One of the sessions I really enjoyed at this year’s edUI conference (for a broad recap of the conference, see my earlier post) was Designing for Information Objects, presented by Duane Degler (Design for Context) and Neal Johnson (National Gallery of Art). Although the presentation took place on the afternoon of the last day of the conference, by which time my brain was already past its saturation point, it was immediately apparent to me that there were some pretty important ideas in the presentation that deserved some detailed attention. In part, I wanted to write this post as a way to revisit that session now that I’ve had some time to recover from the conference overload.

Duane Degler laid the foundation for the rest of the presentation by discussing information objects (for example finding aids or library catalog records) as entities both related to and distinct from the physical objects that cultural heritage institutions hold in trust. Although we tend to understand them as a set of information that represents a particular physical object (or group of objects), Degler argued that information objects in the context of libraries, archives and museums contain five distinct categories of information: structured data, narrative description, provenance information, interpretive information, and images. Not only can these information objects provide an experience for users independent of the physical objects they represent, they can also amplify a user’s experience of physical objects as well.

Next, Neal Johnson talked about the essential functions of libraries, archives and museums, based on a survey he did of mission statements from a number of institutions. He discovered (unsurprisingly) that there were five core activities that almost all of these documents contained: collect, preserve, provide access, describe/interpret, and relate like things to one another. What goes assumed and largely unspoken, in all of these activities, is that they are being performed over the long haul; we generally think of collecting, preservation, access, description, interpretation and relation in a context that exceeds our lifetimes, and in many cases the lifetimes of anyone we know.

Because of this, we don’t know how the information objects we create today will be used in the future; technology is changing rapidly, but so are information seeking patterns, not to mention historical interpretation. We do know, however, that these information objects must be available and usable. The presenters argued that, rather than worrying about what form our information objects will take in the future, we should instead be focusing on preserving the relationships they contain.

Most of that is probably pretty familiar territory if you’ve attended library school. However, the part that really got me thinking was the presenters’ discussion of a set of shared user requirements for information objects that, although very general, offer some interesting insights, particularly when thinking about archival description.

They argued that information objects should support:

  • Serendipity: the ability to discover relevant information objects through search or browse
  • Extend use: export and re-use information objects
  • Persistence: ability to cite an information object with a permanent link that will remain available
  • Sustainability: the flexibility of the information object to adapt to future capabilities and topics
  • Scalability: adaptability of the information in the context of growing collections both within and across institutions

How well do our finding aids do any of that? I’d argue they get passing marks on maybe a couple of those points, but fail most of these requirements pretty miserably. More importantly, though, is it possible for us to articulate a similar set of user requirements for archival description? How similar or different would they be from the five requirements above?