguing and curation. Under wither-
ing criticism they have tried (not very sat-
isfactorily in my view) to justify appraisal
techniques where they consider themselves
to be the sole arbiters, a defence as they
see it against the `keep everything' mental-
ity. If archivists move beyond the appraisal
and cataloguing of objects in their custo-
dy, where there are problems enough, they
can become disconcerted and disorientat-
ed. Some archival commentators, such as Sir
Hilary Jenkinson, would regard such media-
tion as ultra vires, not what archivists are here
to do.
55
They would argue that such media-
tion through the further selection of objects
can raise questions about their fiduciary
role and must inevitably involve user con-
stituencies, taking archivists into the wider
community of heritage curators. I have no
problem with this but such a change in pro-
fessional behaviour needs to be underpinned
by debate and discussion before our meta-
phorical engines seize up under the digital
flood and resources are diverted from col-
lecting and cataloguing. The question is: do
archivists use the power of the Internet as
a distribution network to provide access by
means of improved deeper catalogues (our
traditional analogue role) or do we follow
the digitisation lorry or seek to find hybrids
whereby digital assets are linked to online
finding aids? All of these approaches are
more demanding and expensive than ana-
logue equivalents.
T
here are other issues bound up with
all this which neither set of guide-
lines attempts to resolve, although the
NINCH guide does hint that external fund-
ing streams may dictate which assets are dig-
itised. Until now few projects have been a
digital equivalent of analogue microfilm-
ing a conservation perspective, large-
ly because digital preservation is still an
unknown quantity. There are some notable
exceptions, such as the Prerogative Court
of Canterbury wills project at the United
Kingdom National Archives (http://www.
documentsonline.nationalarchives.gov.uk/)
and ScottishDocuments online (Scottish tes-
taments and inventories) at the National
Archives of Scotland (http://www.scot tish-
documents.com).
56
Most projects address
wider agendas, usually educational, and are
linked to government programmes often
to extend participation in the use of herit-
age assets. This in turn demands the selec-
tion and digitisation of assets of interest to
a diverse customer base, most common-
ly in the world of archives in western cul-
tures, genealogists, and to a lesser extent
those interested in local history and the
Nazi regime. This is why the two United
Kingdom wills projects have been funded.
The pursuit of such agendas does raise issues
about just what it is that archivists do that
distinguishes them from others engaged in
the curation of heritage assets.
J
ust as problematic for archivists is the
exposure of archival assets by enthusi-
asts across the Internet, which observe few
if any of the procedures and protocols rec-
54 More information and resources can be found at http://www.loc.
gov/catdir/cpso/cpso.html#subjects
55 More on Sir Hilary Jenkinson can be discovered from http://
www.archiveshub.ac.uk/news/hjenkinson.html
56 Interestingly the content of neither of these projects is complete-
ly exposed to the Internet as both guides recommend, making for
less elaborate metadata and lower costs but limited distribution. The
National Archives (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk) is under-
stood to be considering such an advance.