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Archives Access System Glossary, v1.0

February 26th, 2007 · 8 Comments · PhD Research, Terms & Definitions

Over the past few weeks I have worked and posted my way through definitions and explanations of some of the key concepts that are relevant to my research into archives access systems. I have compacted and combined each of these definitions into a working glossary that will be part of my system design and requirements documentation for a prototype archives access system.

This glossary replaces some of the definitions that I posted to this blog in late Fall 2005 when I was establishing the conceptual background for the research (see the Terms and Definitions category in the blog archive).

This is only the first draft of this glossary. There are still a number of other critical concepts that I need to study as part of my research literature review (e.g. archival description, collection, etc.). Over the course of my research I will update this glossary with new terms and any revisions of the existing definitions.

Glossary – Archives Access System (v1)

the ability to identify relevant archival materials and locate them for retrieval

archival material
an information object in any form that is preserved for future access and use as a memory aid or proxy for a past event

archives access system
a software-intensive system that allows online users to search and browse for archival materials, learn more about their context of creation, management and use, identify their storage location, and request their retrieval

the message that is communicated by information

the environment and conditions under which information objects are created, managed and used

digital information object
an information object that relies on computer hardware, software, binary encoding, character encoding and file formats to represent its content, context, and structure

a set of related signals, symbols or patterns that communicate a message which is received with the requisite contextual knowledge to decode and understand it

information object
an entity that records information and has the requisite structure and context to allow the information’s content to be decoded and understood

software-intensive system
a computer information system wherein software is the predominant component

the medium, form, layout, and encoding of an information object, as well as the relationships between them, that allow the object to be carried forward in space and time

a collection of interrelated components that work together in a particular environment to achieve some objective

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jerry // Mar 1, 2007 at 4:06 am

    Seems like a promising model! Do you intend to expand on these or cite examples? Some seem a little too brief to offer much insight! :)

    Coupl’a questions:

    Access: If I “identify” and “locate” something, is that really the same as “accessing” it?

    Software-intensive: by what criterion are you assessing predominance?

    All the best


  • 2 Peter Van Garderen // Mar 1, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Hi Jerry. Yes, I have expanded on most of these definitions over the course of the previous 6 blog posts and I will continue to expand on them over the course of my PhD research (which will take a number of years).

    One thing to keep in mind is that these definitions are intended to work within the scope and context of how I am defining archives access systems and may not work universally. The list above is the first draft of a glossary that helps to define very specific boundaries for this particular type of system.

    Your question about the definition of ‘access’ is very valid. This is one of the definitions I have not yet worked out fully. Firstly, I am looking at it purely from a functional point of view. There are lots of discussions about access restrictions and accessibility (i.e. the quality or universality of access). However, right now I am purely interest in the mechanics of the process. Essentially I am trying to draw a distinction between being able to identify and locate archival materials for retrieval from the ability to render and use those materials. However, maybe it should read ‘identify, locate and retrieve’ to make that point more clearly.

    Lastly, ‘software-intensive system’ is a term used commonly in software engineering (e.g. see the IEEE standard). A typical information system consists of people, computer hardware, computer software, procedures and data (that is processed to make information). Each of these components are important but the focus of the design, development and user-interface work for such a system is typically on the software component. This is why the term ‘software-intensive’ is used.

  • 3 Peter Van Garderen // Mar 1, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    Glossary v1.1 (revision to the term ‘access’):

    the ability to identify, locate and retrieve relevant archival materials

  • 4 Jerry // Mar 1, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    Thanks for the info on software-intensive – I see what you mean now (“predominant” does a lot of work there – I hope you’re going to pay it extra!)

    I agree about access – it’s a movable feast, and you must define your own terms. But I’m glad you agree that it has to mean more than “locating”.

    I like your IO definition particularly.

  • 5 Jerry // Mar 1, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    Out of interest do you know what’s the digital archival position on “retrieval”? Is it the same thing to “retrieve” a physical object, and to “retrieve” a copy or representation of a digital object?

  • 6 Peter Van Garderen // Mar 2, 2007 at 9:29 am

    From a functional point of view, there is no difference. The user submits a request to retrieve archival material from storage and archives staff retrieves the storage containers from the physical storage repository or the archives access system retrieves the archival materials from the digital storage repository.

    Ideally the institution has integrated its researcher registration and retrieval requests across both its physical and digital collections. In practice, though, this is typically not the case.

    As well, in the case of digital objects, even though the bitstreams may have been retrieved from digital storage and are now available to the user in a specific network location, additional software and hardware may be required to render and view the archival materials. This is however, where I draw a distinction between access and preservation and use.

    The other big difference (if this is what you are asking) is that it is possible to retrieve and deliver the original for physical archival materials. However, due to the engimatic nature of digital objects it is not possible to retrieve and deliver the original digital object. It is only possible to reproduce or ‘rebuild’ the digital information object based on what we know about its original content, context and structure. I discuss this issue in a previous post called The Anatomy of a Digital Information Object (see the section called “If a Digital Information Object Falls in the Forest…”).

    Also, see section ’ Access’ in the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) standard for more details on the request and retrieval process. The OAIS is now an ISO standard. PDF copies of ISO standards are sold on their website but you can still get the free Blue Book version that was submitted to ISO by the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS).

  • 7 Greg // Mar 6, 2007 at 7:52 am


    I have enjoyed reading your blog since I heard you speak at SAA last year. Thanks for some thought-provoking postings.

    The discussion of the relationship between preservation and access in the digital context is something we are all grappling with. I like your idea that you cannot deliver the “original” digital object but can only rebuild it.

    Coming at it from a slightly different angle, you might look at it the way Paul Conway does in “Rationale for Preservation and Digitization” in the NEDCC’s Handbook for Digital Projects. http://nedcc.org/oldnedccsite/digital/dman.pdf

    He talks about preservation as the “creation of digital products worth maintaining over time” and says that preservation is inextricably intertwined with access to become what he calls the “preservation of access.” Thus, preservation becomes not only an aspect of access, but an aspect of content creation as well.

  • 8 Peter Van Garderen // Mar 6, 2007 at 10:15 am

    Thanks Greg. Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for the ‘rebuild’ concept. This is a fundamental digital preservation principle that was first articulated by Ken Thibodeau (currently Director of NARA’s Electronic Records Archive project) when he was the chair of the InterPARES-1 Preservation Task Force (see p.5 in the Preservation Task Force final report (2002).

    I agree 100% with Paul Conway’s approach. In fact, I think most digital preservation strategies that are prepared today have adopted this viewpoint, i.e., (a) there’s no point preserving something if you can’t provide access to it and (b) digital preservation starts at creation (i.e. file format standardization, metadata capture, organizational resource commitment to long-term storage, etc.).