Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Communication, Communication, Communication

The last week has seen me attend four conference/meetings, all of which were very different.  I started off with the ARLIS afternoon at Whitechapel Gallery.  I had never visited this space before and the tour of the reading room, archive exhibition area and the art installation in the main gallery was very enlightening.  The use of archive material in exhibitions was particularly interesting since the archive is one of exhibitions and so when they exhibit they tend to resurrect an old exhibition with modern twists, which effect the original interpretation.

Next up was the ARA Section for Records Management, who were holding a mini-conference before their AGM.  I had been asked to speak on my ‘unusual’ approach to the archive and records management sector.  I hadn’t considered my approach to be that unusual but as I prepared my presentation, I realised that my experience has been quite unique.  This was the first professional presentation I have done and, as it was all about myself, my journey and my thoughts on the applicability of my experience to the records management sector, I decided to go for it without notes.  I wrote my Prezi, a software I much prefer to PowerPoint since it is far more flexible, accessible on the net and keeps the audience’s attention much better.  I actually enjoyed doing the presentation (a feeling I never had doing talks at school) and I hope that those listening found it helpful.  The rest of the day promised to be very full of discussions concerning the changing definition and role of the profession but I had to leave for my next meeting unfortunately...

I then attended the APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections) afternoon, which was hosted by the Globe.  After a tour of the Globe and the new Sam Wanamaker Theatre (a beautiful theatre lit by candlelight as in the Jacobean period), we had the general meeting.  This was by far the largest APAC meeting I have attended with around 30 people.  The focus of the day was on authority files and how various arts institutions tackle the issue of name, performance and venue authorities.  This is all with a view to a study day focused on the topic and was to gain an overview of what each institution is doing about authorities so that we can pull our resources to lessen our workload and refrain from reinventing the wheel.  It was a really useful networking day and I am getting to know those in the relatively small world of performing arts information services.

The Globe

Today, I have been in sunny Southampton at the ARA South West training day on Audience Engagement, hosted at the Hartley Library, University of Southampton.  This day was focused on all aspects of audience engagement, from exhibitions to social media to fund raising.  As Laura Cotton from the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies said, every project we undertake has an aspect of outreach, be it a cataloguing project or exhibition or digitisation project.  If there is no outreach element then what is the point of us doing it?  A recurring theme today was: sell what we do.  There is little point in working away in an archive behind closed doors if you do not tell people about what you are doing and spread the knowledge - the phrase ‘knowledge facilitator’ comes back to me from my Masters at Syracuse where Dave Lankes defined librarianship as ‘knowledge facilitation’ in his book ‘The Atlas of New Librarianship’.

The Hartley Library

Another particularly helpful message from today was that exhibitions are as much about audience as they are about the material exhibited.  I have recently found out that I will be curating digital exhibits for the National on a frequent basis as the main site refurbishment draws to a close and it was helpful for me to think about audiences and at whom we are aiming our materials.  Do people really want to stop and read correspondence or do they want to feel more like they are looking and doing?

Rachel Kasbohm of the British Postal Museum and Archives spoke on their use of social media, from Facebook to Twitter to Flickr to their blog and it was useful to get her views on audience evaluation.  The project manager of the Black Plays Archive, created by the NT, uses Google Analytics to monitor response to the site and I am beginning to do so with our online catalogue and it is very helpful (if a tad addictive) to know where your visitors are coming from, what they are looking at and for how long.  I would like to up the social media presence of the archive (which is currently pretty much non existent) and it was encouraging to know that we needn’t target all new media but to focus on the few that attract the audiences we are keen to reach.

For some visual distraction - I went to Godstone Point to Point at the weekend

The Head of Public Affairs from ARA, Marie Owens, presented on the Explore your Archive campaign, which the NT did not participate in due to the stresses of the 50th but I’ll definitely look into it for next year.  Interestingly, she pointed out that outreach has many synonyms: public engagement, advocacy, friend-raising (I like this one) etc. but it is all the same thing: communication.  She told archivists not to be scared of approaching famous people who use our archives (those on ‘Who do you think you are?’ being the most obvious) and asking them if they would mind their story being used for advocacy.  It is a sad fact that celebrity sells but there is a more general message here of archivists getting out of their comfort zone.  It is all too typical that a lot of the tweets sent about Explore your Archive were sent to ourselves i.e. within the profession.  I have mentioned the ‘echo chamber’ before and I first came across it in Cambridge and we need to be careful not to evaluate a project as successful when the positive feedback figures are really coming from other information professionals!

For me, the most pertinent presentation of the day belonged to Tamara Thornhill of the Transport for London Archive.  She seems to be dealing with a similar issue to me in terms of institutional identity.  She has worked really hard to improve the visibility of the archive and its staff and has vastly improved her visitors and users.  Her key has been communication: her team has asked to attend other team meetings to explain the archive service and they erect exhibitions which always include a panel on the archive, where it is and what it holds.  This has raised their profile within the organisation and resulted in more accessible webpages for external visitors.

Our horse lost its rider...
So, really, communication is key and this was the basis of my presentation to the Section for Records Management.  Although I do not have formal training in records management, communication with each department at the National will keep the right records flowing into the archive and build upon the interest in the archive coming from the 50th.  Seeing how others have tackled identity within their institution has encouraged me to be more bold with my advocacy and more defensive of our service.

Friday, 28 March 2014

It's not all grim up north

A couple of weeks ago I made a trip north to visit the ITV archive in Leeds.  I was meeting with the Director of Archive and Information Policy, who had previously paid a visit to the NT Archive.  Although we are two very different archives, not just in scale, there are several aspects of the ITV set-up that I have found very useful in my work on policy and strategy at the National.

One thing that strikes you straightaway is how integrated the archive is with the metadata team and the rights management team.  This department in turn is then integrated within ITV very well, sitting in the same open plan office as other teams such as 'Countdown Team' and those working on documentaries.  As an off-site member of NT staff I can sympathise with the difficulties encountered when running an operation involving every department within an institution from a different location so their new location promises to be beneficial.

I have no photos of ITV so...The North

There are three main strands to this department: the metadata team is where it all begins.  They give each commissioned work a production number (same as our performance code) and then they add the metadata as they receive it.  They likened it to a skeleton that gradually has muscle added and then eventually tissue and skin to create the full record that then becomes available on ITV Player.  They work to a tight 10 day to air schedule to make sure that everything has the appropriate information before it is required online.  This works well for them but I can't see the NT ever changing their methods to the extent that the archive is involved from the start of a show but it isn't a bad model to aim for.

The rights management team deal with all of the rights clearance issues surrounding television production and feed all of that information into the show's record.  This then allows anyone within the organisation to check whether they have the rights to show a clip etc. where they want and for how long and how much they might have to pay for the privilege.  There is also a member of staff dedicated to making sure that the actors get paid for any repeats of material.

The archive on the Leeds site, which now houses all of the ITV archive, is home to 1.1 million tapes.  And it is growing.  They have a very strict policy on what they keep and for how long so as to keep only that material that is directly relevant to them and that will allow them to fulfill their institutional aims eg. the TOWIE tapes will probably be returned to their production company when ITV's copyright expires.

The North again
Obviously ITV is more commercial than us but how they have decided to go about integrating the archive with rights management is incredibly useful to consider as we are facing a larger and larger intake of material that can be requested.  Copyright clarity can be difficult when in a working theatre with designers, actors, directors, photographers, artists etc., who are all on different contracts and represented by different unions but this is something that we are working towards.

Interestingly, ITV have outsourced their stills archive since they had neither the space or expertise to manage it appropriately.  There was no consistency in where photographs were held or how they were listed and now an external company manage this for them with an annual return.  This is an example of pragmatic decision made for the benefit of the collection since it will be receiving better treatment and used more in its new setting.

 I also got to see my dog
One thing that has stuck with me from my discussions with the Director, was not to add to the mess.  We have a fair bit of mess (which archive doesn't?) and so I am making sure that, as I go forward, I am not adding to it.  Over time we can go back and fix what we then deem necessary.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Policies, policies all around

This week saw a training day in Preservation Policy with the soon-to-be-closed Preservation Advisory Centre at the British Library.  This day was focused on writing and using a policy and was attended by a small group of people in a range of institutions, most of whom had been tasked with writing or updating a preservation policy or of advising others about their preservation policy.

I have to be honest, I didn't know much about preservation policies before Wednesday nor how it differed from a strategy and where it fitted into the structure of policies of conservation, digital and disaster planning.  Then there comes the aim and collecting policy of the archive: where do they go?!

The day was aimed exactly at people like me and I am glad to be more confident in:

POLICY being a plan of action addressing the questions of WHAT needs to be preserved, WHY, for what purpose and FOR HOW LONG and...

STRATEGY addressing the questions of HOW this should be done and IN WHAT ORDER

I know that this may seem obvious to many but it really helped me to start thinking about the audience of such documents and to whom I am aiming what can sometimes be quite a jargon-fuelled piece of literature.  In my situation, policies must be clear enough for non-archivists to understand in the absence of an archivist to guide them through the document such as board members or senior management team.  Archive advocacy relies a lot on convincing those in funding positions within our institutions of the worth of our collections and our seriousness about preserving them.  We, and everyone in the institution, have a commitment and a responsibility to the material and a preservation policy helps us to convey this purpose.  

A strategy, however, it much more for the archive staff and immediate management and can be more specific about requirements and standards.  We had a look at various preservation policies with hints of strategies, which must have had different audiences since they varied in length from one to nineteen pages!  It was very helpful to read others' policies and see how easy it would be for new staff to engage with the document and, as a workplace with a high turnover of staff, this was of particular interest to me.  If I write a preservation policy and leave at the end of my contract in December then I need to make sure that the document is embedded enough in the institution's policy structure that it will be heeded by those who follow me.

A preservation policy is integrally linked to how we both develop collections (from library perspective) and how we managed the acquisition of material (from an archival perspective)

Without preservation, we cannot ensure access so we should try to link these policies to the business continuity plan of the institution.  This may well be easier said than done when we consider that archives can be a rather forgotten department but, thankfully, the National Theatre is very involved in the archive and is enthusiastic to improve policies, strategies and work flows.  I am very lucky indeed to have that sort of support behind me!

There is much else of note from the day and, needless to say, the loss of the Preservation Advisory Service will be a harsh blow to the archive profession.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

CALM has instilled some calm

Something very exciting happened last week, something very very exciting for the National Theatre Archive.   We launched our new and up to date online catalogue via CALMView.  This project has been in the pipeline for the past few months and I am delighted that it is now available for all to see.

The first thing we had to decide when planning the online catalogue was how much of our catalogue to make visible online.  Previously we had the whole catalogue represented online regardless of description accuracy or whether the materials were open to public access (and nothing post-2005ish was represented).  It was a difficult decision to make but we decided to concentrate on cleaning the data for a core ten series, which are accessed most by researchers such as programmes, posters, photographs and production recordings and make these visible on the online catalogue with reference made to the rest of the collections.  A lot of work was also done to make the performance and role data more accurate and consistent but there is still a lot of work to do.

One of the features of CALM, when using the performance module, is to use linking to connect the various databases.  This has been invaluable in producing an online catalogue that allows you to manoeuvre seamlessly between the catalogue, performance database and name authority files.

We created a new 'Contact Us' form through Google forms since this was the only contact form that was compatible with CALMView (we had quite a few ideas that would not be supported by the software).  This then feeds through to a Google Doc, which in turn feeds through to a new Gmail account.  It was quite complicated to get the full form content to come through via email but after some coding tutorials and trial and error it is now fixed and we get a full email for each enquiry so that we don't need to log in to the spreadsheet at all.

The part of this project that I have enjoyed the most (apart from the data cleaning, which I find rather therapeutic) is the inter-departmental aspect.  An IT manager co-ordinated the team's time and I worked with members of IT, Graphics, Programming and Digital.  It was quite a learning curve working with so many others, all of whom were based on a different site and all had other projects and differing priority levels for my project.  Tele-conferences were another new addition but very helpful for checking in on developments and saving me the 30 minute round trip to the main site!

I am rather pleased with the final result but this is only a stopgap until the new NT website has been completed at some point over the next year.  We will then have a whole new archive section, which will be far more user friendly and relevant to our researchers.  But, for now, we have better presence online and that is worth celebrating in my book!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Danger! Danger! High Water!

On Thursday I attended Harwell’s Effective Emergency Planning and Salvage training day.  I have never been on disaster recovery training and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  There was a relatively small group of us and the majority already had disaster plans but they were in need of an update.

Our sodden exercise

The lecture was sprinkled liberally with case studies of institutions which had done well and not so well with disaster recovery and had plans to a different degree.  A frightening number of incidents tend to happen outside of working hours or when the plan author is not at work.  This obviously flags up many problems of possibly a person totally unrelated to your library or archive having to dispense the plan and organise the salvage operation.  Instructions need to be clear, concise and up to date. 

There are many snagging areas, which would not have occurred to me:

  1. It is useful to have a line included in the plan concerning how much expenditure there can be without authorisation being required.  This authorisation can take a long time to clear and, when you are dealing with material lying in foul water, time is of the essence.  
  2. Also important are the contact details for the emergency team (who have pre-agreed to function as such) as well as any suppliers that you might have to call on (day or night).  
  3. Another aspect that I hadn’t considered was the necessity for a PR person to whom all press requests go.  This ensures that an agreed and coherent message is delivered to the public and enables business continuity to be upheld.  Social media can also play a part, even if this is run by a separate department.  In Queensland, the National Library of Australia staff ran social media and Gmail accounts for 5 weeks from their homes to maintain business continuity with the result that they never fully closed when their building and material were severely damaged by flood waters.
  4. The fire at the National Library of Wales highlighted the importance of having a 'clear desk' policy so that material can be identified by its location.  If there is a build-up of material on desks without a clear trace of where it has come from then it makes the salvage and assessment process far harder.

The plans that have worked the best in practice are ones that have a clear structure, priority listings of material, contact details and a calm and collected Emergency Response Team identified.  This team can be difficult to gather in a small institution where staff may be absent for any reason and deputising necessary.  At the National Theatre, we have a small archive team and may have to call on extra resources in the event of a widespread disaster.  Apparently reciprocal relationships with other archives as well as potential assessment areas (youth hostels, village halls etc.) are common for small institutions that do not have a lot of space to dry out or store damaged items.

Airing some valuable books

At the end of the day we were given a crate of sodden items ranging from LPs to books to photographs to microfilm to documents to CDs to negatives.  The box had been flooded.  It was up to us to decide what we could handle ‘in house’ and what we would send away to be frozen at Harwell’s to be dealt with at a later date.  It was tricky to make quick decisions about materials, especially when you tend to get caught up in badly damaged items, which would be better frozen than attempted to be dried in house.

I learned so much that I can’t possibly detail it all here but I will definitely be starting to have a look at our disaster plan since it will definitely be out of date (so many staff and supplier changes).  I will also have to start working with other departments and getting their input for potentially diverting phone lines, finding stop cocks, drafting press releases etc.  If I involve the departments on whom we would rely in a disaster then they will have a vested interest in the plan and be more knowledgeable and quick off the mark if ever the unfortunate were to happen.  I know it is a lot of work to carry out for something that might never happen but, really, how much can you afford to lose if you don’t write one?

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Getting an Inkling about Digital Preservation

I'm aware that there has been somewhat of radio silence here for the past few months and I apologise.  It has been a very busy season for the archive (I am aware that there is never really a quiet period) but a 50th anniversary with an incredibly visionary digital department and artistic director resulted in us being rushed off our feet.  But all in a wonderfully productive way.  It was almost impossible to escape the National in press coverage and I was very fortunate to get a ticket for the 50th Gala featuring the likes of Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, James Corden, Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon.  It was a once in a lifetime event (and I didn't have to pay!).

But I have managed to escape to Malta

On the comedown for the big 5-0, we have been working on clearing out the basement and getting things in a bit more of an order.  It's a laborious task but I am finding out a lot more about what the archive is about.  Last week, I went to a Digital Preservation Coalition training day: 'Getting Started in Digital Preservation'.  It was by far the best conference day I have attended and I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking about making a digital preservation plan or looking at risk assessments.

And our hotel had a little free library!
The day was focussed at beginners in this sector and was well organised, starting with a rounded overview and then moving into case studies and exercises for your own institution. I found the case studies really helpful as they showed how people in similar situations had tackled problems similar to my own.  I could relate to their issues and it was cheering to hear that there are many people in the same boat and wanting to learn from each other.  Institutions can be so large and ungainly that trying to impose a records management structure on them can be like the proverbial square peg, round hole.  So it was good to hear how professionals have addressed this issue and brought colleagues over to their way of thinking.

The training day made us think about our own collection by using exercises built around our own digital series and this is an unusual aspect of conference days.  It made me realise that we have a lot of work to do but at least we pretty much already have the skills required and now I know that there are people out there with the same issues and a whole DPC to help us face them!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

An Archive Day in Hull

This week I went on a jolly to Hull for the annual training day of the Film, Sound and Photography special section of the ARA.  The National Theatre Archive have not attended this section before but I felt that our collections were exactly the sort of thing that this section focuses on.

Humber Bridge from the train

With the sun shining stunningly over Hull, we all piled into the beautiful Hull History Centre for a day entitled 'Archivally Sound'.  The focus was on oral history; its creation, uses and preservation concerns.  we heard from various speakers, who are all working on local oral history projects and using them to open up collections as well as to instigate the creation of more oral histories.  There are many uses of oral histories that had not occurred to me such as dialect studies and actor training.

There are concerns surrounding oral histories such as bias, mis-remembering, relationship between interviewer and interviewee and this is why there has been a dip in the practice.  In history, oral tradition was strong but with the improvement of literacy and film, there has been a decrease in its use.  Where oral history is special is in its ability to portray the process of history - what someone has chosen to remember of forget demonstrates how we make sense of history.

Hull History Centre
The rest of the day was focused on the vast variety of media that we all hold in our archives and how we go about digitising.  Max Communications were sponsoring the event and we had some good discussions surrounding digitisation and HLF's policy of funded digitisation projects placing the material in creative commons.  Archives are stuck in the middle when the material is not under their own copyright and it is difficult to see how this will be resolved.  Access cannot exist without preservation and now access is fundamental for funding applications.  But that preservation and access can only occur with the agreement of the copyright holder.

All in all it was a great opportunity to meet others in the profession with similar collections and discuss topical issues.  Meanwhile, back at the National, we have launched our Google Cultural Institute Exhibit on Greek Theatre and our free 50 Years of the National Theatre app - feel free to explore!