Our Visit to the National Archives

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 Photo of National Archives taken from Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday 23rd November, MSc Library Science students from City were offered the chance to visit the National Archives in Kew (many thanks to David Haynes for organising everything for us). I just wanted to take this opportunity to share a few thoughts and observations on the day’s activities…

Once we had all arrived and had been ushered into the Training Room, we were greeted by Val Johnson and the programme began in earnest. Firstly, we heard from Chris Day about the role riots and public disturbances had played in the history of the Archives. Frustration at the voting restrictions in 19th century England (where only landowners had the vote and so-called rotten boroughs were disproportionately represented in the House of Commons) had led to a wave of popular protest, culminating in events such as the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. The reaction of the authorities was to quite literally read the Riot Act to the protesters (!) and this naturally led to a glut of paperwork which then needed a home. This certainly contributed to the founding of the Public Record Office in 1838, which was originally in Chancery Lane. The talk was a good illustration of how political events can have long-lasting and often unforeseen consequences. Chris’ section was then followed by Howard Davies giving us a brief overview of the history of the Archives which was both informative and entertaining. We were then split into two groups for the next lot of activities.

My group was first given a tour of the public exhibition gallery which had some interesting sights to take in. There was a display on the Cambridge Spies which looked intriguing (unfortunately time was a bit limited) and also items connected with William Shakespeare (it being the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016). There were also some eye-catching visual installations that were linked to the Somme centenary commemorations. I thought the one of the machine-gunner was particularly memorable, though a bit frightening…

After an introduction to the cataloguing system used by the Archives (I remember David Haynes asking some pertinent questions about metadata) and a short tea break, my group was then shown around the repositories by Document Services. Needless to say, there are a huge number of documents at the Kew site and a vast amount of space is needed to hold them (so much so that many of the lesser-requested items are now held in a former salt-mine in Cheshire), although they do use mobile shelving to cram in as much as possible. It was interesting to see the employees at work and impressive to find out that they aim to supply the document requested by a reader in under an hour. Understandably there is a system to control the climate in place at the repositories and, although there are alarms, it is usually the staff who report it if something seems wrong. It was also fascinating to see the variety of documents such as being shown a 18th century map of the British invading one of the French colonies in the West Indies (our guide explained that you can tell it was a British map because it showed the French running away!).

Once we returned to the Training Room, we were given a useful introduction to Discovery by Tom Storrar, which is the Archive’s online database which is free to use and contains documents like service records from the First World War. After that, Diana Newton gave a brief talk about the challenges of archiving all the web pages produced by the various departments of HM Government (she estimated there were around 800 URLs currently in use!). It can take a web crawler weeks to go through them all. And then it was time to head home so it just remains for me to thanks everyone at the Archives for putting together such a diverse programme for us.

 

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Colin Kaepernick, the National Anthem Protest & Twitter

In last week’s session, we looked at the various forms of web services and considered the roles they play in our lives. Increasingly, we rely on cloud computing to store and retrieve our documents, and manufacturers have increasingly done away with CD/DVD drives and instead only include USB ports on newer machines. Our data is held on remote servers and has the advantage of access from any device. We then went on to talk about social media platforms such as Twitter, one such web service, which generates huge amounts of data about its users. The practical exercise that followed involved us seeing what information could be gleamed from this data and the ethical questions that this may pose.

One important concept that was introduced was that of the API or Application Programming Interface. APIs allow third party applications to acquire data from these services for their own purposes. This may allow the makers of these programs to collect valuable information about the demographics of people using the platforms or their political preferences. Martin Hawksey has developed an app called TAGS which allows users to collect a whole series of tweets with the same hashtag on one Google Spreadsheet. This would allow us to see what type of people were talking about an issue and build up a picture of what they were saying about it. A controversial topic with a suitable hashtag could yield fascinating results, although Twitter users would probably be unaware they were contributing to this bit of research.

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One potential case study here would a high-profile recent controversy in American Football (and one that is highly relevant with the presidential election in the background). San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest what he sees as ongoing oppression of African-Americans by kneeling during the playing of the U.S. national anthem that precedes NFL games caused a furore on Twitter and spawned numerous trending topics. While receiving death threats for his “unpatriotic” stance, he has also become a hero to many, having the highest-selling jersey on nflshop.com during the month of September. Although he was the starter during the 49ers’ run to Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, Kaepernick entered the 2016 season backing up the often-derided Blaine Gabbert on a team widely expected to struggle. He took a very real risk in my view by protesting because it was uncertain at that point whether he would be able to continue his professional career, at least in the NFL.

By putting the term #ColinKaepernick into an app like TAGS, we could see some of the responses to the protest on Twitter and who they emanated from. By looking at other hashtags they used, we could build up a fairly detailed picture of their cultural background and political beliefs. We would expect that many of those sympathetic would be other African-Americans, especially as they are both, according to recent research, more likely to use Twitter than other groups and to tweet frequently. We could see whether these people had used terms like #BlackLivesMatter or #Ferguson. We might also anticipate that those most hostile to Kaepernick might be political conservatives who used hashtags such as #MakeAmericaGreatAgain that are associated with support for Donald Trump. The point is none of these users has specifically given their consent to their data being used in this way (other than agreeing to Twitter’s Terms of Service) and they may not be comfortable with such assumptions being made about their beliefs. Making sure this data is used responsibly is something we information professionals can contribute to.

Margaret Egan, Jesse Shera & Social Epistemology

adelbert_hall_-_case_western_reserve_universityLast time in our “Foundation” class, David Bawden spoke to us about epistemology, which is the philosophical study of knowledge and its scope. The relevance of this to LIS is obvious given how our focus is enabling understanding by using data. David followed this by introducing some of the various attempts over the years to apply a philosophical framework to our discipline. This has been a difficult thing to achieve as there has been no agreement within the profession whether such a theoretical structure is even needed at all. People involved in Library and Information Science have generally used pre-existing philosophical ideas from other contexts and translated them into ours. UCL academic Brian Campbell Vickery was particularly critical of this practice. This has started to change in recent years with the work of Luciano Floridi, now at the Oxford Internet Institute, who has created his own philosophical ecosystem for the study of information and sees librarians and information scientists as working at the “applied end” of it. While his ideas have become increasingly influential, there are certainly competing ones. Today I am going to briefly look at the thought of Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera who coined the term “social epistemology” to make sense of what librarians did and were trying to achieve.

Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera worked together at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio during the 1950s and this is when they developed the theory. While Shera was by far the more high-profile figure, in part due to Egan’s early death from a heart attack, he did credit her for her work on this. The basic premise of social epistemology is that knowledge is not an isolated phenomenon and is instead interwoven with a given societal context. This was in opposition to traditional views of knowledge as “justified belief” held by an individual person independent of others. Egan and Shera suggest that societies at different times and places create paradigms of knowledge and libraries and librarians operate within these, working to meet the needs of their users. This idea has similarities to the concept of domain analysis which Birger Hjørland and Albrechtsen wrote about. It seems to me to be no coincidence that this more humanistic approach to library science began to develop at a time of great social change in the U.S.A. when the Civil Rights Movement saw African-Americans campaign against racial discrimination and the emergence of feminism was beginning to challenge conventional ideas about gender. There were of course great technological advances being made in this period which would impact on the world of libraries and so it makes sense that people like Egan and Shera would see knowledge as not immutable but instead something that would evolve along with society.

Photo is of Adelbert Hall at Case Western Reserve University where Margaret Egan and Jesse Shera worked. Taken from Wikimedia Commons.