Liberating heritage collections (Part One)
What does Government 2.0 mean for the world of archives, records and information management more broadly? The short answer is, much more than you might have thought. A longer answer follows (in somewhat discursive form)…..
First of all it provides a tremendous opportunity to unlock the hidden potential of archival collections. Public institutions in Australia hold hundreds, probably thousands, of shelf-kilometres of archival materials. Because of funding and other practical limitations the majority of this material is difficult to get access to. Because archives are created in the course of organisations and individuals going about their business, they are not created with a view to making it easy for some future researcher to find their way through them.
Archival catalogues and finding aids aim to assist researchers navigate their way through these collections, but the sheer bulk of most public archives and relatively small number of archivists employed to catalogue them inevitably means that, for most archival holdings, researchers need to be clever, persistent and a little lucky to find what they might be looking for. Add to this the fact that the physical location of original paper records is usually hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from where most Australians live and it is not surprising that very few rarely ever darken the doorstep of an archival institution, much less pluck up the courage to try to make sense of the often bewildering catalogues and finding aids.
The advent of the Web has been changing that paradigm, such that now many archives have web interfaces to their finding aids and are busy placing digitised copies of records on the web for easy (though not always free) access. Statistics tell us that this approach to providing access to archives is overwhelmingly popular with both established and new users. Indeed, community expectations are such that if archival resources are not available on the Web they may as well not exist as far as the overwhelming majority of users are concerned. Web 2.0 offers an almost infinite array of possibilities for opening up avenues for access to and use of these resources. There are enormous possibilities for mashups, clever visualisations and user tagging of resources.
Harnessing the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ means that we can have millions of ‘archivists’ now creating metadata and archival finding aids – indeed whole new online archival collections, not just the overworked handful of archivists who have these duties in their job descriptions. For instance, the National Archives of Australia’s Mapping our Anzacs site mashes digitised copies of World War 1 service records and their archival metadata with geospatial metadata to provide a whole new means of access to and navigation of these popular records. In addition, a scrapbook facility allows users to upload their own family history information, hyperlinks and digitised records relating to the individual concerned – thus creating a much more valuable set of historical resources.
Copyright can be a major headache for archives wishing to make their collections more available an useable. Usually archives, while they might own their physical collections as objects, they will not own the copyright that resides in them. To make matters worse, according to the Copyright Act unpublished ‘manuscripts’ (ie archives) are in perpetual copyright. Yes that’s right – they are in copyright FOREVER unless the copyright owner (if they can be found) gives permission for them to be published. I think Australia is the only country anywhere that has such a strange provision in its statute books.