Why archives can teach people useful digital skills

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I had a great chat with an archivist who works with English Heritage at the BETT show. I was asking her about the skills archivists need in making collections available to view online. We came to the conclusion that it does require a different skill-set from the traditional archive skills. For example, where an archivist might write a catalogue label for an archive they would probably use quite bald, technical language. This worked fine when it was always the archivist retrieving the information. Now, with the move to digitise archive collections and make them available to the public for free, a lot more thought needs to go into the catalogue label. How do the general public search for an image in an archive? Not necessarily like an archivist would!

Another point made was that the team that had put a photographic collection on the English Heritage website had to fight to change the historical classification of the images from very technical historical period names ‘early medieval’, ‘late medieval’, to simpler ‘Medieval’, ‘Tudor’, ‘Victorian’ ie. the historical periods people are familiar with. You can see in this extract from the excellent Heritage Explorer site how the archivists have presented their images to make it easy for teachers to use them:

Click on the image to visit the website

Note that the text shown in this image is very different from what an archivist would normally write in a catalogue.

Learning Point 1: archivists are having to think more carefully about their audience now that material is being shared more widely online. This means that they need to add to their traditional archivist skills the skills of communicating effectively online with different audiences.

We also discussed how helpful it is in teaching to have original primary sources which are easily accessible online to teachers and individuals. Indeed we realised that the skill of interpreting a primary source is such a useful skill and has a very obvious application to information retrieval and interpretation online.

Learning Point 2: teaching people through archives has the further benefit of teaching source retrieval and interpretation skills which are needed more than ever in the age of Google and Wikipedia.

What I’m not sure is if the archives sector have realised this link yet?

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