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Cautionary Tales: Archives 2.0 and the Diplomatic Historian

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Michael Kennedy discusses the value of Archives 2.0 to the online version of Ireland's 'Documents on Irish Foreign Policy' series.

When I began writing this article, as a paper to a March 2009 conference on Archives 2.0 hosted by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) at the University of Manchester, Archives 2.0 was unknown territory to me [1]. I am a diplomatic historian, not an archivist, and though I am an end-user of archives, I had not come across the term Archives 2.0 before. The project I head, the Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP) series (http://www.difp.ie and http://www.ria.ie/projects/difp) [2], has since 1998 published hard-copy edited volumes of historical Irish diplomatic documents. DIFP is part of an international genre of diplomatic document editing projects that can trace its origins back over 150 years to 1861 and the establishment of the Foreign Relations of the United States series [3].

Diplomatic document editing and publication projects have established traditional practices. They favour hard copy over electronic publications, though in recent years many projects have embraced the Web. In 2007 DIFP itself moved to online as well as hard copy publication. However DIFP's hard copy series still takes priority over the online version. DIFP's online presence is limited to providing electronic versions of existing hard copy volumes, albeit on a purpose-built Web site with the sources entirely reformatted to suit online delivery [4].

Preparing for the CRESC Conference, I was introduced to the new world of Web 2.0 and Archives 2.0. The central tenets of both were welcome, but at times worrying, territory. With the definition of Archives 2.0 as a changed mindset towards archives and as the application of Web 2.0 technologies to archives, I could see why, as a researcher, Archives 2.0 would be of benefit to me. On the other hand, as an editor and publisher of diplomatic documents, I felt the brakes of caution apply.

Despite playing a valuable role in democratising archives, the guidelines of Archives 2.0 often run contrary to precepts of publishing diplomatic documents. Diplomatic documents regularly deal with politically sensitive affairs between states and with historical topics that remain capable of generating contemporary controversy. The openness of Archives 2.0, with its encouragement of direct user intervention with sources, clashes with the requirement placed upon diplomatic document editors to provide a neutral environment for the documents they are publishing with care and expertise.

This is not caution at what Archives 2.0 is trying to do. I am all for opening up sources to users in new ways. There is a definite similarity between the goals of Archives 2.0 and those of the international projects like DIFP publishing diplomatic documents, as both wish to democratise ownership and use of information.

My caution is instead directed towards the potential application of Archives 2.0 to certain aspects of publishing diplomatic documents online. In particular I refer to the ability Web 2.0 technology gives to archive end-users to manipulate and augment published data to their own ends, perhaps even to augment the source itself, on the hosting Web site. This raises the potential problem of malicious users linking their views to those of the host Web site in a manner detrimental to the host Web site and to its users. An online diplomatic document publishing project needs to create a completely secure barrier between the electronic version of the source it is making available and the end-user. This is particularly the case if a facility is to be given to the end-users to add their perspective to the source in question.

Concerns and Nightmare Scenarios

So far DIFP has placed online [2] the text of 1,345 documents from Ireland's declaration of independence in 1919 up to the election of Eamon de Valera and his Fianna Fáil party to power in 1932. We plan for material from 1932 to 1941 to go online in the near future.

How does the DIFP Web site fare in terms of Archives 2.0 compliance? Access is free of charge and we have no plans to charge for access. DIFP is Web 2.0- compliant to the extent that the site will remain free for users, we do not ask for user registration and the site's pages can be linked to externally.

While we want to maximise global use of the DIFP Web site, we want the site to be neutral. Accordingly, we keep our own editorial comment to a minimum. The documents we make available speak for themselves and stand by themselves. Metadata created by users of the documents, as favoured by Archives 2.0, cannot be generated or stored on the site. Such data are not allowed in case confusion should arise between the actual content of the site and user-generated content. Sharing the data outside the DIFP Web site is no problem, but, to 'personalise … annotate, and repurpose content', as one blog put it, sounds rather worrying as it would allow users to alter and thus manipulate history and violate the neutrality of the material we are making available [5].

Any site making available primary sources dealing with a contentious topic such as Irish history must remain scrupulously neutral. It must allow data to be viewed openly and freely, but it must above all else protect the integrity of the material it contains. The 'walled gardens' concept of content and functionality of first- generation Internet sites is more appropriate to the data on the DIFP Web site than the more open sites of Web 2.0 and Archives 2.0.

What would we gain by allowing users, for example, to edit our metadata? Would we find that the site was vandalized for political reasons? Irish history and politics represent a contentious topic. It would only need one hack of the Web site in this manner to find its way to a mischief-making journalist to show that the Web site could be altered to create difficulties for us and for our project partners in the National Archives of Ireland (NAI), the Royal Irish Academy and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). I fear that the malicious attitude of a few could ruin the site for the many. We could try to monitor the site if we allowed comments online; however would devising and implementing the appropriate policies for monitoring and moderating opinions justify the time and resources they would consume?

Set standards must apply to sites providing original material and users must know that the content of sites can be trusted. I hope that the DIFP Web site acts as a 'Gold Standard,' where users can view material in a form that is guaranteed to be as close to the original as possible but not be able to manipulate or add to it on the site. The electronic equivalent of a toughened glass barrier security screen is necessary to preserve the integrity of DIFP online as an electronic source. This attitude conflicts with the Archives 2.0 conceptual framework, but for our requirements the 'read-only' Web site is essential and we could not contemplate the 'read/write' Web site of 2.0.

A Slightly More Positive Perspective

Perhaps the above views are unduly negative? What if DIFP allowed users limited freedom to add references to online documents to give details of, say, corresponding files or documents in other archives? For example, if DIFP published a letter from the Eamon de Valera to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a user of the Chamberlain papers in the University of Birmingham could add in a reference to the corresponding file in the Chamberlain papers or a user from The National Archives (TNA – UK) could supply the reference to relevant material in the Foreign Office or Dominions Office archives. We could easily build a massive web of metadata about Irish diplomatic documents in a very cost-effective manner.

Additionally, a letter from the Irish Legation in wartime Berlin could be 'geocoded' on Google Earth to the still vacant site on Draakenstrasse where the legation stood until destroyed in an air raid in 1943. Or DIFP could geocode the location of the hotel where Taoiseach Eamon de Valera stayed in London whilst negotiating the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1938 with his British colleagues. By also geocoding the locations of the Dominions Office, the Irish High Commission and perhaps Downing Street we could show the geography of the negotiations leading to the 1938 Anglo-Irish agreements.

A DIFP Blog?

Having thought about a DIFP blog, I cannot see an account of our reading through twenty boxes of Paris Embassy registry files having any widespread appeal, or, for that matter the details of a trip to the printers to discuss the appropriate ink mixture ratio for a DIFP volume dustjacket.

Yet we have a form of a blog in that our project news page [6] includes previews of recently located documents of interest, special outreach events and volume launches. The site is updated monthly; we do not have regular daily updates as we do not have the resources to do so. If we did update the pages from day to day we would end up doing far less actual work on our volumes. In cost-benefit terms, adopting Archives 2.0 technologies may well lead to taking on extra layers of work and providing extra layers of data that are ultimately of little value to the primary task being undertaken. In our case it would diminish the time available to work on DIFP's primary task: the publication of volumes of diplomatic documents.

One area where we might be on safer Archives 2.0 ground for DIFP relates to the tagging of documents, the provision of tag clouds and saved searches. I would prefer separate expert and user tags in order to minimise the risk of opening up the DIFP Web site to abuse. Accordingly we might need to control the tag subjects to avoid abuse of our content. Nonetheless, even with a messy 'folksonomy' of some sort we could enable the user add value to DIFP by mapping a variety of paths through the site. This would ensure the integrity of the documents but allow users – say historians or political scientists, economists or sociologists, to tag documents and thus provide a multidimensional framework surrounding the otherwise protected documents.

We already have a collaborative filtering facility where the Web site shows other documents viewed by users who viewed a particular document and we watch site usage through Google analytics. This seems to be the direction we should be going in. Joy Palmer of the Archives Hub Blog pointed out in December 2007: 'What tremendous benefit to archives to not only know what items are being used in research, but also to be able to easily track and gauge how that item is being used within various research or teaching contexts.'[7] But in one sense we have always done this; from our establishment in 1997 it has been central to the project to develop our outreach and see who was using our hard copy volumes and why. It is critical to DIFP media, marketing and sales strategies. Web 2.0 gives us new and more accurate ways to continue this process.

I think the best approach to Web 2.0 and Archives 2.0 tool for DIFP has been to try lots of different concepts and see which ones we identify as having lasting value. For example it has proved of benefit for project staff to make use of social bookmarking sites for sharing our work bookmarks. There is no use adopting packages and plug-ins simply out of peer pressure and to bow unthinkingly to the concept that 'If we don't invest in the future, it will happen to us anyway!'.[8] This is hardly democratic.

A post on the Archives Hub Blog argued that 'Web2.0 for archives, should primarily be viewed as an attitude rather than a suite of tools or services, characterised by openness, sharing, experimentation, collaboration, integration and flexibility that enables us to meet different user needs'. [9] I do not know if all we are doing will really fulfil all the hopes of Archives 2.0 for DIFP as a Web presence. Though I hope in making Irish diplomatic documents available online we are embracing the supposed democratisation that is central to Archives 2.0.

Losing Contact with the Real World?

Discussion on the nature of the DIFP Web site leads on to two further points of engagement with Archives 2.0. http://www.difp.ie is part of a 'new culture [to] encourage new modes of access and use of the archive within learning, research and everyday life'. If it does represent 'a fundamental shift in perspective', does it really represent 'a philosophy that privileges the user and promotes an ethos of sharing, collaboration, and openness'? [10] Have we not created instead a chimera of false democracy where users think they are free but in reality are even more hemmed in?

There are huge benefits in DIFP placing volumes online, but does the effect of placing vast quantities of documents online detract from scholarship, from the transferable skills we are seeking to give students and from the academic research community? Can a virtual archive and a virtual community of users surpass the value of getting your hands dirty in the archives?

Archives 2.0 must work alongside, but surely never replace, more traditional strands of research. In working alongside these traditional strands it will augment them as a synergy. But unfortunately researchers often take the easy way out and will assume that if the source they want is not available online it does not exist elsewhere. Or, if unwittingly they get their search terms wrong for some reason, they may not try to look for the material in question again.

Historical research is about casting wide for sources and opening all possibilities. Archives 2.0 can help here, but it can never meet all requirements. If we place our reliance on online archives where users have control, we have to remember that they have limited control over the file of material to which they are allowed access. Arguably this is the case in all archives, but the level of control over online archives is much greater, as is the possibility of outside interference with sites. By placing material online and lauding the online archive to the detriment of the original, we are in danger of diluting the documents, placing them out of context, removing or altering critical physical metadata that help the researcher understand the ethos and zeitgeist of the period in which they are working. Such metadata could be as simple as the feel of the paper – contrast the difference between the plush paper of peacetime and the harsh fibrous paper of wartime - or as simple a point as styles of handwriting and typing.

I often recall more about the atmosphere of an archive and the sense of place from visits to archives than the detail of what I researched there. My postgraduate trip to the League of Nations Archive in Geneva is a prime case in point. Had a concept such as Archive 2.0 existed then, I could have reduced the time needed in Geneva, perhaps not gone at all and I could have taken a virtual tour of the League of Nations building and walked Geneva on Google Earth or Tripadvisor. But in going I gained a critical understanding of how the League's system worked and walked the corridors of its dwindling power. This helped greatly in my work. I suspect that wonderful though many of the hopes of Archive 2.0 are, we are in danger of providing all of the information and none of the understanding of that information which a visit to an archive and, by extension, a visit to the scene of one's studies provides.

Of course there is an important trade-off here. The financial cost of research, the availability of research funding, teaching commitments and family commitments all suggest that one would prefer to work on material online, share it, bookmark it and embrace the strengths of Archives 2.0. Nevertheless the question remains: 'What do I gain and what do I lose by this virtual research?' Does Archives 2.0 put me in greater control of my research? At what point am I willing to sacrifice the integrity of the originals and the ethos of working in an archive or library in order to work from my own bedroom or office?

A Doubtful Privilege?

So is the user really privileged by what we have done online with difp.ie and its cautious adoption of some of the less intrusive aspects of Archives 2.0? The material we have placed online is definitely the best material available in terms of explaining the evolution and execution of Irish foreign policy and it provides a superb overview for researchers. But those researchers, if they wish to do original in-depth research, will still need to consult the hard copy archives because we cannot hope to cover all the topics covered by day-to-day diplomacy in a series of select edited documents.

What we are providing on DIFP online is a high-grade overview, but like a low-scale map, once you head off the main road there is no detail. We can cover British-Irish relations in great detail, but the detail of important areas such as Irish relations with France or Germany between the World Wars will be left off the Web site as we can only cover the most significant components. Is this a privilege? Yes if the Web site allows researchers to undertake a large proportion of their work from a remote location, but not if through using the Web site they close off the awareness that other streams of data exist.

Conclusion

By placing DIFP online we have established a well-designed efficiently functioning online presence and we have created a user-friendly and highly searchable resource. I suppose we have lost the innocence of assuming that the Web is a simple technology and our initial 'chuck it up online' view has been replaced by the realisation that we have created a new complex wing of the project. In effect we have added a second production line to DIFP rather than the expected cut-and-paste job. It was certainly not as easy as we expected to change a hard copy volume into a Web-based resource and the time required proved far greater than we could ever have imagined.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Irish foreign policy is a small niche area and we have only a small portion of our material online, but since going live in 2007 we have had almost 53,000 hits from 129 countries. These hits are, as one might expect, largely spread across the English-speaking Irish diaspora. The main users are from Ireland, Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, along with significant usage from Argentina, Russia, Poland and France.

If Web 2.0 and thus Archives 2.0 do have a democratising effect, then they have greatly enhanced the project's potential and allowed DIFP to maximise the impact of its volumes and to reach out to new audiences through our Web site. We have enhanced public ownership of the often secretive foreign policy-making process. DIFP has created a successful Web site, even though it is unlikely to be Archives 2.0-compliant. Given the concerns I have raised above, we would simply be responding unwisely to peer pressure if we changed the site to put material online in the manner considered 'best practice' by advocates of Archives 2.0.

We should pick only those portions of Archives 2.0 and wider Web 2.0 technologies which we know we will need and use. We will have to try out a great many packages and applications to find out what suits. It seems that for a diplomatic documents publishing project there is a definite trade-off between new delivery methods for data and the universal need for accuracy and impartiality. We can honestly say that DIFP online is providing as accurate as possible a reproduction of what is available in the archives, and for this to continue to be the case, it seems that the user-related freedoms of Archives 2.0 have to be held in check.

References

  1. 'Archives 2.0 – Shifting dialogues between users and archivists', CRESC, University of Manchester, 19-20 March 2009
    http://www.cresc.ac.uk/events/archived/archiveseries/Conference.html
  2. Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series:
    http://www.difp.ie/
    http://www.ria.ie/projects/difp/
  3. The Foreign Relations of the United States series http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/
  4. Placing DIFP online was an early aspiration of the project, but with the project to be established and a presence in the academic community to be developed it was one which, due to resources, finance and opportunity, only became a reality in 2006-07. Ireland hosted the 9th international conference of diplomatic documents in Dublin in April 2007. The conference theme was the application of new technologies to foreign policy document editing and publication and a major portion of this was placing documents online. The conference, plus the then flush state of the public purse, gave us motive, means and opportunity to bring DIFP online into existence.
  5. Archives Hub Blog: Archives 2.0: Fact or Fiction?
    http://www.archiveshub.ac.uk/blog/2007/12/archives-20-fact-or-fiction.html
  6. DIFP News http://www.ria.ie/projects/difp/news.html
  7. Archives Hub Blog: Archives 2.0: Fact or Fiction?
    http://www.archiveshub.ac.uk/blog/2007/12/archives-20-fact-or-fiction.html
  8. Steve Abram quoted in 'Archives 2.0: Fact or Fiction?', Archives Hub Blog, 7 December 2007 http://www.archiveshub.ac.uk/blog/2007/12/archives-20-fact-or-fiction.html
  9. 2 February 2009 entry, 'The Archives 2.0 Hub' http://www.archiveshub.ac.uk/blog/
  10. From the conference synopsis and content description for 'Archives 2.0 – Shifting dialogues between users and archivists', CRESC, University of Manchester, 19-20 March 2009 on
    http://www.ncess.ac.uk/events/past/item/?item=216&active=&subactive=

Author Details

Michael Kennedy
Executive Editor
Documents on Irish Foreign Policy

Email: difp@iol.ie
Web site: http://www.difp.ie/ and http://www.ria.ie/Research/DIFP.aspx

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Date published: 
30 October 2009

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How to cite this article

Michael Kennedy. "Cautionary Tales: Archives 2.0 and the Diplomatic Historian". October 2009, Ariadne Issue 61 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue61/kennedy/


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