Computational archival science – what is it?

Recently, I submitted a paper to the Computational Archival Science (CAS) workshop about my research exploring ways to develop tools and methods to support and undertake automated appraisal for cultural heritage. The project is at the conception stage and I am exploring the existing methods and tools that identify data from documents and map them as networked contexts. I am starting with a pilot project focusing on the Zoetic Walls street art project in Cleveland.

The project is heavily conceptual and explores what it means to document and manage cultural heritage that exists physically and virtually, and has significant ephemerality issues. The goal is to explore how it is possible to do this work in a way that engages with multiple stakeholders and various contexts that contribute to a social phenomenon that has been given some meaning and value. The ultimate goal is to design appraisal tools that might be able to be used in a much more participatory way. It is heavily conceptual right now and right at the beginning. A great place for some feedback from people who are interested in archival science and data. Or so I thought.

My short paper for the workshop was rejected, although the reviewers said it was well written. From the comments and then a closer reading of the workshop history and goals, I realise that I was trying to pitch a research project about archives to mostly digital humanities scholars who have their own particular view about what CAS is as well as what archival science is more broadly. I wrote an email responding to the reviewer comments, but it bounced back as it one of those email boxes that are not read. I could not find an email address for them either, so I have copied the email I wrote below.

The main issues that the reviewers seemed to have was that my work was too conceptual and that the conceptual aspects I was talking about are not “computational archival science.” Not just not suited or not part of the conversation, but actually not CAS. The email I wrote addresses comments from the second reviewer mostly and while I have not copied the second reviewer’s comments here, I think you get the gist from my email.

I feel like I must have missed a conversation somewhere about the relationship between computational archival science has with the actual discipline of archival science (or archival studies as it is also called here in the US). Are there any archival scholars out there who have been involved in this CAS that can enlighten me? I have read the definition listed on the website and wonder primarily about how the term, “archival thinking” has been used and its relationship use of “archival science.” I checked and I believe my work fit into the notion of Computational Thinking (CT) as being “the thought processes involved in formulating a problem and expressing its solution(s) in such a way that a computer—human or machine—can effectively carry out”. Of course I am happy to receive feedback and improve on my work and I can see where I could improve on the paper to expressly address CT, especially at this pilot stage. However, my concern remains this issue with what “archival thinking” means and how this is carried out in CT contexts as CAS.

To the workshop organizers;

Thank you for the feedback. From the reviewer feedback it is clearer to me that this workshop focus is on data science and machine learning from digital humanities perspectives.

It is unfortunate to hear that while engagement with archival science theories and principles is being asked for, engagement with archives and archival work is not suitable for the workshop. I am of course engaged with exploring what it means to document cultural heritage from an archives-as-institution point of view as this one of the ways that big data and linked data gets created. However, my research also attempts to grapple with alternative conceptual, practical and technological approaches to appraisal via crafting and testing methods to identify data as context (and then what that data tells us about the social phenomenon). I do see that I did not explore the notion of automation enough from an archival processing point of view and the potential role it can play for digital humanities research.

Regards literature on conceptual modelling, I am not addressing or using conceptual modelling, rather context entity mapping and network analysis using existing archival science standards and methodologies. It is possible to explore links between conceptual modelling from a computer science and information systems point of view, but it is really the topic for another paper. In archival science there is not much literature on conceptual modelling other than possibly the OAIS model (which is a functional model, albeit from a computer science idea of conceptual modelling) or the models developed from InterPARES (mostly business process models), or the records continuum model (conceptual and activity model) and other entity models developed by the Records Continuum Research Group (context entity models), so I am not sure what was expected in relation to this.

Regards the comment about being heavily influenced by critical theory, I do not refer to or engage in any critical theory literature or frameworks in this paper. As was mentioned clearly in the paper, my paradigmatic approach is social constructivism. The comment about being heavily influenced by critical theory in archives indicates a lack of understanding about engagement by archival science scholars with critical theory.  

Finally, it is regrettable that a workshop on archival science does not want to engage with the “four walls” of the archives and provide a space to engage with challenges that can be made from within and outside of this context. I do not work within those four walls, but I study them and what they mean in various conceptual, technological and practical ways, and any engagement with archival science, computational or not, requires exploration of their impact and meaning.  

Thank you for your time.





How to research decision-making in the archival discipline

Finally I have some books in my office!
Finally I have some books in my office!

There are a couple of things that have been on my mind for a while – the concept of an ‘archival record’ and how people make decisions about what to archive. In my recent research*, I examined some of the activities and interactions that occur in the formation of cultural heritage. My work looks at online social spaces (social media – specifically YouTube), and so in a way looks closely at technology. In the model I developed I specifically dedicated one area of it to mediated memories – a term I borrowed from José van Dijck’s book of the same title that I spotted on the catalogue of new items coming out when working in a bookshop and so bought and then devoured it and then started a degree in research – and well, here we are.

José van Dijck’s book is about memory in a digital age, and I did apply it in that way within my model, but I think about mediated as being not just about technology and what it does, but the systems that support decision-making in relation to technology. Because, technology does what we tell it to, but how we do it is shaped by how the technology does or does not work. In my model the contexts of mediated memories concerns the tools that support memory-making – tools, local systems, shared systems, collaborative systems, archival systems. These are not just places for stuff, but active systems that support memory co-creation, capture, organisation, curation and pluralisation. More about those terms in a future blog post.

This gets me back to the concept of archival record. As a records professional (encompassing all activities related to recordkeeping), I am confused by this term. I must have read it already many times, but I am now thinking about it in relation to building a new archival course – how do I explain what this is? Why is there a difference between a record and an archival record apart from it has been identified as one and perhaps managed in an archive? Can people who are not archivists decide something is an archival record? Is its inherent archival-ness important in making this decision?

Back to mediated memories – the only part of my model that mentions archives at all. Archival systems however, in my mind, is not about archives though, but about the ability to make a decision related to how a record is managed. Yet, a local system can also be an archival system – they are not mutually exclusive. I looked up “archival” on the SAA Glossary (such a great tool – thanks Richard) and note that it mentions “enduring” value. The definition of the term “archival records” also mentions “enduring value”. This is an interesting term and one I will explore again later, but in the meantime, thinking about mediated memories and the role that decisions have in making memory, and how it is managed, I wonder if the term archival records, is defined only in relation to the physicality of the record – that it is tangible and located in an archive? An archival system will have records – as much as a local system will have records. The differences are about how enduring the records are (as decided by someone), and how much organising they go through in order to be managed over time. Does this ultimately mean that the more “archival” a record is, the more metadata it has where the metadata shows its enduring value through time?

The concept of archival and archival records as being enduring, long-lived, permanent, is problematic within a social media context. Social media is inherently ephemeral (defined in the SAA Glossary as: Useful or significant for a limited period of time. Ephemera are things generally designed to be discarded after use). The idea of ephemera implies there is no enduring value, and this is not necessarily true. Of course archives, libraries and other memories institutions collect ephemera, but it is treated differently from records – for various reasons.  Yet, the networks and systems that provide contexts for ephemera are not necessarily captured – the decision-making that goes on in relation to ephemera as archival record really begins at the archival “door” (some refer to it as the threshold – a term I am not comfortable with). But there are decisions that are made about ephemera, and in social digital spaces, these decisions are part of the network of systems – local, shared, collaborative – the tools that are used.

I am not sure exactly where this line of thinking ends. I am interested in how decisions – by anyone, determine value over time. I am also interested in how the network contributes context to understanding something like enduring value. I wonder that if the archival system is linked to but separate from the record, then something of the decision-making and an understanding of enduring value remains.

My research in this area looks at how individuals and communities make decisions about memory – the making, the tools, the stories told.  This links to how people make decisions about their own identities, and the value of their stories – the making of (personal and community) memory.  My previous research (get the published copy here) indicated that archival and other cultural heritage institutions when collecting digital content from the web in particular do not capture or manage all the context that contribute to how the thing/document/content/record was created in the first place – the decisions made about value, story and memory by the people who created it.

*OK, it was my PhD, but I am trying to get away from saying that. I really feel like I need to move on.