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Session 2: Being Content With Form - Making Standards Work

Recent Standards Initiatives in the United Kingdom

Peter Harper

National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists

We are promised an electronic future with an enhanced role for archivists as they embrace and master new information technologies but for its realisation a great deal of work still needs to be done in standards implementation - some of it very basic - especially if we are to think in terms of an archives community moving forward together.

A great deal is happening in the United Kingdom at the present time in respect of standards related to archives and I am very grateful to the organisers of the conference who invited me and the British Council who sponsored my participation for this opportunity to bring to you some indication of these developments. I am not myself an expert if by that we mean someone who has made an active contribution to standards development nationally or internationally. However, I do have an interest in professional standards generally and a real interest in the implementation of standards which show a demonstrable gain in the effectiveness with which my own organisation can carry out its particular mission always within strict resource constraints.

I intend in this paper to convey something of the range of activity in the United Kingdom in this area now and indicate how this impacts on my own organisation the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists (NCUACS) and how we are responding. I am going first to consider very briefly the national scene in the United Kingdom, then the university sector where my own organisation is located before focusing more precisely on how my own organisation fits into the current UK standards environment.

National Scene

In considering the national scene we may profitably look at the initiatives of two organisations: the UK National Council on Archives (NCA) and our own professional body for archivists the UK and Ireland Society of Archivists.

The National Council on Archives sponsored the development of the NCA "Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names" published last year and distributed to all members of the Society of Archivists. The development work was hosted by the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts and enjoyed strong support from the Public Record Office, Scottish Record Office and British Library. The Rules were seen very much by their developers as a precursor to national name authority files (NNAF), a report was commissioned by the NCA (now published as British Library Research and Innovation Report 91 1998 and also available electronically at which makes recommendations for the establishment, implementation and management of authority files as UK resources for archivists and researchers, and the NCA IT Committee will meet this summer to investigate the best means to create, maintain and disseminate an NNAF. The NCA is also very much involved in investigating automation and networking and the Public Record Office in London in cooperation with the NCA will host a conference to consider the options in this area in September 1998: international and national data exchange, the establishment of a national archive network and regional networks, as well as the prospects of funding for this type of intiative from the Heritage Lottery Fund in the United Kingdom.

When we turn to the Society of Archivists it is relevant here to note its general concerns with professionalisation and the provision of the skills and training which archive and records professionals require today, and there is no doubt that the topic of the moment is standards. The Society’s Professional Methodology Panel has put forward a proposal for a standards officer with a remit which includes monitoring standards developments in North America and Australia. Intensive courses on descriptive standards for archivists are a feature of its current training programme and are billed as an opportunity to consider the contents and applications of International Council on Archives (ICA) descriptive standards ISAAR(CPF) and ISAD(G) and the NCA Rules and to discuss how they fit into the national framework of Archives On-line.

The Society’s Annual General Meeting held on 23 April 1998 had a major training element on national networking standards, and resolutions were put to the meeting:

1. This meeting believes the development and acceptance of national and international archival descriptive standards is fundamental to the future of the profession;

2. The meeting supports moves towards a national policy and infrastructure to enable exchange of data;

3. The meeting endorses ISAD(G), ISAAR(CPF) and the NCA Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names as the best standards currently available to ensure the basic uniformity of practice essential to the development of archival data e xchange in the next century.

University Sector

The university sector has been transformed in recent years by a major new funding initiative by the Higher Education Funding Councils in respect of specialised research collections in the humanities. Bids for funding were invited in late 1994 and the first awards were made in mid 1995 for a maximum period of four years. Awards focused on areas of conservation, cataloguing of collections (in a format suitable for networking or to be made available online) and preservation. Awards were also made for funding intended to enhance access to collections through publicity or development of the collections or support for user related activities. In order to give some idea of the scale of the funding initiative it may be useful to point out that my own organisation made one of the smaller successful bids and yet I was still able to make three additional staff appointments for four years. The best testimony to the success of the programme is that it is expected to be repeated with invitations to bid in a new funding round anticipated towards the end of this year with the new programme scheduled to commence in August 1999.

Since very large sums of money were involved a rigorous monitoring programme was established with professional input including an archives committee chaired by Patricia Methven, Archivist of King’s College London and the current chair of the ICA universities and research institutions section. As part of this monitoring programme there has been funding for additional activities to support the objectives of the specialised research collections in the humanities initiative and many of these additional activities have involved support for standards including ICA descriptive standards particularly ISAD(G) and the NCA Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names. The following initiatives may be particularly mentioned:

1. Encoded Archival Description (EAD). In early 1996 Daniel Pitti was brought over to the United Kingdom from the University of California at Berkeley to introduce Encoded Archival Description to British university archivists at meetings in Glasgow and London where it still appears on the programme as the Berkeley Project. I should perhaps note that these meetings involved a two way process of communication. The descriptive tags devised for the first versions of the EAD Project and their hierarchical descriptions were devised without reference to the descriptive elements already agreed in ISAD(G). It was suggested by the British archivists present that in its future development the EAD Project should take note of the international standards. Subsequently EAD cataloguing projects were initiated in a number of British university libraries and archives including Durham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Oxford and Warwick with varying degrees of current visibility on the Web.

2. National Networking Demonstrator Project (NNDP). This was a nine month project to April 1998 which was commissioned to test the potential for networking archival information in the United Kingdom. It has been summarised in promotional literature thus: "The NNDP aims to implement cross-searching of multi-level archival data, originating from numerous sources, primarily but not exclusively in the higher education sector, as presented in a wide variety of formats (from EAD ... to catalogue entries in Word 6). The NNDP supports the use of the international standard ISAD(G) and has linked this to the special development of Z39.50, a widely adapted standard for information retrieval. In addition to this the project has developed a user friendly web-interface to permit effective and seamless cross-searching". At present (May 1998) technical and professional evaluations are taking place and depending on the outcomes decisions will be made on whether and how to take the project forward. However, it may be mentioned here that a number of professional matters of note have come up at NNDP presentations such as the need for more uniformity in terminology when describing levels of description and the need to implement standard name authority files which takes us back to the national scene considered above.

3. Subject indexing authority files. As part of the monitoring programme work was commissioned to analyse approaches to subject indexing in a variety of archive repositories and to make recommendations on the establishment of standard practice and an agreed subject thesaurus (Report April 1997). It was then decided to take this forward in conjunction with the NNDP, to create a networked thesaurus for use by the archival community.

National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists

The National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists (NCUACS) is a university-based scientific archives project with a national mission in the United Kingdom. It locates, catalogues and finds permanent places of deposit for the manuscript papers of distinguished contemporary British scientists and engineers. In the quarter century since its establishment in April 1973, 200 collections of scientists’ papers have been catalogued by the NCUACS (including 20 Nobel Laureates) for deposit in 45 established - usually university based - archive repositories throughout Britain. The NCUACS is not therefore an archive but a processing centre. The only archives in the NCUACS’s offices in the Library of the University of Bath at any given time are those currently being catalogued by the Unit’s archivists. What the NCUACS retains when papers are deposited is information, principally the catalogues of scientists’ papers and we increasingly describe ourselves as an information centre as well as a processing centre.

The standards interests of the NCUACS are principally in two areas: cataloguing practice and online access to information about our work over the Internet. Two preliminary observations may be helpful:

1. Because we are non-custodial we have a very considerable incentive to work in cooperation in this area with those archive repositories - principally in the university sector - who are going to look after permanently the papers we catalogue.

2. The additional resources which came from our success in the funding initiative for specialised collections in the humanities bought us thinking time for senior staff to consider standards implementation in relation to the NCUACS’s mission.


1. Current cataloguing practice

a) Implementation of NCA Rules.

b) Some modification to make clear the correspondence of our practice with ISAD(G).

2. Information online

a) Development of the Guide to the Manuscript Papers of British Scientists catalogued by NCUACS 1973-1998. This provides collection-level descriptions of 200 collections of papers of British scientists in ISAD(G) format and amounts to a very significant body of consistently organised information on the British contribution to twentieth century science which is now available to anyone with access to a Web browser -

b) Full text of catalogues on the Web. The NCUACS is conducting a pilot project to assess the costs and benefits of such a major undertaking based on the papers of a number of distinguished Cambridge biochemists. One consideration in this choice is that, with one exception, the papers of all the scientists in the project are deposited in Cambridge University Library with whom we have worked particularly closely over many years. Of major importance is the question of what format to use for displaying catalogues on the Web. EAD has been examined and our conclusion is that at the present time the cost of staff time involved in revising existing catalogues to EAD format outweighed the benefits. It also became clear that, contrary to expectations, very few users were gaining access to the software required to view text mounted in EAD. Since late last year, therefore, the Unit has concentrated on making catalogues available in the universal and more accessible HTML format while continuing to monitor EAD developments. The use of HTML for mounting the pilot catalogues on the web still necessitated a considerable reworking of their structure in order that they should be readable and navigable. Furthermore, the Unit took the opportunity to bring the pilot catalogues more closely into line with the standards laid down in ISAD(G) and the NCA Rules. The pilot project catalogues may be consulted at -

Our position on EAD is not set in stone and may change on the basis of continuing advice from university colleagues using EAD, the successful addressing of the accessibility question and indeed the possibility of additional funding for this type of initiative within the university sector.


I have tried to convey in respect of the national scene, the university sector and my own organisation a range of interest and activity and above all the ongoing nature of standards application.

To underline this further I can say that when I return from Australia the NCUACS will be holding an internal staff meeting to consider the latest developments, and the draft agenda I was handed as I was considering how to end this paper includes:

1. The structuring of the NCUACS’s free text catalogues for a proposed national online network. This may include returning to a simplified form of EAD to give our catalogues the structure required for efficient online searching.

2. The extension of the Unit’s own name authority file to encompass more than the personal names of scientists.

3. The possible participation of the NCUACS in the UK National Register of Archives ‘Archon’ (Archives Online). This is envisaged as a ‘super-NRA’ in which there will be hypertext links from the NRA’s indexes of names, subjects and so on.

4. An NCUACS input into the creation of a national subject index.

The ongoing professionalisation of the archives community and the pace of information technology advances feed standards developments. There is thus the challenge of keeping up with all these developments while at the same time performing some very traditional archival functions. While I am away in Australia a house removals van will be hired to bring the huge archive of the physicist R.V. Jones - scientific adviser to Churchill during the Second World War and author of Most Secret War - from Aberdeen in Scotland to Bath in the South West of England. I may inform you about the papers of R.V. Jones electronically but paper they will remain for the foreseeable future.

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Date modified: 7 October 1999