Ryder’s Report on ICA 2014 and Archival Explorations in Spain

IAART Member-At-Large Ryder Kouba reports on the ICA conference in Girona….

Hi, I’m Ryder Kouba and I’m currently serve as a Steering Committee member in IAART and work at the American University in Cairo as their Digital Collections Archivist. I attended ICA’s second annual conference thanks to their generous New Professionals Programme bursary which I was awarded (along with new professionals from Zimbabwe and Argentina). As part of the bursary, I provided recaps of sessions (along with the two other awardees), which can be found on the ICA facebook page and thought Global Notes community may be interested in a recap as well.

ICA was founded in 1948, “dedicated to the effective management of records and the preservation, care and use of the world’s archival heritage through its representation of records and archive professionals across the globe.” Recently, it started pushing for increased membership and community involvement; some of you may have met ICA Secretary General David Leitch at SAA conferences in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans. I would like to thank the ICA staff that helped organize the conference and my projects for them, it was a pleasure working with them and I greatly appreciate what they did for me.

As you may imagine, the attendee demographics of ICA are significantly different than SAA’s; 858 people registered (I believe over 900 attended) from 90 countries, most of whom (unscientific survey) worked for national archives. A fascinating aspect of the conference was the translation, which was provided to attendees in English, French, Catalan, and Spanish. While it was surreal being five seconds behind, the translators did a great job and as far as I could tell little information was lost in translation. The presentations were all well done, and most excitingly I was exposed to projects that I may never have discovered otherwise. Happily, ICA has made abstracts and papers available (link) to the public, so the information can be disseminated and used by archivists the world over.

Unfortunately, due to physics I couldn’t be everywhere, and I know I missed some great presentations. However, the ones I did attend were excellent and I would like to briefly report on a few.

The project that seemed to excite people the most was a crowdsourcing effort from the National Archives of Estonia. Professionally, this was particularly interesting for me because of limited staffing at AUC as well as limited ability on my part (e.g. I can’t read Arabic). Mr. Koit Saarevet did an excellent job presenting the work the Estonians have accomplished with crowdsourcing metadata by enthusiastic users. The information was then approved (not) by archivists, and users were given points. The point system allows archivists to spend their time reviewing low-scoring members entries’. Their presentation was excellent, and it will be interesting to see how their project evolves.

Another great presentation was by Dr. Sarah Higgins at Aberystwyth University (I don’t think the translators were able to handle the occasional Welsh) and Mr. Christopher Hilton of the Wellcome Library in London. As a digital archivist, their work and ideas on arranging and describing digital materials was, of course, very relevant to my interests. Since the two presented together, I will conflate their ideas, but for interested readers their papers are available here and here. They made the astute point that archivists are still using hierarchies and description based on paper finding aids; the clearest example of this to me was the Francis Crick correspondence at the Wellcome Library. Crick’s correspondence is, like correspondence the world over, arranged by correspondent. While there is a logic to this, it can make research difficult if a user is looking for all letters on a certain topic. Additionally, James Watson’s papers are at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, which anyone interested in the history of DNA would also need to consult. The correspondence was digitized, which could allow users to arrange the material in whatever fashion suits their needs best.

My thoughts were that arrangement could be crowdsourced, with researchers finding, say, all the correspondence related to a certain topic, and providing that publicly through the user interface for other researchers interested in similar topics could use. Even more exciting (and possibly way in the future) would be the ability for archivists or users to link together Crick and Watson’s correspondence. It also seems to me that OCR of printed materials could go a long way in linking together various related documents. As a final note, I was lucky enough to have coffee with Dr. Harris and Mr. Hilton and they were delightful people, who I hope to have the opportunity to work with in the future (this applies to all the attendees I had the opportunity to talk to).

Three repositories in Denmark (the Royal Library, the State Library, and the State and University Library) created bitrepository, an open source project to preserve digital material. What interests me most is the proliferation of digital preservation programs, but the lack of an overarching database of repositories, particularly for software. Zach Vowell, Jessica Meyerson, and Carlos Ovalle presented a very interesting potential project at SAA on the communal preservation of software; it would be beneficial, I think, if various repositories were able to coordinate efforts when it came to preserving and accessing software for emulation and access of old file formats.

I had the opportunity to work with Nancy McGovern of MIT and James Lowery of the International Records Management Trust; I had a minor role in helping prepare their workshop “Preserving Digital Records,” which I’m happy to report was well-attended and very well-presented. I think all the attendees gained valuable knowledge from it, and it was a pleasure to work with Nancy and James.

Lastly, I presented on what I gained from attending at the closing ceremony along with the two other winners. It was probably the only time in my life my words will be translated into Catalan (and likely French and Spanish as well), though I’m not sure how they handled my biographical note about attending the University of Texas and my “Hook ‘Em Horns.” I discussed my hope that SAA and ICA develop stronger relations in the future, and that more Americans have a chance to attend and present in the future. The IAART listserv posted the call for papers for ICA University section conference which will be held in Chapel Hill, and hopefully many of you will be able to attend and present there as well as learn from and socialize with archivists from around the world. As with SAA, I learn as much from informal discussions with archivists, and ICA provided a unique opportunity to discuss similar issues and solutions archives are facing with professionals from Spain, Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Singapore, Australia, Estonia, Germany, Kenya, the Netherlands, Iran, Argentina, and Zimbabwe, among other countries.

There were many other excellent presentations, and I would encourage readers to look through the papers since I’m sure there will be something for everyone. Ideally, especially interesting papers can be mentioned and discussed in the comments (or perhaps another blog post, twitter, etc.) However, I’d like to put on my travel agent hat and discuss my archival odyssey through Spain.

Luckily for me, the conference immediately followed the Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha, so I was able to spend a week traveling through Spain before ICA. Perhaps the worst part of my trip was arriving in Barcelona at 11 pm and waiting until 7 am the following morning to board a flight to Seville. The seats at the airport were definitely designed to discourage sleeping (particularly for anyone 6’3”), and I lacked the pallet making skills other travelers showed in using any bit of clothing to create beds.

Archivo General de Indias

Archivo General de Indias

My main reason for spending the night in BCN and flying the length of Spain was to see the Archivo General de Indias, which contains records of the Spanish colonial empire, as well as being the site of one of the great cases of archival fraud in history (I found Cookridge’s book “The Baron of Arizona” to be a great read). The archives are in a beautiful historic building (though apparently cats and archives don’t mix) next to the Seville Cathedral (the third largest in the world). I didn’t visit the reading room, but I did visit the beautiful hall (where it seems they previously stored records, at least based on the empty archival boxes), and two well-done exhibits (on maps and flora and fauna in the New World). The archives also seemed to draw a good amount of interest from fellow tourists which was heartening to see. There is also an interesting series of books available in the Internet Archive published by the Carnegie Institute in the early 20th century describing records for US history located in archives around the world, one of which describes records in Spain, and the Archivo General de Indias in particular.

The Alcazar in Seville also had an archives, and while I saw the microfilm reader through a window (I was the only visitor intently looking through a random window), I was unable to find the entrance. Lastly, a small Seville church had an archives; unfortunately, the hours did not work with my schedule. A stopover on my way to Madrid was Córdoba and its Mosque-Cathedral, which due to its blend of Moorish and Renaissance architecture, is one of the most interesting buildings I’ve ever visited.

Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba

Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba

In Madrid I visited the National Historic Archives, however I had not contacted them in advance and unsurprisingly my pleas of “Estoy archivisto desde Estado Unidos” didn’t get me past the reception area– a lesson that I need to be much better about reaching out to archivists in advance. Of course I visited the many world-class museums in Madrid, and would rank the city as my second favorite, after Mexico City.

Girona, Spain (where the conference was held and which I unfortunately confused with both Genoa and Verona while researching the trip– a huge mistake) has some of the best preserved medieval quarters in Europe and it was a pleasure to stroll through. Additionally, the Arxiu Municipal de Girona put together a great exhibit on the archival history and institutions in Girona, and the local committee did a wonderful job hosting the conference. If anyone is interested in exploring Catalonia, Girona would make an excellent base; moreover, it could also be a day trip from Barcelona and is thirty minutes from the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. While Girona, and Spain, were wonderful, as I sit here writing while smoking shisha enjoying traditional Egyptian music, I wouldn’t trade it for the excitement that is Cairo.

Overall, it was a fantastic experience and I’m grateful to ICA for providing the funding necessary for me to attend; as you may imagine, opportunities for professional development are limited in Egypt.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions, comments, or just want to talk shop. I hope to attend the 2015 conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, and hopefully I’ll see many of you there as well as SAA in Cleveland.