09 June 2014

International Archives Day: the value of archival perspectives for librarians working with research data

International Archives Day is celebrated each year on 9 June, so it seems a good day to reflect on my experience with archives, and on the connections (or lack of) between librarians and archivists as distinct groups of professionals with much in common and yet so much to learn from each other.

My first information related jobs were not in libraries but in archives or on research projects with an archival perspective. During the late 1990s, I worked at Strathclyde University Archives on a project to arrange and describe The Papers of Sir Patrick Geddes. Geddes was an early 20th century polymath who combined his understanding of biology, sociology, education and other disciplines in what is now considered early work on town planning; he was an interdisciplinary researcher well before the word 'interdisciplinary' had entered the lexicon of university management! I also undertook some short term work on arranging and describing an historical collection of town planning papers at the University of Edinburgh and worked as the project administrator (which included database development) for the Scottish Archive of Print and Publishing History Records (SAPPHIRE). After I did my MLIS, I worked for a number of years at the National Library of New Zealand on digitisation projects that involved collections from the Alexander Turnbull Library, a library-within-a-library that functioned along archival lines alongside NLNZ's general collections, with its own collection management and discovery system (based not on MARC but on archival description standards) and curatorial approaches that were quite different to collection development as it is understood in a library context. 

When I returned to study as a mature age student, I considered undertaking an archives qualification rather than a library qualification. I went with the library qualification in the end, which I think was the right decision as it was in many ways broader in scope and I work best as a generalist not as a specialist. However I remain very influenced by my archives experience and firmly believe that much of my work in data management is usefully informed by having been exposed to archival ways of thinking early in my professional career. Were I to return to study (which I am not considering, particularly in light of the likely fees hike at Australian universities!) a records and archives qualification would be my likely choice. 

In many countries overseas, research data management has been routinely undertaken not by librarians, but by archivists, and there is a long history of cooperation in this area, particularly in the social sciences. The International Association of Social Sciences Information Services and Technology (IASSIST), which has a strong focus on data, recently held its 40th annual conference, which might come as news to many who view research data as a recent trend.  In Australia, perhaps due to the funding provided to institutional repositories for managing published research outputs and the expertise developed as a result of this, librarians have been assumed to be the main representatives from the information professions to contribute to research data initiatives. The University of Melbourne's eScholarship Research Centre (eSRC) and the Australian Data Archive (ADA) are the only organisations I am aware of that have archival, rather than library, principles as core to their approaches to research data management.

I think that it is a great shame that there is so little discussion between these two professional groups. In 2010 I had the opportunity to present about research data at a forum of the Australian University Recordkeepers Association (AURA). At that time I made the observation that research data management was by no means an ‘easy fit’ with university library structures and practices. Libraries have much to offer (liaison roles and networks, knowledge of processes for published research outputs, and experience in search, discovery and access tools) but records and archives perspectives (evidence, compliance, retention and disposal, provenance, appraisal, and collection level description, for starters) enrich the conversations held at individual organisations as well as nationally. 

I would encourage all librarians working with research data to make an effort to connect with recordkeeping and archives professionals and to investigate the theoretical models and work practices from these areas. A good place to start is the following report:
Gilliland-Swetland, A.J., 2000. Enduring paradigm, new opportunities: the value of the archival perspective in the digital environment, Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources.
Although it is now quite old, this report provides a good introduction for non-archivists to some core concepts and practices. Gilliland-Swetland makes a strong case for more interaction between different groups of information professionals as we all grapple with increases in the volume and complexity of digital collections requiring long-term stewardship.