Pericles project
Promoting and Enhancing Reuse of Information throughout the Content Lifecycle taking account of Evolving Semantics


Is there a place for cataloguing in a digital world?

Is there a place for cataloguing in a digital world?

The re-use of digital information is the core research focus of PERICLES. Re-use of digital information for an archive such as Tate's is centred largely on how our collections are accessed by the public, particularly for research by scholars. Imagining the future ways in which a researcher might access collections that are hybrid mixes of digital and non-digital objects, has led me to consider the future of cataloguing in an increasingly digital world.

Traditionally, the main way into an archive collection is via a catalogue.  The catalogue describes the material in such a way as to allow users to identify material of interest to them.  Importantly, archive catalogues are hierarchical, describing material at a number of levels, moving from the general to the specific.  This means the catalogue can capture the relationships between different parts of a collection and present items in their wider context.  This hierarchical approach also allows a cataloguer to provide a level of detail appropriate to the material.  An organised body of official papers may be catalogued at a high level, for example, as this would be sufficient for researchers to identify relevant material, while an unstructured collection of correspondence might require cataloguing at a lower level to bring out its significance.

While archival cataloguing partially exists to aid users, it is also the way in which an archive establishes intellectual control over its holdings.  The cataloguing standards we use today may have only been developed recently, but they reflect long establish practice.  Catalogues are structured according to the provenance of the material (reflecting the archival principle of respect des fonds, or grouping material from a discrete source together and not combining material from different sources).  Archivists also strive to maintain the original order of material, so as both to preserve the context in which material was created and used, and to avoid unwittingly altering the way in which records may be assessed.  Although online catalogues are searchable (and can be supplemented by additional access points offered by name or subject indexing), archive users are effectively presented with one arrangement that they must negotiate in order to find and use material.

This approach was developed to handle paper records, and the different nature of digital records clearly raises a number of challenges.  It is easy, for example, to question what the principle of original order might mean in a digital world.  One doesn't need to go as far as questioning the ways in which bits are recorded on the surface of a hard drive to realise that the multiple ways in which digital records can be arranged poses a challenge to 'original order'.  To take the example of an email inbox, it is a simple matter to re-arrange it by date, sender, priority, or size.  The equivalent in a paper archive would be a body of correspondence, which an archivist can only physically arrange in one way – an approach that may appear restrictive in comparison.

The example of an email inbox may also lead a researcher to question whether it needs cataloguing at all.  Unlike a box of letters, which does require sorting and describing before it can be used easily, emails have metadata that identifies the sender and recipient, the date on which they are sent, and so forth.  Not only that, but researchers can also search the content of the emails directly, looking for terms of relevance to their interests.  They are no longer dependent on a cataloguer describing their content, possibly without including the information researchers are looking for.  Digital material can also support forms of analysis and access which go far beyond that possible with non-digital records, and which may appear to by-pass traditional cataloguing completely.  Emails, for example, can be analysed to reveal networks or communities, or other patterns (even shifts in an individual's mood).

However, while the possibilities offered by digital material do offer a challenge to traditional cataloguing, I think that it still has a role to play.  It is perhaps tempting to think that archivists will be able to hand digital collections over to researchers along with various search tools, and let researchers find their own way through the material.  This may well be one possibility, and it is one to be welcomed.  Yet it will still be important that digital material is located within its context and that its relationships to other material are explained. 

Most obviously, this will be particularly true when dealing with a hybrid archive, containing both digital and non-digital items.  Archive cataloguers will need to avoid fixating on the shift in format from analogue to digital and to remember that material should be catalogued according to its function or content, not its format.  An archive collection can easily contain correspondence both in the form of letters and as email and these should be catalogued alongside each other, not divided by format.  Researchers will need to be alerted to the existence of both and to the relationships between them, just as catalogues have traditionally done with non-digital archive collections.

Even when just considering digital objects, an archive catalogue still has value.  To return for one last time to the example of an email inbox, it will not be sufficient to simply deliver it to researchers.  Before researchers can use it, they will need to know what it is and how it came to the archive, as well as needing assurances as to its authenticity.  While search tools may relieve the archive of the need to catalogue it to the same level as detail as letters, the archive will instead need to supply information specific to digital records, such as detailing the format it is in and any preservation actions the archive may have performed on it.  A catalogue will still have a role in providing an overview of a collection and of presenting the relationships between items. 

While digital material does clearly pose a challenge to archival cataloguing, I feel that in many ways this will force archivists not to abandon traditional practices but instead to look to the principles from which they originally stemmed.  Archivists will need to adopt new techniques to manage digital records.  This is partly a practical response to the challenges of preserving digital material, but it is also an opportunity to provide access to material in new ways, just as researchers have developed new forms of analysis for digital collections.  In the PERICLES project we are looking at tools and approaches that have emerged outside the archives sector, while grounding this work in archival principles.  Cataloguing will clearly shift to accommodate the changing nature of our collections, but this may be more a shift in emphasis than in fundamental approach.  It is also important for archivists to remember that cataloguing exists to serve the user as well as the archive, and changes to our practice will be partially driven by the changing demands from our users as we both feel our way in a shifting archival world.


Image: Born-digital material from the David Sylvester collection (TGA 200816), Tate Archive, © Tate

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