Despite the standardization and automation of archival description since the 1990s—primarily through the development and wide adoption of Encoded Archival Description (EAD)—archivists still struggle with the challenge of describing complex archival collections. In particular, archival finding aids are not well suited for describing either records produced by complex organizations or composites of organizations, or electronic records and digital objects managed in digital environments such as databases and social network sites.
We believe the very nature of the problem suggests the solution. The distributed and dynamic nature of contemporary archival materials mirrors the evolving network of documents that is the World Wide Web. The architecture of the web—in particular the approach described by linked data, a rich, semantically related data environment built into the web’s architecture—provides a powerful set of tools for modeling complex relationships and providing dynamic and flexible access to information. With this in mind, the Digital Collections and Archives at Tufts University (DCA) is applying for a National Leadership Planning Grant to use linked data and the web to design a new approach to archival metadata, Linked Archival Metadata (LiAM). DCA will work closely with a nine-member Working Group of professionals to inform the planning process.
Most finding aids, archival collection descriptions often encoded in EAD, are hierarchical and linear narrative documents that take a top-down approach to archival description. They start by describing an archival collection as a whole, its creator(s), and how the collection is organized. From there finding aids typically describe series, subseries, and on down to the lowest level of description. The linear flow of the traditional finding aid closely mirrors the physical arrangement of the documents in hand, serving both as a description of the collection and as a map to where records are physically located on the actual shelves or within the actual boxes and folders.
LiAM takes a different approach by leveraging the powerful reliance on linking inherent in the architecture of the World Wide Web itself. The approach of linked data uses the technology of the web to define relationships between myriad resources. The focus of LiAM will be to use the tools of linked data to define a set of relationships specific to archival collections. LiAM’s leveraging of technology to facilitate discovery fits it within the scope of IMLS’ third strategic goal: “Practice exemplary stewardship of collections and use the power of technology to facilitate discovery of knowledge and cultural heritage.”
LiAM will have a profound impact on the usability of archival description. Without abandoning existing theory or standards, LiAM will allow archivists to enrich the way they represent their materials online. The flexibility and semantic nature of linked data gives archivists the power to address users’ concerns and present archival material in a wide variety of ways, complimenting the interconnectedness of archival material between collections and repositories. In addition, this approach will help archivists create intuitive and dynamic user interfaces that encourage serendipitous discovery and also leverage the essential context that traditional archival description has the potential to bring to digital libraries.
LiAM’s planning process will unfold on a 12-month timeline beginning October 1, 2012. Deliverables include representative use cases, two-day working group meeting report, a document outlining the data model specification, and a document outlining the implementation specification.