Specialist expertise & interdisciplinary communication

2010 August 11
by Shane Landrum

The Society of American Archivists is meeting this week in Washington, DC. Last week they had a pre-conference about EAC-CPF, which they twittered under the hashtag #eacdc. I’m not formally trained as an archivist, but I’ve used a lot of different manuscript/papers collections and am really interested in digital tools for archival researchers, so I was following their reportage.

I hadn’t ever given a thought to the technical and ethical issues involved in authority databases until a few months ago, when I heard Simon Wiles speak at Yale about his Buddhist authority databases project. Among other interesting technical challenges, it handles records for texts in multiple Asian languages (including non-Unicode ones) and multiple time systems used in various Buddhist cultures.

With the approval of his supervisors at Dharma Drum College, Wiles publishes all his project’s databases under an open-source license, encouraging them to be copied in full to any server that will host them. This is a preservation and access strategy designed to work around issues of political and religious freedom in various Asian countries; Wiles also talked better than I can summarize about how this plan flows from the college’s Buddhist principles.

EAC-CPF (Encoded Archival Context for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families) is an XML format that makes it possible for archivists to mark off when items in their collections relate to particular named people or groups. It’s related to what archivists call authority control,” the practice of standardizing headings in a cataloging system so that users can use a single heading to find what they’re looking for. (Don’t look up “Grace Abbott,” look up “Abbott, Grace, 1878-1939.”) More important in an old-style card catalog, but not unimportant in a computer-based system either.) From what I could tell, #eacdc was talking about the relative merits of establishing a single authority file or setting up a distributed system. This is an arcane topic for general readers, but a specialist topic for library professionals.

Fortunately, when I tweeted a question about #eacdc, Maureen Callahan at The Patriarchive gave a good explanation on EAC and whether we should care. More digital-humanities people should be writing pieces like this: explanations of technical issues in their field for others who may need to know. Here’s why.

Although I’m trained as a historian, in the professional field of archives-management I’m a curious amateur. Authority control is interesting to me because I use a number of under-processed women’s history collections, and I’d like to experiment with crowdsourcing approaches for generating finding aids.

RG 102, the Papers of the United States Children’s Bureau, is an important collection for historians who study the early 20th century; women, gender, and family; the emergence of the federal welfare state; and the history of public health. I use it a lot in my dissertation.

I and the +/- 5 other historians who use any particular chunk of NARA RG 102 ought to be able to generate a pretty good collaborative finding aid if we have the right tools to make it easy enough. After all, we index our own digital photos of materials as part of our working notes; why should anyone else ever have to make a list of the items in that box and folder (or, for that matter, photograph them in person)? And if I’ve got subject, date, and topic notes on a folder of letters sent by Grace Abbott, why shouldn’t anyone who’s looking for material on Abbott be able to know what’s in that folder without having to travel to Maryland to do it? (Yes, there’s a microfilm edition, but it’s selected.)

This toolsmithing work and information compilation is an important project, and I think that EAC-CPF may be an important bit of the infrastructure we need for making usable, collaboratively-created finding aids. But without reading more work on emerging technical standards for digital archives, I can’t know for sure. To find other people (historians, programmers, archivists) who’d be interested in collaborating on this toolsmithing project, I have to know who can explain authority control (or linked data, or GIS correspondence mapping) to people outside their own professional specialty.

Explaining what you know for people outside your discipline— particularly specialist methods or theory— is a vital part of building meaningfully interdisciplinary communities. Given that many of the best digital-humanities projects are collaborative team efforts, these explanations might also help potential future collaborators understand why they want to work with you.

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