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The Archival, The Irreconcilable, and The Unwebbable: Three Horsemen and/or Stooges

This week in Charlottesville has been a whirlwind exploration of standards and implementation strategies thus far during my class, Designing Archival Description Systems, at Rare Book School. My classmates and I have been under the esteemed tutelage of Daniel Pitti, who has served as the technical architect for both EAD and EAC. Interestingly, there's been a whole lot of talk about linking data, linked data, and Linked Data, date normalization, and print versus online presentation, among other things. In addition, a few things have floated past on my radar screen this week that have seemed particularly pertinent to the class.

The first of these was a post by Stefano Mazzocchi of Metaweb, "On Data Reconciliation Strategies and Their Impact on the Web of Data". In Stefano's post, he wrote about the problem of a priori data reconciliation vs. a posteriori; in other words, whether you iron out the kinks, apply properties like owl:sameAs, etc., on the way in or on the way out. Via FriendFeed, I noticed Ed Summers' remark about "not [being] sure [he buys] the argument that linking-open-data community isn't doing a-priori reconciliation ... an argument could be made that this is why it is taking off." I'm inclined to agree with Ed - to a certain extent, it's a gracious gesture to do a priori reconcilation. The cool thing about Stefano's post, though, is that it came through to me via Ed posting the FriendFeed discussion to his Delicious as well as being shared as a printout provided to us via Daniel today in class.

Additionally, Joe Clark's post on A List Apart, "Unwebbable," was barking up a far different tree. In it, Clark makes the claim that certain kinds of documents are ill-suited to be come web pages. Specifically, he makes the following claim:

Some documents cannot be published using HTML. In many cases, we shouldn't even bother trying. In other cases, we have to radically change the appearance and structure of the document. Ideally, we'll start using custom XML document types—which, finally and at long last, might actually work.

In speaking of scripts and screenplays, he writes of their printed documental form:

Typography is lousy; old typewriter fonts of yesteryear were errantly mapped onto today's spindly Courier type. But as an example of document engineering, scripts are brilliant. There's an entire science involved in text indention. Text is rarely, if ever, "centered"; everything lines up at a tab stop, a concept that CSS expunges from the collective memory. ... With careful alignments like these, it's easy to scan down a screenplay page. And now people want to transfer the format "intact" to the web. It's not going to work. ... The quest to adapt scripts to the web recalls other "category errors," to use Martin Amis's phrase. Electronic commerce, we eventually figured out, does not take the form of "shopping malls" you "walk" through. "Magazines" and "catalogues" do not have discrete pages you flip (complete with sound effects) and dog-ear. "Web sites" do not look like magazine layouts, complete with multicolumn text and callouts.

All this drives the argument further that it's time to rethink our instances of archival record and context description in terms of how they are to be used online. "Finding aid" is a term that covers a number of documental forms which don't work well on the web. While EAD was purposefully designed to mark up these extant (or "legacy," depending on your view) descriptive apparatuses, it wasn't entirely designed to exploit the hypertextual form heralded by even the early form of the World Wide Web. Following Clark, Web-based presentations archival record and context description need not, and probably should not, look like the columnar container list bracketed by large spans of free text content. There are a couple of possibilities of what things could look like by using other people's examples:

But again, the question is what do we want this to look like to provide the best experience for the user. I still have yet to narrow down my suggestions with any certainty, but I stick with my opinion that the documentary form of description needs to change for the Web.

EDIT: Joe Clark also published the part of "Unwebbable" that was cut for the sake of brevity, namely referencing the following visual aids "categories of illustrations or graphics that would translate poorly to HTML semantics" (tx to Joe Clark for corrections in comments):

  • Org charts and flowcharts. Nested ordered lists are a proven failure here.
  • Circuit diagrams.
  • Many graph styles, including radial graphs.
  • Exploded and X-ray diagrams.
  • Blueprints.
  • Timelines.



  • 💬 Joe Clark at July 24, 2009, 22:16 UTC:

    They aren’t “visual aids.” They are categories of illustrations or graphics that would translate poorly to HTML semantics.

  • 💬 M.A. Matienzo at July 24, 2009, 22:19 UTC:

    Thanks for the correction, Joe!