There were some particularly inspiring and thought-provoking sessions at UK GovCamp 2011 last Saturday. The ones I found most enjoyable were:
- The session on trade unions led by Paul Evans, starting off with a rough aim to make trade unions more open and democratic and ending with ideas for a Rate My Union, Rate My Workplace and a mumsnet style online community space for people to talk about their working life which is well moderated and managed to ensure conversations don’t equal dismissals.
- The Localism session led by Will Perrin, which he has written about here. During it Nick Booth had some interesting things to say about the type of people who tend to develop effective community sites (sociable, community-focused people who see adding to them as a personal passion rather than an item on their task list) and how social media surgery style training can be a stepping stone for them making use of relevant open data.
- The creative collaboration session led by Lloyd Davis (who has created some interesting online mass participation projects such as Most Interesting and Journal Racing) which questioned what makes certain ideas capture people’s enthusiasm and imaginations, people’s motivations to participate and the power of Lloyd’s own social capital as he prepares to become the object of his new project Tuttle to Texas.
I myself didn’t go to Local GovCap with the intention of leading a session but as people started pitching, I realised I could take the opportunity to have a conversation around something that’s been on my mind for a little while.
One of the many thought-provoking projects I was introduced to during the course of the day was the Mass Observation Communities Online project, which builds upon the work of Mass Observation, which has been collecting recordings of everyday life in the UK through diaries, questionnaires and observations since 1937.
The JISC funded Mass Observation Communities Online project (or MOCO for short), which took place in April-September 2010, has ‘expanded on Mass Observation’s tradition by inviting community groups throughout the UK to develop an archive that reflects life in 21st century Britain.’ The material created by groups and individuals from all over the UK was then collated and shared online on the MOCO project website.
This online collection of recordings in the shape of observations, day diaries, photographs and questionnaire responses got me pretty excited from a hyperlocal angle, so the next day I started looking through the site to try and find and share locally relevant content. However, I soon found this wasn’t as simple as I’d hoped it would be.
This is by no means unusual with archive material, most of which isn’t online at all, which is sad – heritage and history on a hyperlocal website brings the content to a local audience that may not go searching through archives and is often a great driver for discussion and sharing of memories in the comments box. So I was eager for a UK GovCamp discussion around how archive materials might be better stored and shared online in ways people can easily find and use them. I started by outlining the main obstacles I’d stumbled over with sourcing archived materials online, namely:
1. The material isn’t shared online
A dictionary definition of an archive is ‘a place or collection containing records, documents, or other materials of historical interest.’ It seems the primary purpose of an archive is to collate, catalogue and store those records so they are preserved to prevent future damage.
However, those records are being preserved for a reason – because they are historically or socially significant in some way. This makes them interesting to pretty much anyone looking at their subject matter or topics they touch upon – be they academics, journalists, people writing for a local website or merely someone with a passing interest. If records are being archived with the intention of sharing as well as preserving them, they should be published online where possible as that’s where most people will be searching for them.
Obviously where there’s a big backlog of records there may not be the capacity to get the material online straight away but if this is the case, at least consider publishing the catalogue in an easily searchable format online so people can know what’s in storage. I’ll do a bit of compare and contrast here just to illustrate between South West Film & Television Archive and MACE (Media Archive for Central England). The South West Film & Television Archive’s webpage is very much just a description of the collection they hold, no details of individual films held by the archive are available to search through and no films are available to view on the site. However the MACE website allows you to search through the archive on their website. Only some of these films are available to view on the website but where they’re not full details of the clip’s contents (such as date, genre, summary and production company) are listed.
2. Online archive material is difficult to find and filter
Where the material is published online, it can be difficult to source and filter through. For instance as a project created to get a snapshot of life in the UK the MOCO project has inevitably produced a lot of locally relevant information, especially for Brighton. As there were two community groups from here taking part (Brighton Housing Trust and Brighton Nightwriters) it may well contain content of interest to the hyperlocal website Brighton and Hove News. But I’m unsure the content will be easy for the website’s editors to find because:
- It’s not published in an RSS feed so won’t appear in subscriptions to specific searches (I rely heavily on Google alerts for a search for ‘Digbeth‘ to flag up local online content).
- Original posts don’t seem to Google up terribly well, e.g. no MOCO project pages appear in a search for Brighton history/heritage/archive/photography.
- The on-site search facility has no filter options and the search box rarely yields results (however, a Google Site Search Query does work better with the site’s content).
To those creating an online archive I’d suggest publishing the content in an RSS feed and tagging it well, so it appears in people’s searches and alerts. Also consider publishing items on a ‘sharing’ site where people traditionally search for content (e.g. Flickr for photographs and YouTube for film) – they can always be copied over/embedded from these sites onto your own platforms.
3. The content isn’t easy for people to use and share
I love the MACE Archive website, there are some great old clips of Birmingham life on there. I think one of my favorites is an old news clip of a bull who escaped from a Digbeth abattoir running for its life down the High Street.
Of course the first thing I want to do with this film is share it with a local audience on Digbeth is Good but there doesn’t seem to be a simple way for me to do that – there’s no embed code available to copy. Jon Bounds managed to share it on Birmingham it’s Not Sh*t through ‘hunting through the source on the MACE site’ but admits ‘it’s not easy’ – so not something someone less technical (like me) or someone working with a free wordpress.com website would be able to do.
I’m guessing one of the reasons for this is the sticky issue of copyright, which I’m far from an expert on, but it would be great if these issues could be resolved for some older materials and new archives created were shared under a Creative Commons license.
The UK GovCamp discussion on the topic covered some interesting points such as:
- â€œWhat if Flickr dies?â€ Caution needs to be taken with relying upon what might be temporary online platforms to store and share archive materials – if these platforms disappear so will the content! However, I still feel they are useful places to share content even if they cannot be solely relied upon to store it.
- Many organisations that store archives struggle for funds and rely upon sales of their material as a source of revenue. Understandable that they need to cover their costs but the idea of historical records being inaccessible to those who can’t afford it does make me uncomfortable.
But as is always the case with these things, it seems there’s no easy answers – we couldn’t come to one during the hour we spent talking about it at UK GovCamp. If anyone as any ideas or food for thought on this subject I’d love to hear it!