2015 Whyte Memorial Lecture

Last night I attended the annual Whyte Memorial Lecture run by Monash University. It is a free event and one worth attending if you are in the GLAMR field.

“The annual Whyte Memorial Lecture celebrates the legacy of the late Jean Whyte and her sister Phyllis. Professor Jean Whyte was the foundation professor in the Graduate School of Librarianship at Monash University. The sisters left generous bequests to Monash to support research in librarianship, archives and records, and to support the library’s research collection in English literature, librarianship and philosophy.” (Monash University website)

This years topic was ‘Keeping, forgetting, and misreading digital material: libraries learning from archives and recordkeeping practice’ presented by Professor Ross Harvey from RMIT University. The event was live tweeted and you can get a broad idea of the event from Jaye Weatherburn’s storify here.

In the invitation I received to attend (as a Monash alumni) the topic was described:

Professor Jean Whyte’s view of her profession was broad, encompassing not just traditional librarianship but also the history of the book, multicultural librarianship, economics, and IT. Because of her conviction that librarianship and the archives and recordkeeping professions had much in common, Jean intended that the Graduate School of Librarianship she established at Monash would offer courses in archives and recordkeeping. Both professions now share the challenges of managing the many competing interests and opportunities presented by the digital environments in which we work and play. While there are clear areas of mutual interest between librarianship and archives and recordkeeping, further definition of those areas is needed. This lecture will explore the increasing relevance of principles developed by archivists and recordkeepers to managing and preserving digital material.

I found this a very interesting topic of discussion. Professor Ross Harvey was also a funny and entertaining speaker which further heightened my enjoyment of the evening.

Professor Harvey broke his discussion into three areas: keeping, forgetting and misreading.

  • ‘Keeping’ – one point that really interested me was the concept of ‘self-archiving’ digital content. A digital package with scripts and rules inbuilt so that certain event triggers would enable it to archive itself. He spoke of ‘SIRF’ (Self-Contained Information Retention Format) for the long term storage of digital information, I found this fascinating. It would reduce human error, ensure better preservation for the future, and increase our available time. Professor Harvey also discussed how Librarians can learn from Archivists in the creation of digital materials – by considering their preservation while creating them. For example, using well supported open stable data types to enable future usability and external life of the master files. By utilising record keeping theory in our digital environment, we can manage content better for the future. Importantly, Professor Harvey argued we need to be open to new ideas and innovate. A lot of our practices in this field are steeped in tradition and habit, and while encouraging best practice is important, being open to change and new ways of working is equally imperative. Archivists can contribute much to this topic if we are open to learning.
  • ‘Forgetting’ – I enjoyed the discussion here on ‘appraisal’ i.e. deciding what is valuable to keep, and what can be forgotten or deleted. This prioritising requires mechanisms for selection, after all we cannot keep everything. There must be balance between the risk of important records/information being destroyed and the cost of keeping it all ‘just in case’. Professor Harvey explained that Librarians and Archivists use different mechanisms and criteria for this selection process. I know the Librarian’s position here but it was intriguing to hear about other ideas from the archival field. We as Librarians, select resources to add to an existing collection from criteria in our collection development policies and then eventually some of this information may be preserved. The resource might relate to a particular need within our work such as supporting the school curriculum, or providing reading pleasure, as well as its relevance to our existing collection, accuracy of the information and appropriateness for our audience etc. Archivists however work with unique materials, they look at the items intrinsic value and provenance. I had never really considered this aspect of difference between the two professions and I found it a fascinating discussion. Especially now with the rapid increases in data, we need to consider new ways decide what to keep and what to forget. While libraries have good reason for their collection policies, I like the idea of considering the intrinsic value of items. When I first started in Libraries I found it so hard to weed books and see them thrown away with so little value placed on them! I think a cross over here is Rare books, I would love to gain more knowledge and experience in this area.
  • ‘Misreading’ – in the digital world the style of discovery is usually small snippets of info without context, and this changes the way we interact with the info. Context is everything. Archival theory helps preserve context and reduce misreading of information in the future. Context shows the information’s relationship with other items as a body of unified records. We can capture this contextual information in metadata as Archivists do. We need to avoid mindless digitisation in the rush to get everything online and ensure we preserve context. Librarian’s need to encompass a deeper understanding of the purpose and power or metadata.

Professor Harvey ends his lecture with a call to action. Archivists, IT Professionals and Librarians need to work together. Look to each others fields to learn what will better manage information in the future, go beyond your traditional borders, share skills and develop cross-sector dialogue. Be proactive, be advocates.

As a new graduate I have found that I have had many opportunities to intermingle with professionals from the other GLAMR sectors. I was lucky in that my LIS course had many shared subjects with archival and record keeping students. Half of my uni friends are in the Archival field and have taught me much about their sector. I now realise I need to learn even more from them. I would love to work on a collaborative project that allows us to share skills and knowledge. In addition, the GLAMR new grad networking group incorporates people from a variety of fields – I now recognise the power of this association and the benefits of speaking to individuals from outside the library field.

As a final point I also want to mention that apart from the very interesting discussion, it was a real pleasure to network with individuals from all sectors. I saw old lecturers from university, friends from other networking groups, recognised people I had met at other events and spoke to some new people as well. It was exciting to speak with so many passionate people with similar interests and who were very inspirational and knowledgeable. The catering was also delicious! I highly recommend this event so keep an eye out for the 2016 lecture!

Thanks for reading,

Michelle De Aizpurua

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