Archives, or manuscript collections, form over time. In the process, a structure develops, a shape which reflects the way the content has been created and organised.
Some components of the structure are established at the beginning – minutes of an organisation, documents used to gain project funding, administration files; others over time, e.g. data files, publications, resource materials, other related organisations’ documents.
Archives are generally comprised of unique items – burn a book and you will probably be able to replace it; burn an archive and the contents are lost – and they can be large.
Finding aids bring as much as possible of the content of an archive to the surface, through describing the arrangement and nature of the content. They provide an overview of the collection, administrative or biographical information about the collection and its creator/s and, often, phenomenal amounts of detail or description of the items within it.
As part of their strategy for developing an audience for their historical resources, the City of Sydney recently identified three categories of users of historical information: skimmers, delvers and divers.
Each group is characterised by how strongly history resonates in their lives and how much or why they want to find out about it: Skimmers are primarily engaged by history as infotainment; they fossick on the surface and are satisfied by “small bursts of intrigue”.
Delvers are motivated by a particular stimulus, which might be a life event, such as moving to a new area. They will have a targeted focus and will dig a little deeper for what relates to that focus.
Divers resemble traditional historians and will pursue everything related to their area of interest, going deep below the surface and along the bottom to uncover all relevant detail.
Given the AIATSIS mission and the purpose of its holdings, users are most likely to be delvers or divers, for example looking for family history or undertaking academic or community research, although there is plenty in those holdings to pique the interest of a skimmer.
Finding aids serve all these categories of use by bringing all the contents of a collection to the surface: for the skimmer through item listing; for the delver by displaying the aggregation and accretion of documents into subgroups; for the diver by conveying the shape, context and content of a collection.
For example, a skimmer searching idly for that Japanese lecturer whose introductory linguistics course they took in first year university in Tokyo, will find some biographical information at the beginning of the finding aid for MS 5021 Tasaku Tsunoda: Language materials from Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, 1971-2006.
The delver, looking to find out about phrases in the Djaru language will find this item, MS 5021/4/5 ‘Djaru [Jaru] phrases’.
They will also find alongside it the sources Tasaku Tsunoda used to gather that data and the paradigms he developed about Djaru phrases and other parts of speech, from that (voluminous) data.
Collections often contain items only tangentially related to its broad subject. A delver searching for Palm Island genealogies, who has no interest in linguistics, will nevertheless find a couple of useful snippets in the same finding aid, listed as items.
The diver, will, on perusing this finding aid, get a sense of how Tasaku Tsunoda organised his work (and by extension how to conduct fieldwork and write up the findings); they will be able to see clearly what is in the collection and where; they will also gain an insight into how Tsunoda’s mind works and his commitment to preserving and revitalising Aboriginal languages. Having an idea of what they’ll find on submersion, they can make an informed decision about where they want to plunge in.
Essentially discursive and fine-grained in nature, finding aids are time-consuming to produce.
Without them, discovering the content of the archives would rely on catalogue records, which broadly describe subject matter and some of the forementioned aspects. Each researcher would have to have the time to trawl through all of a collection to first get a sense of what it contains and then identify (and remember or note) the individual parts relevant to their study and the serendipitous finds in parts of the collection not directly focussed on their area of interest – to develop their own finding aid, effectively.
The challenge will be to translate these tools to a web environment and achieve the same results: the structure of an archive as clearly visible as the intriguing individual item, where each category of user finds what intrigues, or finds their way around the collection if they want, or are encouraged to do after discovering that intriguing item.
For AIATSIS users, retaining the latter– the capacity to find your way around a collection or back to where an item relevant to your research fits into the whole collection – is important.
As static documents, our current finding aids aren’t best suited for the navigational possibilities of a web environment.
A link to a finding aid still requires the user to search or scan the whole document to find a particular reference, rather than linking directly to that reference. This is a drawback whether the user is a member of the public or a member of the digitisation team looking for meta-data to embed in the digital file of an item in the collection. We are looking to create computer-readable documents which will still convey the provenance of and relationships within an archive, from which users, internal or external, will be able to extract the information they need.
If you're looking for a specific collection item or for more information on a subject, you can delve deeper into the AIATSIS Collections by using our many guides, finding aids and databases.
Dr Arthur Capell (1902 - 1986) was a linguist, anthropologist, ethnographer and Anglican clergyman.
Born and raised in Sydney, after gaining his Ph.d in London and returning to Australia, in 1938 Dr Capell investigated the little-studied languages of the Kimberley region of north-western Australia and then Arnhem Land languages and dialects. Throughout his career he engaged in field work in Melanesia and Australia.
Old Words to be Heard Again
"Original recordings from the prolific language collection of the late Arthur Capell have been gifted by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to the Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC)."
Dr Tasaku Tsunoda is a Japanese citizen, and after field work in Queensland, Dr Tsunoda was awarded a Ph.D in linguistics by Monash University in Melbourne in 1979.
1971 – 1974 conducted fieldwork on Palm Island and in the adjacent areas on the mainland in north Queensland, and the main focus was on the Warrongo language.
1975 – 1979 conducted fieldwork in and around Halls Creek, Kimberley, Western Australia, with the main focus on the Djaru (also spelt Jaru) language.