Archival finding aids and discoverability

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Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Archives, or manuscript collections, form over time.  In the process, a structure develops, a shape which reflects the way the content has been created and organised.  

Some components of the structure are established at the beginning – minutes of an organisation, documents used to gain project funding, administration files; others over time, e.g. data files, publications, resource materials, other related organisations’ documents.

Archives are generally comprised of unique items – burn a book and you will probably be able to replace it; burn an archive and the contents are lost – and they can be large.

Finding aids bring as much as possible of the content of an archive to the surface, through describing the arrangement and nature of the content.  They provide an overview of the collection, administrative or biographical information about the collection and its creator/s and, often, phenomenal amounts of detail or description of the items within it.

As part of their strategy for developing an audience for their historical resources, the City of Sydney recently identified three categories of users of historical information:  skimmers, delvers and divers.   

Each group is characterised by how strongly history resonates in their lives and how much or why they want to find out about it:  Skimmers are primarily engaged by history as infotainment; they fossick on the surface and are satisfied by “small bursts of intrigue”.  

Delvers are motivated by a particular stimulus, which might be a life event, such as moving to a new area.  They will have a targeted focus and will dig a little deeper for what relates to that focus.  

Divers resemble traditional historians and will pursue everything related to their area of interest, going deep below the surface and along the bottom to uncover all relevant detail.

Given the AIATSIS mission and the purpose of its holdings, users are most likely to be delvers or divers, for example looking for family history or undertaking academic or community research, although there is plenty in those holdings to pique the interest of a skimmer.

Finding aids serve all these categories of use by bringing all the contents of a collection to the surface: for the skimmer through item listing; for the delver by displaying the aggregation and accretion of documents into subgroups; for the diver by conveying the shape, context and content of a collection.  

For example, a skimmer searching idly for that Japanese lecturer whose introductory linguistics course they took in first year university in Tokyo, will find some biographical information at the beginning of the finding aid for MS 5021 Tasaku Tsunoda: Language materials from Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, 1971-2006.

MS 5021 Tasaku Tsunoda: Language materials from Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, 1971-2006
MS 5021 Tasaku Tsunoda: Language materials from Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, 1971-2006   Photo by Andrew Turner

The delver, looking to find out about phrases in the Djaru language will find this item, MS 5021/4/5 ‘Djaru [Jaru] phrases’.

MS 5021 Tasaku Tsunoda: Language materials from Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, 1971-2006
MS 5021 Tasaku Tsunoda: Language materials from Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, 1971-2006  Photo by Andrew Turner

They will also find alongside it the sources Tasaku Tsunoda used to gather that data and the paradigms he developed about Djaru phrases and other parts of speech, from that (voluminous) data.

In 1938, Arthur Capell (1902 - 1986) investigated the little-studied languages of the Kimberley region, including Djaru of north-western Australia. (Notes in black ink) In September and October 1976, Dr Tasaku Tsunoda compared Capell's notes with Djaru speakers in the Kimberly region.  (Handwritten notes in green ink)
In 1938, Arthur Capell (1902 - 1986) investigated the little-studied languages of the Kimberley region, including Djaru of north-western Australia. (Notes in black ink)


In September and October 1976, Dr Tasaku Tsunoda compared Capell's notes with Djaru speakers in the Kimberly region.  (Handwritten notes in green ink) 
Photo by Andrew Turner

Collections often contain items only tangentially related to its broad subject.  A delver searching for Palm Island genealogies, who has no interest in linguistics, will nevertheless find a couple of useful snippets in the same finding aid, listed as items.

MS 5021/5/2/34 - ‘Alf and Lizzie Palmer’. Typewritten genealogical information about Palm Island residents, from a range of records held in the then Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy. Mr Alf Palmer was the last fluent speaker of the Warrongo language, and passed away in 1981.
MS 5021/5/2/34 - ‘Alf and Lizzie Palmer’. Typewritten genealogical information about Palm Island residents, from a range of records held in the then Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy.

Mr Alf Palmer was the last fluent speaker of the Warrongo language, and passed away in 1981.  Photo by Andrew Turner

The diver, will, on perusing this finding aid, get a sense of how Tasaku Tsunoda organised his work (and by extension how to conduct fieldwork and write up the findings); they will be able to see clearly what is in the collection and where; they will also gain an insight into how Tsunoda’s mind works and his commitment to preserving and revitalising Aboriginal languages.  Having an idea of what they’ll find on submersion, they can make an informed decision about where they want to plunge in.

Essentially discursive and fine-grained in nature, finding aids are time-consuming to produce.

Without them, discovering the content of the archives would rely on catalogue records, which broadly describe subject matter and some of the forementioned aspects.  Each researcher would have to have the time to trawl through all of a collection to first get a sense of what it contains and then identify (and remember or note) the individual parts relevant to their study and the serendipitous finds in parts of the collection not directly focussed on their area of interest – to develop their own finding aid, effectively.

The challenge will be to translate these tools to a web environment and achieve the same results: the structure of an archive as clearly visible as the intriguing individual item, where each category of user finds what intrigues, or finds their way around the collection if they want, or are encouraged to do after discovering that intriguing item.

For AIATSIS users, retaining the latter– the capacity to find your way around a collection or back to where an item relevant to your research fits into the whole collection – is important.

As static documents, our current finding aids aren’t best suited for the navigational possibilities of a web environment.  

A link to a finding aid still requires the user to search or scan the whole document to find a particular reference, rather than linking directly to that reference.  This is a drawback whether the user is a member of the public or a member of the digitisation team looking for meta-data to embed in the digital file of an item in the collection.  We are looking to create computer-readable documents which will still convey the provenance of and relationships within an archive, from which users, internal or external, will be able to extract the information they need.

Additional information

If you're looking for a specific collection item or for more information on a subject, you can delve deeper into the AIATSIS Collections by using our many guides, finding aids and databases.

Notes

Dr Arthur Capell (1902 - 1986) was a linguist, anthropologist, ethnographer and Anglican clergyman.

Born and raised in Sydney, after gaining his Ph.d in London and returning to Australia, in 1938 Dr Capell investigated the little-studied languages of the Kimberley region of north-western Australia and then Arnhem Land languages and dialects. Throughout his career he engaged in field work in Melanesia and Australia.

Old Words to be Heard Again
"Original recordings from the prolific language collection of the late Arthur Capell have been gifted by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to the Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC)."

Dr Tasaku Tsunoda is a Japanese citizen, and after field work in Queensland, Dr Tsunoda was awarded a Ph.D in linguistics by Monash University in Melbourne in 1979.

1971 – 1974 conducted fieldwork on Palm Island and in the adjacent areas on the mainland in north Queensland, and the main focus was on the Warrongo language.

1975 – 1979 conducted fieldwork in and around Halls Creek, Kimberley, Western  Australia, with the main focus on  the  Djaru  (also  spelt  Jaru)  language.

Tasaku Tsunoda: Language materials from Queensland, Western Australia, and Northern Territory, 1971-2006

Comments

Thank you, Fiona Blackburn, for this introduction to the nature and purpose of "finding aids". Your post raises many questions; for example: Is this a recently-invented term? I've often consulted a library's "catalogue" - basically, a sorted list; but the scope of "finding aids" clearly goes way beyond a catalogue. "... the City of Sydney recently identified three categories of users of historical information: skimmers, delvers and divers." And to complicate things, each category represents several different "use cases", I expect. But users in each category have common needs, and simply having these categories will help archivists keep those needs in mind when developing finding aids. "Essentially discursive and fine-grained in nature, finding aids are time-consuming to produce." I bet they are! Do we have any research to help us understand how to produce effective finding aids, efficiently and effectively? Or is this a chronically understudied aspect of the archivist's art? What basic research remains to be done?
Hello Yahya Finding aids are not a recent invention. The first edition of the Australian text, Keeping Archives, was published in 1987 and has a section on the many different types of finding aids that can be produced and another section on how to go about producing them. It describes common long established practice rather than something new and innovative. It’s remarkable how, if they provide both detail and structure accurately, finding aids can encompass the search approaches of all three user types, the skimmers, the delvers and the divers. Finding aids are quite different things, as you note, from a catalogue and are a product of an archive rather than a library. Archival collections can be much larger and more complex than single library items and so the method of description is much more extensive and detailed than an entry in a library catalogue. I don’t know about research into their production – if you’ve done formal study I expect you would learn how to do it during coursework; if, like me, you haven’t done formal study in archiving, you learn on the job! A current challenge, which I alluded to at the end of the post, is how to provide this kind of description in a digital environment, making the most of digital asset management system or content management system functionality. There is a lot of literature about that! Fiona
Last reviewed: 26 Apr 2017