King’s Archives sits within the university’s Libraries and Collections Department, but it has long forged close connections with the Departments of Digital Humanities (DDH) and King’s Digital Lab (KDL), the latter a commercial spin-off which develops and manages data platforms and services for the humanities sector in higher education. King’s Department of Digital Humanities is the oldest in the UK; its pedigree includes support for data initiatives led by the Library, with which it was once institutionally aligned.
In practice, however, this did not necessarily result in ‘digital scholarship’ in King’s libraries being delegated to DDH or KDL, as might have been expected. Library data creation has historically focused on internal administrative value, not least patron usage that informed the purchase of stock or subscription to costly electronic databases. Cooperation instead took place with the university’s IT department with a focus on bread and butter catalogue systems, and on the issue of membership and the issue of books and production of archives, but less so with the university’s digital scholarship initiatives. The reason for this reticence was severalfold, including a post-fees student satisfaction agenda temporarily taking precedence over a research one; systems being unable to support the creation of usefully interoperable metadata; and the outputs of the library and its staff not being ‘REF-able’ and thus perceived to be of lower priority.
This is now changing following the adoption in 2018 of a new 10-year strategy called ‘Library Evolution’, with its focus on higher value collaboration with academics, intelligent re-use of metadata and a burgeoning commitment, along with sector partners, to open access exemplified most recently by ‘Plan S’.
King’s Archives has since the early 1990s, been committed to supporting a culture of co-curation rather than merely the supply of data for other people to use. This in part reflects the distinctiveness of the archive profession and its digital ‘stuff’, and the necessity for many archivists to ‘make do and mend’ with custom technology needed to describe the unique and distinctive collections in their care, and an absence of institutional support for archive-related IT, fostering as it does a self help mentality. The external audience focus of many archives, and divergent fundraising models in comparison to the library and museum sectors have encouraged a more experimental approach. Archivists in general, and university archivists in particular, have long had to embrace digital scholarship out of necessity and the impact agenda is now pulling the rest of the information sector in the same direction.
At King’s, archive ‘exceptionalism’ resulted, in 1996, in the publication of one of the world’s first online archive catalogues to describe the rich deposited collections that comprise its constituent Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, which preserves important private papers relating to the two World Wars. The King’s Library Management System was unable to manage the hierarchical archive catalogues and a bespoke build was required. This reflected the need for online discovery for the Archives split 50/50 between internal postgraduate and external audiences. Visibility to Google when that search engine came into being, and rich subject taxonomies allowed catalogues to be diced and sliced for different constituents.
This was followed by an ambitious endeavour – Archives in London and the M25 (AIM25) – to publish and aggregate collection level descriptions of archives held by London’s higher education institutions and learned societies. The initial project was led by a core of partners including King’s, the University of Westminster and the University of London Computer Centre providing technical support. Importantly, it relied on external fundraising and intimate engagement with London’s academic community to prioritise catalogue writing and hone a taxonomy of subject, personal and corporate name tagging and placename hierarchies, long before services such as Geonames became available and APIs ubiquitous.
AIM25 launched in the year 2000 and has gone from strength to strength, now boasting some 150 partners in the London area including local authorities, charities and galleries as well as its early adopters. It is as much a community of experts as a provider of a discovery service, its expanded remit reflected in its status now as a charitable incoporated organisation, ensuring the long term continuity in governance required for successful digital scholarship.
Crucially, its catalogue data, and that of the UK Archival Thesaurus, for which it is now custodian, has long been harvestable, and with this in mind a close working relationship exists with The National Archives and the JISC-supported Archives Hub to improve user access by limiting the times one set of data needs to be edited. It is a model that also permitted bolt-on projects, notably a number to develop linked open data services with industry partners including Axiell, and most recently with The Georgian Papers Programme, a digital scholarship partnership between King’s, the Royal Archives and partners in the US. This focused on the enhancement of UKAT with terms relevant to the eighteenth century, in order to make online digitised content more discoverable.
At the heart of AIM25’s success has been a focus on lightweight cataloguing using web forms, the use of peripatetic archivists to survey and support an often lonely profession, and a focus on collection level description to make collections visible quickly. It is also a community of practice, enhancing its utility and sustainability. These principles informed the Archives Africa initiative, conceived by King’s Archives and the Department of History in 2018 with a pilot in Madagascar, progressively to build an ‘AIM25 for Africa’ on a low-cost, voluntary basis.
Its purpose was threefold. Firstly, to work with the grain of African archival practice to write and publish collection level descriptions of Africa’s public and private archives, on the assumption that collections that are used are more likely to be preserved. It consciously took a step back from otherwise excellent initiatives such as the Endangered Archives Programme, that focus on digitisation, to ask, ‘what is there, where is it and how do we make it visible?’
The project next sought to develop lightweight cataloguing methods in environments often without access to regular power supplies and intermittent access to the Internet, but where mobile phone use is very common. This meant adapting spreadsheets or PDFs for conversion to encoded archival description.
Lastly, it tried to kickstart networks of practice between archivists and scholars in Africa with counterparts in the UK and worldwide, with the intention of connecting parts of disparate collection jigsaws and encouraging international partnership and publication.
It built on existing best practice adopted by the International Council on Archives, and consciously adopted an African centred initiative, with control of descriptions and indexing retained by African archives and initial, unrealised, plans to develop an ‘African Archival Thesaurus’. This latter suggestion, however, foundered on the complexity of local multicultural and multilingual sensitivities, and the UNESCO thesaurus otherwise used for the time being.
While the project had a curatorial purpose, and was researcher-focused, it also underlined the importance of UK libraries and archives being able to forge international partnerships with the aim of helping to address urgent practical problems and thus acquiring social capital and good will. In the case of Madagascar this might take the form of improving the visibility of its records relating to health, thus informing decision making in relation to recent outbreaks of disease, or supporting good governance through effective records management and strengthening the independence of the record keeping community during a period of rapid political change. It has also highlighted the opportunity for UK universities and archives to tap into new sources of funding to develop digital scholarship with partners in the Global South. Subject to funding, it is hoped that the project will be extended to other countries to support ongoing Pan-African study and research.
In parallel, Archives Africa cemented King’s relationship with the developers of Atom software, the Canadian company, Artefactual Systems. Atom is used by Archives Africa and throughout the world but ambitious plans are underway to completely redevelop the software using linked open data principles. Atom 3, if fully funded, will begin to address the growing need for interconnectivity, semantic enhancement of data and the opportunity to mix, augment, refine and re-use catalogue information alongside digital assets, digitised publications, research databases, crowdsourced metadata and more.
This could support the broader trend towards the convergence of data with metadata, of co-working between information professionals and other types of professional and the academic community, and of university libraries partnering with lay institutions (local authorities, hospitals, SMEs, for example) to work with diverse data for the public good.
Arguably, librarians and their kin might contribute a distinctive professional voice, assembly of skills and singular purpose within the broader conversation of digital scholars, traditionally comprising digital humanists or computer scientists. What form this niche might take is unclear, but it could focus on the traditional strengths of the information profession: those needed to correctly interpret the needs of diverse audiences, to advocate for the long, historical view, and to burrow, sift and bank information of value as trusted intermediaries in the cultural conversation.
Geoff Browell, Head of Archives and Research Collections, King’s College London