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Archival Finding Aids, meet Web 2.0

June 1st, 2006 · No Comments · Archives Access Systems, Web 2.0

I have been blogging and presenting about how Web 2.0 features might influence archives access systems. In the meanwhile, Professor Beth Yakel and a group of grad students at the University of Michigan’s School of Information have already launched an excellent prototype system to experiment with these concepts.

The Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections website is an innovative access aid to over sixty digitized collections of primary and published material dealing with a U.S. military intervention in northern Russia at the end of World War I. The goal of the project is ‘to expand the capability of EAD, make the archival and research experience collaborative and participatory, and challenge the traditional finding aid structure.’

The two most notable Web 2.0 features are commenting and recommendations. The researcher is able to add comments to individual archival materials as well as to communicate with ‘The Archivist’ and fellow researchers. The recommendation feature logs link paths used by researchers and provides a “Researchers who viewed this page also viewed” list.

On the back-end, the project is developing ways to mark up and extract related terms and concepts to enhance the browse capability of the access aid. They also intend to add keyword tagging soon.

The site has been up and running since January 2006 and the project has been able to study some of the implications of enhanced archives access systems for archivists and archival best practices. Even though there are now multiple pathways to the items in the collections, they continue to be organized in accordance with the principle of original order, most simply with ‘previous’ and ‘next’ navigation between items in files. The principle of provenance is also respected by maintaining the collections as the predominate top-level structure.

Professor Yakel observes that the role of the reference archivist in a multi-featured archives access system has been changed but not diminshed. Users continue to require the assistance of reference archivists in navigating through the collections and identifying relevant materials. This advice is now given predominantly through electronic means such as the commenting feature. Yakel also predicts that reference archivists will have to devote more time to producing and maintaining such commonly expected website features as Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), help pages and online tutorials.

Be sure to check out this website to get an idea of how future archives access systems will work.