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Developing a standard for recording contextual information for archival and manuscript materials

Report of a meeting at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

December 4-6, 1998

On December 4-6, 1998, a group of archivists, archival educators, and information scientists met at Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the establishment of an international collaborative project to advance the definition and implementation of a methodology for recording information about the contexts in which archival records, personal papers, and similar materials have been created and used. The participants included individuals from Australia, Canada, the European Union Archival Network, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, as well as from the United States. Support for the meeting was provided by the Digital Library Federation and by the Manuscripts and Archives department of the Yale University Library.

Discussion of an archival description methodology based on separate but linked descriptions of archival materials and of the contexts in which they have been created and used dates back to 1985 and the work of Richard Lytle and David Bearman in defining the concept. Since that initial discussion, a number of archivists have built the concept into their practice and systems, but a standard for recording contextual information has not yet emerged in the profession. During the comment period leading up to the adoption of the General International Standard for Archival Description - ISAD(G) - comments by various reviewers noted the absence of ISAD(G) support for this approach. As a result, , the descriptive standards drafting committee subsequently developed the International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families - ISAAR (CPF). This development recognized the growing acceptance of this methodology by the international archival community.

ISAAR (CPF) provides a framework for the types of information that archivists need to record about organizations, individuals, and families, but does not provide an implementation standard nor an encoding scheme. The further development of contextual information as an integral component of archival description and retrieval requires a data structure standard and format specific to this type of information that will enable archivists to record it consistently within and across repositories. The success of the MARC-AMC format in the U.S. and the Encoded Archival Description document type definition internationally (both of which are primarily formats for description of archival materials) needs to be matched by a similar effort for contextual information.

Following discussions at a meeting of the Society of American Archivists' EAD Working Group, Wendy Duff of the University of Toronto, Daniel Pitti of the University of Virginia, and Richard Szary of Yale University, organized the Yale meeting to determine the prospects for an international collaborative effort to develop this standard. They identified a number of archivists who had implemented contextual information in systems they had developed or who have been active in the discussions of the concept and invited them to a meeting in New Haven. Also invited were information scientists who had been active in studying and developing online retrieval systems for bibliographic materials and vocabulary control. The planned outcome of the meeting was to determine whether there was sufficient interest in the project to pursue support for the effort.

Two preliminary discussion papers defined the concept (then being called archival authority information), identified existing implementations, and proposed the elements of a successful standard and prototype implementation. Participants spent much of the first day reviewing and confirming their shared understanding of the concept and examining existing implementations. While none of the implementations contained the same set of information, structures, or capabilities, there was sufficient similarity in the approaches taken to reinforce the opinion that a common methodology underlay the implementations.

Over the next day and a half, the participants discussed the steps that needed to be taken to provide interested archivists and repositories with a platform from which these approaches could be tested systematically and discussed by the community. The scheduled review of the ISAAR (CPF) standard in 2001 suggested itself to the group as a useful event for directing the pace of the work. In particular, the group felt that a formal submission of its findings on the benefits and consequences of managing contextual information to the ICA body reviewing ISAAR (CPF) would provide an excellent way of ensuring that any suggested developments were subject to full review and approval by a professionally-recognized and international standard-setting authority.

The meeting participants decided that further work was warranted and necessary to identify and promulgate a professional consensus on the structure, elements, and functionality of contextual information within an archival information system. They identified the following projects and actions that needed to be undertaken to advance understanding and consensus and to coordinate work throughout the international archival community:

  1. Establish an ad hoc international coordinating body to track the work being done on contextual information by various individuals and organizations and to serve as a clearinghouse for communications with other interested members of the profession.
  2. Develop a preliminary SGML/XML-compliant document type definition for contextual information, based on elements identified in ISAAR (CPF). This dtd should also be compatible with the structure and purposes of the Encoded Archival Description dtd.
  3. Implement the preliminary dtd on an operational system that can serve as a testbed for experimentation and analysis.
  4. Identify and map existing sources of contextual information against the preliminary dtd to test the comprehensiveness and structure of the ISAAR elements.
  5. Investigate and define the types of products that the dtd should support and test the dtd to ensure that such products can be generated from instances. Examples given included organizational charts and genealogies.
  6. Identify and define other types of specialized contextual data systems (such as geographic information systems and government locator systems) to determine whether and how they should be linked to a contextual information dtd. In particular, the group was interested in how genealogical information recorded in the GEDCOM data structure might be represented in an SGML/XML document type definition and made interoperable with the contextual information dtd.
  7. Conduct user studies to determine whether and how contextual information supports the research process of various categories of users.
  8. Investigate the elements, structure, and capabilities needed to record descriptions of organizational functions and personal activities. Investigate whether functional descriptions should be accommodated within a contextual information dtd that also includes descriptions of organizations, persons, and families, or whether a separate definition is needed.
  9. Develop a standard list of relationship types which would link entities described in a contextual information dtd. Such relationships would include those between similar entities (e.g., relationships between organizations) and those between dissimilar entities (e.g., relationships between persons and organizations).
  10. Investigate the concept of organizational change to develop guidelines for determining the conditions under which a change in the characteristics of an entity are sufficient to require a new instance for the changed entity. As an example, should a name change for a government agency that does not involve any substantive changes in its functional responsibilities require a new contextual information instance for that entity? Conversely, would a significant change in function without a name change trigger such an action?
  11. Following development and testing of the dtd, develop a Z39.50 attribute set for both the contextual information and the Encoded Archival Description document type definitions.

Based on this work agenda, the group invited Yale University to serve as the home for the international coordinating body and establish the necessary clearinghouse mechanisms for the project. Participants agreed to begin work on a number of the various projects outlined above with progress reports to be distributed through the mechanisms set up through Yale. The group also agreed to identify other archivists, repositories, or archival organizations who were either willing to collaborate on these projects or review their results, with the aim of encouraging an international, profession-wide dialogue on the issues.

List of participants
Ishbel Barnes European Union Archives Network
Robert Booth Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Genealogy Department
Randy Bryson Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Genealogy Department
Wendy Duff Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto
James French Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, University of Virginia
Rebecca Graham Digital Library Federation
Göran Kristiansson National Archives of Sweden
Ray Larson Assoc. Prof., Information Management and Systems, University of California-Berkeley
Gavan McCarthy Australian Science Archives Project
Anne Marie Makarenko Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library
Daniel Pitti Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia
Lesley Richmond University of Glasgow
Richard Szary Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library
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