Futures Past: Twenty Years of Arts Computing
Sian Everitt, Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD)
The Good, the Bad and the Accessible: 30 years of using new technologies in BIAD Archives
Keywords: Birmingham Institute of Art and Design Archives, digitisation
This paper reflects upon the use of technologies in BIAD Archives over the past 30 years. It traces attempts to use technology to improve the accessibility of the collections from the original automated access system of 1972 through numerous database projects to twenty-first century online endeavours. The paper considers the successes and the disappointments of 30 years of initiative and collaboration. It comments on the lessons learnt in trying to harness the potential of computers to manage and interpret diverse collections in art and design.
Before discussing the use of technology to access the collections, it is worthwhile introducing their nature and diversity. BIAD Archives holds the archives and collections of Birmingham Institute of Art & Design (BIAD), a faculty of the University of Central England (UCE). BIAD Archives is a specialist repository that holds over 20 separate archives and collections, covering the fields of art and design education, museology and public art. The collections range in size from under 50 to over 40,000 items and include paper documents and books as well as art works, photographs and artefacts.
Our main institutional collection is the BIAD School of Art Archive that documents the history of the institution from its foundation in 1843 as a Government School of Design until its absorption into what was then known as Birmingham Polytechnic in 1970. Although historically titled the School of Art Archive, this is something of a misnomer as it is a mixed collection of archival papers, and staff and student artworks. In fact there are over 3,500 artworks and designs on paper by more than 700 former staff and students. There are more than 2,000 photographs and lantern slides of works and classes. There are also minute books, student registers and record cards, administrative files and artefacts.
BIAD Archives also hold donated collections documenting pedagogical initiatives in the teaching of art and design in schools, perhaps the most significant of which is the Marion Richardson Archive. Marion Richardson (1892-1946) trained as an art teacher at Birmingham College of Art and Design in 1908-12. She went on to be an influential child-centred art education practitioner in the first half of the twentieth century, believing that all children had aesthetic capabilities if only they were encouraged in appropriate ways. She advocated the use of the memory and visual imagination rather than technical exercises and she also developed a pattern-based method of teaching handwriting. The archive contains correspondence, diaries, unpublished papers and lectures, glass slides, photographs, part of her art library, and several thousand examples of children’s art works.
The most recent donation to BIAD Archives was the Public Arts Commissions Agency (PACA) Archive in 1999. PACA was formed in 1987 and handled mainly large-scale, mainstream public art projects throughout the UK. PACA was a company and registered charity with offices in Birmingham, and later, London. The PACA Archive is a business archive. It contains a lot of typical archival materials – correspondence, contractual and financial information, trustees’ papers, and committee minutes. Also, given the nature of the business, there are artists’ proposals, sketches, drawings and architectural plans. There is an extensive slide and photographic record of the public art projects PACA managed and a collection of books, journals, exhibition catalogues and trade magazines comprising the company library.
In outlining just three collections, their diversity and richness is revealed. BIAD Archives is a relatively small-scale repository with specialist research collections held in an academic context. This academic context is important and potentially problematic. As part of the University of Central England (UCE), the institutional mission statement governs BIAD Archives. This has a strong emphasis on service to the wider community and life-long learning, with the University as a whole aiming to ‘develop the social infrastructure and improve quality of life in the region’1. Marta Lourenco has noted that ‘traditionally, university museums have pursued a triple mission: research, teaching and public display’.2 The position of BIAD Archives is not dissimilar, with competing expectations of research outcomes, reintegration with teaching and public access.
It was the donation of the PACA Archive that prompted BIAD to reassess its archival holdings and collections management. There had not been a member of staff dedicated to BIAD Archives for a number of years and the archives had been effectively closed for over 20 years. Significantly, there was no substantive intellectual control of the Faculty’s collections as none were catalogued. Indeed, a survey in 2000 on behalf of the West Midlands Regional Museums Council and East Midlands Museum Service recommended that BIAD should be treated as one of four priorities in the region as the collections were ‘virtually without any useable documentation’.3 BIAD may have been an extreme case: however, we were not an isolated one but more symptomatic of a general malaise. The late 1990s saw many surveys of archives and special collections in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), including the 1997 JISC Study of the Archival Records of British Universities, Kelly’s The Management of Higher Education Museums, Galleries and Collections in the UK and the Society of Archivists’ ongoing Missing Link project.4 These regional and national surveys highlighted a need to improve the collection management of the majority of HEI archives and collections.
At BIAD, this need was addressed when a full-time post and the new management body, the BIAD Archives Steering Group, were established in 2000. The Archive Development Project was initiated in recognition of the fact that prioritising the establishment of intellectual control of the collections – discovering and documenting the what, where and why – would create a solid foundation for future developments. Despite the seemingly lengthy period of inaction, the Archive Development Project has been built on past experience and BIAD’s history of aspiration in using innovative technology to facilitate access to and interpret the collections.
The original automated access system to the collections was developed between 1972 and 1974, and is now fondly remembered as the ‘Jiggling Box’. Developed by the School of Art Education with funding from the Leverhulme Trust, this was a system for mechanically-aided retrieval via edge-notched cards which held microfiche of the resources. Admittedly, this was not an application of digital or computer technology. It was not even the development of new technology – the history of punched cards as an indexing system goes back to 1886.5 The significance of the project is in its recognition of the nature and diversity of archival materials in art education and the inappropriateness of a library approach to indexing and access. The need identified was for flexible indexing and machine-aided searching given the quantity of the resources. A complex system of pyramid coding around all four edges of the cards was developed. The cards were placed in a machine and knitting needle-like rods inserted into pre-coded slots. Then the machine would vibrate the cards in order to separate out those that had been punched in the relevant position, hence the nickname. Whilst several thousand of the notched-cards have survived, the machine has not.
BIAD was an ambiguous early innovator in recognising the potential of computer technology. In 1975, under the auspices of a Social Science Research Council grant, full-scale digitisation was considered for the Marion Richardson Archive. The project team in the School of Art Education suggested, ‘the entire archive should be transcribed onto a computer’s magnetic disks’ 6. Having explored the idea with the Computer Centre, they concluded, ‘Although this was found to be technically feasible, the cost of carrying out this work was quite prohibitive and the idea was abandoned’ 7– an early example of arguably the biggest problem still faced by digitisation projects.
Undeterred, BIAD continue to imagine the potential of computer technology for archival resources. As early as 1981 BIAD was developing what was in effect an online and interactive catalogue. The Art Education Computerised Information Retrieval System (AECIRS), had grown out of the earlier edge-notched card system. The card system had quickly proved unreliable due to frequent notch-failures with the result that ‘selecting a section of useful information became an exercise in futility and mounting frustration’. 8
The claim to have developed AECIRS as an online system as early as 1981 is neither minor nor insignificant. It is, however, difficult to ascertain whether the AECIRS system was good, bad or accessible: it is rather best evaluated as the invisible. It was only during the course of the research for this paper that I first came across mention of AECIRS. The system itself does not survive and it is doubtful that practice followed the aspiration; AECIRS only survives through documentation, in this case a single Master’s dissertation in UCE’s library9 From this dissertation a description of the system and an understanding of the objectives of its designers can be gleaned. The vision was that in all schools in Birmingham ‘the art room would have access to a micro-computer with a teletype terminal linked by telephone (acoustic coupler) to a large mainframe computer in the Polytechnic’.10 The mainframe computer would hold a database of the archives and resources in the School of Art Education. Teachers would also be able to add records for the resources in their own schools as well as recording the results of their searches as topic lists and resources in their own right. In effect, it appears to have been designed as an interactive and user-determined indexing system.
The innovative nature of the project’s aspirations is highlighted in the results of the questionnaire sent to all local art teachers during the design of the system. It seems almost unbelievable now that the first question was ‘Have you ever seen a computer working?’ and that 21 per cent of the responses were negative 11. Another reminder of the innovative nature of the project in 1981 is that 74 per cent of the teachers who replied did not know the meaning of the term ‘floppy disk’. 12 Although the School of Art Education created and used AECIRS, there is no evidence that the anticipated online access for local schools was implemented. AECIRS is thus an example of a future past, an exciting aspiration to harness the unique features of computer technology directly to inform and assist the teaching of art and design.
Only six years after AECIRS was mooted, another attempt was made to create computerised indexes to BIAD’s archival material. This was an internally-funded project resulting from a structural reorganisation of the Faculty and physical moves to unify the collections. Interestingly, the specification report13 produced does not appear to have drawn on AECIRS at all, suggesting that the system had already fallen into disuse.
In 1987 a catalogue to one of the collections, the School of Art Archive, was created as a database. The software used was STRIX (from the Latin for strident owl and its association with knowledge and learning). Unlike the earlier AECIRS, which used a large Macintosh, the database created in 1987 ran under PC and MS-DOS. Again this system, although more limited in scope, seems to have fallen out of use relatively quickly. By 2000, when the current Archive Development Project was initiated, only part of the system survived – parts of the original IBM, a floppy disk labelled ‘back up’ and reams of printouts. Whilst the existence of the printouts demonstrated quite clearly that the system had been used, the printouts themselves were difficult to decipher. No recognisable cataloguing standards had been used, and the field names (and in some fields the data itself) were recorded as a series of abbreviations and codes. The key to these codes has not survived, unfortunately, and as a prime example of the importance of digital preservation, both the IBM’s hard drive and the back up files on the floppy were too corrupted to retrieve any meaningful data.
Into the twenty-first century
Despite BIAD’s early recognition of the potential of computer technologies, when the BIAD Archive Development Project was initiated in 2000, we were in the frustrating position of having to start again. Both within BIAD and the parent institution, UCE, there is a great wealth of experience in developing ICT products. BIAD includes a multidisciplinary research team – Digital Design User-Lab – which has expertise in usability, psychology, human-computer interaction, digital media design and software engineering. However, whilst UCE and BIAD are at the cutting edge of digital design, BIAD Archives were not even meeting the most basic of collection management standards.
The Archive Development Project was created to raise awareness and recognition of the potential of the collections both within the university and for the wider community. Yet with no extant catalogues (paper or digital) this had to be achieved without creating premature and unrealistic expectations in users of BIAD Archives. BIAD’s past experience led to concerns over the scale and sustainability of investment in catalogue databases. We were also aware of wider concerns in the sector of the benefits of simply putting a collections database online. For example, Zorich has argued that although a collections database is an invaluable staff tool it does ‘not convey information in a format that satisfies general audiences’.14 Cameron has pointed out in respect of online museums that a search interface to a collections database is of little use to a non-specialist user, someone who lacks prior knowledge of the information and is unaware of the terminology used or how the data is modelled.15 Thus, despite the in-house expertise and in recognition of the limited intellectual control of the collections, the decision was taken not to prioritise putting the collections online. It must be stressed however, that this was a strategic decision and that the Archive Development Project is seen as an incremental process.
As I have shown, BIAD’s collections contain a richness and diversity of materials including bibliographic and photographic materials, paper records, artworks and artefacts. Yet research into appropriate cataloguing standards quickly revealed that the collections’ diversity presented a challenge as there was no cross-domain standardisation of collection documentation, nor at that time any commercial software system that covered all three domains – museums, archives and libraries. Furthermore, the three domains take different approaches and use differing terminology. The national governing body, Resource (now MLA Council), noted that there were ‘no common terms and concepts associated with collections management’ and expressed ‘the aim of establishing a common set of terms, or at least an understanding of the different ways in which terms are used’.16
The challenge has been to achieve a balance, negotiating a path between the differing approaches to cataloguing collections whilst recognising that those differences reflect distinctive attributes of each type of material. We wished to create an integrated catalogue for each collection rather than creating separate but related catalogues of each collection’s archival and artefact materials. Whilst there is no single cataloguing standard appropriate to the diversity of materials, we decided to utilise recognised standards wherever and to whatever extent possible for cataloguing structures and authority files. This would go some way toward ensuring the consistency of data within the catalogue databases and in relation to other collections nation-wide. The use of recognisable standards should also aid future preservation of the data.
It was decided to adopt an incremental approach. Rather than trying to develop a full collection management system (CMS) at the outset, BIAD decided to concentrate on a more limited descriptive catalogue database. The concentration on the descriptive element of cataloguing, rather than full procedural documentation, allowed space for an iterative design process whereby the experience gained during the cataloguing process has informed the development and revision of the catalogue database structure. It was also a pragmatic limitation, presenting less risk than building a whole CMS around an untested catalogue structure. A full examination of BIAD’s innovative approach to cataloguing is beyond the remit of this paper. In summary, the approach has been to use an overall catalogue structure based on the archival standard ISAD(g).17 Additional fields are available at the Item level of the catalogue structure relevant to the nature of the object and consistent with SPECTRUM and AACR2.18 This creates a multi-level catalogue with integrated collection level descriptions and preserves the contextual information vital to the authenticity and significance of the materials.
A Microsoft Access database is being used to test the structure and as a tool for staff whilst cataloguing. In an attempt to future-proof the catalogues, and having learnt the lessons from AECIRS and the STRIX project, it has been accompanied by full technical and procedural documentation. The use of this standard database package enables interoperability with central UCE systems and support from the Faculty’s IT staff. It will also ease data migration for both future developments and digital preservation.
This is not to say that BIAD Archives has ignored either the Internet, or the skills and experience available within BIAD. Like almost every other archive and museum, we have published a website, which was designed and created by Digital Design UserLab. This website has not been a static development, and it benefits from continuing support and development by UserLab. It has recently been redesigned to be a purely CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) driven site as one of the first steps towards improving accessibility. The site, along with others produced by UserLab, is moving towards Priority 2 (Level AA) of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).19 Their aim is to achieve Priority 3 (Level AAA) within six months.
Whilst UserLab manages the structure and design of the site, BIAD Archives staff can easily and quickly update the content using the Macromedia Contribute program. The content of the website has been purposely limited. We are unashamed to say that, in its current guise, it is purely a marketing tool and not a learning resource. The content includes the nuts and bolts of how to use BIAD Archives along with descriptions of some of our collections. This limitation is strategic, not only in terms of managing user expectations, but also in terms of managing internal resources and achieving a balance between technological development and basic, yet essential manual collection management activities. In terms of achieving its limited objectives, the website has been a success.
Alongside using technology as a tool in the production of detailed in-house catalogues, BIAD recognised the value of collection-level descriptions (CLDs). Initially brief descriptions were created as part of an audit of the Faculty’s holdings in 2000. It was soon recognised that such collection-level descriptions could also play a role in the wider dissemination strategy, particularly given the decision not to immediately pursue online access and digitisation. On the summary level of a collection-level description, it is easier to achieve consistency and compatibility with the various domain-specific standards used within web portals. Indeed, the existing descriptions have been manipulated to produce multiple versions for submission to multiple portals with relative ease. We have submitted descriptions to the HE Archives Hub and to the NRA (National Register of Archives) and ARCHON (the online database of repositories), both at the National Archives, as well as publishing them on our website. With relatively small resource implications, we have been able to significantly raise the profile of BIAD Archives and hopefully with an increase in awareness, achieve an increase in accessibility.
A strategic approach has also been taken to utilising collaborative regional and national digital initiatives to increase access to BIAD Archives. Whilst we have the ambition, the ideas and an awareness of the potential of technology, we are also aware of the history of aborted or neglected projects. BIAD Archives is a relatively small-scale operation with only 1.8 staff and we do not have the resources to undertake large ambitious ICT projects. As well as the pragmatic rationale for collaboration as a strategy, association with larger consortia of regional and national institutions raises our profile. Collaboration also helps to legitimise our collections, providing external recognition of their significance.
One example of the benefits of collaboration is our experience of AHDS Visual Arts’ Fine Art Project. Launched as fineart.ac.uk, the project created a website resource ‘that celebrates the history and achievement of the artist practitioner in UK art education’.20 The pilot resource delivers online around 200 digital images and associated catalogue records and metadata made up from work selected from HEIs, along with the full digitisation of the Council of National Art Awards Trust Art Collection. In creating the pilot resource, AHDS Visual Arts’ aim was to establish a model, and ‘to define best practices (by scale, circumstance and technical complexities of existing physical collections) for the digitisation and delivery’21 of a distributed or virtual national collection. BIAD were one of the 10 participating institutions. We were funded to digitise a small sample, just 15 works from the BIAD School of Art Archive, and provided with templates for catalogue records and image metadata, and guidance on copyright clearance.
As well as the obvious benefit in raising the profile of BIAD and its collections through participation in a national project with prestigious partners, this collaboration has directly benefited our strategic planning process. It was a very useful experience for BIAD Archives, allowing us to test workflows and procedures for digitisation and the resource implications. The guidance on copyright procedures and direct experience of the research and complications involved was particularly beneficial. We were asked to provide specific images and data, reflecting the Arts and Crafts period of the School. It is thus not perhaps a true reflection of the diversity of the collection, nor of the activities of Birmingham School of Art. The pilot resource created is attractive, if a little basic in being primarily a collection database. Some interpretative elements have been developed by AHDS Visual Arts – taking the form of essays rather than interactive applications of technology. The experience has undoubtedly benefited BIAD Archives and AHDS Visual Arts have achieved their objectives in establishing a model and defining best practice. However, to date the project remains a pilot and without further funding cannot be expanded to complete the resource.
BIAD’s use of technology in relation to its archives and collections has a chequered history and this paper has considered the successes and the disappointments of 30 years of initiative and collaboration. A number of conclusions can be drawn from the lessons learnt in trying to harness the potential of computers to manage and interpret diverse collections in Higher Education.
There have undoubtedly been successes. BIAD quickly recognised the potential of computer technology with plans for full-scale digitisation of an archive as early as 1975. In 1981 BIAD attempted with AECIRS to create an online interactive collections database with integrated teaching resources for schools. These early initiatives also demonstrate some of the problems BIAD has experienced in exploiting technology for its collections. The historical difficulties of inadequate resources for technically feasible projects, sustainability and digital preservation retain a currency and relevance for twenty-first century initiatives.
BIAD has also demonstrated persistence, repeatedly attempting to unite technology and archives in art and design. The BIAD Archives Development Project has learnt from these previous projects and taken a strategic, collaborative and incremental approach. Admittedly, the Microsoft Access database and website are more limited in scope than the earlier big ideas; however, they are sustainable and successful in achieving the objectives set for them. It is not that we have lost sight of the potential of computer technology as a tool in the management, interpretation and accessibility of BIAD Archives. Perhaps, it is rather the recognition that however exciting the potential, technology is one just tool amongst many. The incremental approach to integrating technologies in collection management, establishing intellectual control and raising the profile of BIAD Archives has provided the foundations. The challenge for the future is to build upon these foundations.
1. UCE (1999), The Educational Character and Mission of the University, http://www.fia.uce.ac.uk/fiagov.htm (2 November 2005).
2. Interviewed in Mulhearn, D. (2003), ‘University Challenge’, Museums Journal, 104: 5, October, p. 32.
3. Arnold-Foster, K. and Weeks, J. (2000), Totems and Trifles: Museums and Collections of Higher Education Institutions in the Midlands, Bromsgrove: West Midlands Regional Museums Council, pp. 19 and 28.
4. Parker, E. and Smith C. (1997), Study of the Archival Records of British Universities: a report for the Joint Information Systems Committee, London: JISC; Kelly, M. (1999), The Management of Higher Education Museums, Galleries and Collections in the UK, Bath: University of Bath; The Society of Archivists Missing Link project, http://www.archives.org.uk/resources/missinglinkfinal.pdf (2 November 2005).
5. In 1896, Henry P. Stamford developed the first edge-notched card; see Williams, R.V., “The Use of Punched Cards in US Libraries and Documentation Centers 1936-1972 – (web extra) Punched Cards a Brief Tutorial”, IEE Annals of the History of Computing, http://www.computer.org/annals/punchedcards.htm (2 November 2005).
6. Campbell, A. D. (1977), S.S.R.C. Marion Richardson Project Final Report, unpublished report, City of Birmingham Polytechnic, p. 16.
7. Campbell, A. D. (1977), S.S.R.C. Marion Richardson Project Final Report, unpublished report, City of Birmingham Polytechnic, p. 17.
8. Steveni, D. (1983), A Computerised Information Retrieval System in Art Education, unpublished MA Dissertation, City of Birmingham Polytechnic, p. 28.
9. Steveni, D. (1983), A Computerised Information Retrieval System in Art Education, unpublished MA Dissertation, City of Birmingham Polytechnic, p. 28.
10. Steveni, D. (1983), A Computerised Information Retrieval System in Art Education, unpublished MA Dissertation, City of Birmingham Polytechnic, p. 67.
11. Steveni, D. (1983), A Computerised Information Retrieval System in Art Education, unpublished MA Dissertation, City of Birmingham Polytechnic, p. 105.
12. Steveni, D. (1983), A Computerised Information Retrieval System in Art Education, unpublished MA Dissertation, City of Birmingham Polytechnic, p. 105.
13. Swift, J. and Slater-Dickens, J. (1987), The Design of Archival Indexing and Retrieval Systems and their Applicability to the Birmingham School of Art Archive, unpublished report, City of Birmingham Polytechnic.
14. Zorich, D. M. (1997), ‘Beyond Bitslag: Integrating Museum Resources and the Internet’, The Wired Museum, Jones-Gormil, K. (ed.), Washington DC: American Association of Museums, p. 187.
15. Cameron, F. (2001), ‘World of Museums, Wired Collections – the Next Generation’, Museum Management and Curatorship, 19:3, , p. 309.
16. Resource (2002), Preserving the Past for the Future, http://www.mla.gov.uk/action/stewardship/preserv01.asp (28/10/2004).
17. International Council on Archives (2000), General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(g)), http://www.icacds.org.uk/eng/standards.htm (2 November 2005).
18. Cowton, J. and Grant, A. (eds.) (1997), SPECTURM: The UK Museums Documentation Standard, Cambridge: the Museum Documentation Association; Anglo American Cataloguing Rules (1998), see Gorman, M., The Concise AACR2 1998 edition; second revised edition (AACR2) 1999, London Library Association.
19. The WCAG have been developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and published at http://www.w3.org/TR/1999/WAI-WEBCONTENT-19990505 (2 November 2005).
20. http://www.fineart.ac.uk (2 November 2005).
21. AHDS Visual Arts, The National Fine Art Education Digital Collection Feasibility Study, http://vads.ahds.uk/fineart/feasibility.html (2 November 2005).
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