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2013: The ArchiveGrid Year in Review

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives

Starting 2013 with nearly 1.8 million descriptions in ArchiveGrid inspired us to declare that our first database update of the year “rocked,” a playful nod to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being one of the new contributors included.

What the small but mighty ArchiveGrid ensemble would find out as the year progressed is that were going to get on a roll.

In February, Marc Bron – a scholar from the University of Amsterdam – joined OCLC Research’s San Mateo, Calif., office for a three month internship. Marc’s speciality is in information retrieval and visualization, and he led several interesting projects which headlined some of our year’s main events. Marc carried out a thorough analysis of tag usage in the approximately 130,000 EAD XML finding aids in ArchiveGrid. You can read some interesting findings from the perspective of “discovery,” published in the October Code4Lib Journal article by Marc and Merrilee.

Marc also did innovative work to try and train a program to examine EAD documents to detect the names of – and find relationships between – people, groups, places and events, and to then find connections between related documents and collections. Marc and others in OCLC Research tested various Named Entity Recognition processes, and the ArchiveGrid team and some brave volunteers tried methods to annotate sample document sets.


What followed was a crescendo to new and novel ways of thinking about archival collections, connections, collaboration and annotation.

During one of Marc’s first few weeks in our office, we ambled over to the Stanford University campus to see a presentation by Amy Jo Kim about collaborative games. Her presentation got us thinking about how we might employ similar techniques in ArchiveGrid, and engage with domain experts to help identify relationships between collections. We developed a game of our own to test this approach. Called “TopicWeb,” it used the ArchiveGrid index and a dash of gamification to help experts assemble and sort the relationships of collections for a topic. We were able to get some great real-time reactions from archivists at the Society of California Archivists conference in April, and also from a more formal focus group in June.

Marc Bron, Brian Tingle, and Bruce Washburn at SCA

In May, TopicWeb starred in a well-attended webinar we held to update the archival community on recent developments.

Staying tuned to organizing collection discovery around topics, we thought these connections might be staged in the ArchiveGrid user interface. Nine hand-crafted topic pages got their big break in July, when we implemented them on the ArchiveGrid homepage. And during the summer we also published the results of a survey we conducted in 2012, asking archive users about Social Media and Archives.

SAA ArchiveGrid booth

Our summer ArchiveGrid demonstration tour hit both ends of the Mississippi River: Merrilee in Minneapolis for the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section preconference in June, and Bruce, Merrilee, and Ellen in New Orleans for the SAA Annual meeting in August. We met a great many of our colleagues, some familiar and some new, at the ArchiveGrid exhibit booth, and took part in a range of meetings and panel discussions.

We wrapped up our summer by sharing a testbed of finding aids from ArchiveGrid with the Technical Subcommittee for Encoded Archival Description (the group reports to SAA’s Standards Committee) to help them test a program to automatically convert EAD 2002 format documents to the new EAD 3 format.

October brought the launch of the new ArchiveGrid user interface. Based on version 3 of the popular Bootstrap front-end framework, it’s a “Mobile First” redesign that aims to give us a strong foundation on which to extend ArchiveGrid’s features. We also tested some heatmaps to give us a better idea of what ArchiveGrid interface features are used the most, which helped us ascertain ways in which the update improved the user experience. Based on other analytics we’ve been tracking, the interface changes along with improved sitemaps for crawling by search engines have increased ArchiveGrid’s visibility and utility, with use continuing to track upwards since October.

ArchiveGrid visits through November 2013

And we ended the year with some promising work on “localizing” the view of ArchiveGrid, getting lots of good advice on that from colleagues at a couple of ArchiveGrid contributing institutions. It’s still an experiment and a work in progress, but we may have more to say about it soon.

But until then, there’s shopping to do for the holidays. Not ending the year without an encore, the team put out the call to our archivists colleagues (who have been very good this year) for advice on gift ideas, and Ellen assembled a fun and practical guide on the ArchiveGrid blog (to date our most popular blog post, by a mile).

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OCLC Research bids “dag” to our intern, Marc Bron

Today is Queen’s Day in the Netherlands and its new king, Willem-Alexander, was welcomed. While today signified a new beginning for the country where our intern, Marc Bron, comes from, it also signified the end of Marc’s three-month internship at OCLC Research in San Mateo, Calif. Marc started today early by watching live coverage of his country’s coronation ceremonies and ended it by gathering with co-workers and friends in San Francisco. Marc returns to the Netherlands tomorrow to continue his doctoral studies at University of Amsterdam and complete a series of papers about his work at OCLC Research.

Among those who attended the farewell dinner for Marc was Bruce Washburn, who worked closest with Marc on projects involving ArchiveGrid data and TopicWeb. TopicWeb, putting it bluntly, is a way to “play” with archival data in the context of a game and we expect it will change the way archivists think about and interact with collections. It’s something that hasn’t been done before and to accomplish such a task is a milestone in Marc’s early career in library and information science. It definitely won’t be his last.

Right now, however, is a time to talk about last’s. After a somber ArchiveGrid team meeting – the last one we would have with Marc – Bruce wrote about Marc’s time with us:

“Marc has been an outstanding addition to the small but mighty ArchiveGrid team … we miss him already. While here, Marc was instrumental in carrying out the first comprehensive tag analysis of the 130,000 or so EAD files that we’ve gathered together in ArchiveGrid, and is working with Merrilee to complete and publish a report of the results. He worked with our colleagues Jean Godby and Devon Smith in OCLC Research to test Named Entity Recognition tools with the EAD sources, with the results of that effort providing a way to better support faceted searching in ArchiveGrid.

“Marc led the team on a journey to find innovative ways to find related archival collection descriptions: the NER work was part of that effort, but it evolved into the development of an experimental collaborative game for searching ArchiveGrid and drawing connections between collections related to a topic. In a few short but very busy weeks we were able to assemble a system that we could demonstrate at the Society of California Archivists meeting in April, and we’re continuing to develop this idea into a system that we can share more widely. In all, an important and transformative period in ArchiveGrid’s history, primarily due to Marc’s intelligence, persistence, and deep and wide-ranging knowledge of information retrieval.”

One way to say “bye” in Dutch is “dag,” and we look forward to following Marc’s promising future.

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ArchiveGrid springs forward at Society of California Archivists conference

(People pictured above: Merrilee Proffitt, Bruce Washburn)

Don’t let these frustratingly tiny mobile image uploads fool you. They tell the story of a big week we just wrapped up at OCLC Reseach. While eggs laid by Canadian geese outside OCLC Research’s San Mateo, Calif., offices hatched, we geared up for the annual Society of California Archivists (SCA) conference held April 11-13 across the San Francisco Bay in Berkeley.

Big ideas and strategies about TopicWeb, a newly-hatched development of our own in connection with ArchiveGrid meant to improve how we understand key collections, filled an office whiteboard. But that scenario has already happened more than once before, so what’s more significant is what resulted from hours of intelligent and hard-working people perfecting TopicWeb for demonstration at SCA. This post cannot go further without crediting the natural teamwork between Bruce Washburn and Marc Bron to put together TopicWeb and promote it at SCA to interested archivists who visited the ArchiveGrid booth.

(Pictured here: Marc Bron, left, and Bruce Washburn, right, chat at SCA with Brian Tingle from the Online Archive of California.)

What is Topic Web? Here is the short answer: TopicWeb is a game we developed and refer to endearingly as “Yelp for Archives,” yet it’s more. It’s designed to bring a team of experts on a particular topic together to evaluate EAD and MARC collection descriptions in the ArchiveGrid index for their relevancy, or importance, to a topic that one person, the TopicWeb creator, chose. Building the TopicWeb happens when players on the team search for and locate collections relevant to the topic and add them to the web and leave comments explaining why. Then the team members review suggested collections and vote on whether they are relevant or not to the topic, and again leave comments explaining why. Each team has one week to complete their TopicWeb before it can get published – although we have not finalized that stage. Points accrue, players advance levels, and other incentives happen. It’s filled with potential for capturing the exchange of knowledge between archivists and collections in ways we will gain valuable research data from and that are fun.

Since TopicWeb is still in development mode, we welcome any feedback, and interest in helping us improve the game further.

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