Archive Watch: Building a National Cooperative for Archival Standards

Washington — The nation’s archives contain multitudes of documents that detail the lives and experiences of individuals, families, and groups. Archivists don’t lack for material to manage. What they could use is a consistent, broadly used standard for so-called authority control—a way to reliably, thoroughly describe archival holdings and contexts so that they’re discoverable by anyone who might want to use them.

A fairly new archival-authority standard, released in 2010, could change that. It has the less-than-euphonious name of Encoded Archival Context-Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families, or EAC-CPF. And it’s helped inspire a push to create a cooperative national infrastructure to regularize and connect archival records.

A group of archivists and other interested parties gathered at the National Archives here on Monday and Tuesday to talk about what a National Archival Authorities Cooperative, or NAAC, would look like, and how to get there from here.

Representatives from the Archives, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Library of Medicine, the National Agricultural Library, and other federal entities sat in. So did archivists from state and regional archives and from individual universities, including Brandeis, Fordham, Harvard, Nebraska, and Yale.

A Small-Scale Model

They tackled three big issues: the business, governance, and technical requirements of such an enterprise. And they left with apparent consensus that they were onto a good idea and that they had the enthusiasm to come up with a plan, even if the details weren’t yet clear.

People “will have to be convinced not with hyperbole but with a good sound plan about how to move forward,” said Daniel V. Pitti, associate director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, or IATH, at the University of Virginia. Mr. Pitti convened the meeting. The Institute of Museum and Library Services is providing financial support for the planning stage.

To get the discussion going, Mr. Pitti and some of his collaborators gave attendees a close look at an archival-authorities experiment in progress, the Social Networks and Archival Context Project, or SNAC. It’s a joint venture that includes researchers and developers at IATH, the California Digital Library, and the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information.

The idea is to bring together archival records in standardized form so that users can navigate among them and see the biographical and cultural contexts that disparate collections document. Mr. Pitti told the audience that SNAC shows how “archival authority, as we have been able to dig it out of traditional archival finding aids, is full of interesting treasures.”

Drawing on records from the Library of Congress, the Northwest Digital Archives, the Online Archive of California, and Virginia Heritage, the SNAC team created about 175,000 records using the EAC-CPF standard. Imagine doing that on a much bigger scale, Mr. Pitti suggested. “We think we can start it. We can get it going,” he said. “But ultimately it’s going to need the community if it’s going to become a sustainable, ongoing resource for users.”

‘Table Your Inner Eeyores’

After the discussion of SNAC, attendees broke up into three working groups to discuss essential questions. Who would host a national cooperative? Who would be able to contribute records? How would it be sustained and maintained? Would its target audience or users be archivists, scholars, the public, or all of the above? As one attendee asked later, at a session pulling together the various threads, “Are we building this for us, or are we building it for them?”

At times the meeting threatened to bog down in technical and best-practices debates, but Mr. Pitti and Clifford Lynch of the Coalition for Networked Information, in the role of interested interlocutor, kept things moving along. Mr. Pitti urged the group to “table your inner Eeyores for just a little while” and to dream big.

Mr. Lynch described a fast-changing landscape with “outbreaks of authority control” everywhere, involving many institutions and different kinds of collections. “This is really one piece, and a very well-timed piece, in a whole series of activities that are happening right now,” he said. Archivists might be the primary users of a national cooperative, he said, but scholars are another important community to include.

“We’ve got a lot of knowledge that’s created, codified, and then goes away,” he said, “because there’s no place to put it.”

Mr. Pitti concluded by observing that an essential, early step will be to find a home for NAAC—perhaps the National Archives, which seemed to be a consensus first choice. (The Archives has shown some interest in that idea but has not made a formal commitment.)

The conference’s organizers will now pull together the ideas discussed here, write them up, and circulate them, aiming to refine and publish them as a white paper in the fall of 2013. In the meantime, a couple of smaller meetings and a number of regional workshops will bring archivists up to speed on EAC-CPF.

As one attendee said, “This is a chance to lead with a new standard.”

["Maddie Defines Big," featuring the exterior of the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user cometstarmoon.]

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