Mapping the Socio-Technical Complexity of Australian Science: From Archival Authorities to Networks of Contextual Information

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  • Mapping the Socio-Technical Complexityof Australian Science:

    From Archival Authoritiesto Networks of Contextual Information

    Gavan McCarthyJoanne Evans

    SUMMARY. This article examines the evolution of a national registerof the archives of science and technology in Australia and the related de-velopment of an archival informatics focused initially on people andtheir relationships to archival materials. The register was created in 1985as an in-house tool for the Australian Science Archives Project of theUniversity of Melbourne. Its potential as a public reference guide forhistorians of science and technology soon became apparent. The story ofthe computerisation and publication of the register provides the back-ground for the examination of the use of archival authority records as ameans of finding better ways of connecting archives with their potential

    Gavan McCarthy, MA (Archives and Records), is Director of the Australian Scienceand Technology Heritage Centre, University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (

    Joanne Evans is a PhD candidate at the School of Information Management andSystems, Monash University, Victoria, Australia (E-mail:

    [Haworth co-indexing entry note]: Mapping the Socio-Technical Complexity of Australian Science:From Archival Authorities to Networks of Contextual Information. McCarthy, Gavan, and Joanne Evans.Co-published simultaneously in Journal of Archival Organization (The Haworth Information Press, an im-print of The Haworth Press) Vol. 5, No. 1/2, 2007, pp. 149-175; and: Respect for Authority: Authority Con-trol, Context Control, and Archival Description (ed: Jean Dryden) The Haworth Information Press, animprint of The Haworth Press, 2007, pp. 149-175. Single or multiple copies of this article are available for afee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service [1-800-HAWORTH, 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. (EST). E-mailaddress:].

    Available online at 2007 by The Haworth Press. All rights reserved.

    doi:10.1300/J201v05n01_08 149

  • users. The success of this approach led to demands from the communityfor a generic database tool using a framework based on the authoritativeentities associated with archival materialsan activity that we started tocall contextual information management. The Online Heritage ResourceManager (OHRM) was created in response to these calls, and the storyof its development as a tool for mapping networks of contextual informa-tion is told in the latter part of the article. doi:10.1300/J201v05n01_08[Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery Service:1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: Website: 2007 by The Haworth Press. All rightsreserved.]

    KEYWORDS.Archival authority entities, contextual information man-agement, complex networks, archival outreach, Australian Science Ar-chives Project, (ASAP), Bright Sparcs


    This article documents a voyage of discovery associated with the de-velopment of a national register of the archives of science in Australiaand its subsequent transformation into a generic tool for the resource-based mapping of the contexts in which archives and records are createdand to which they relate over time. The article uses as its foundation anunpublished MA thesis by Gavan McCarthy that examined the develop-ment of the register during the period 1985-1993.1 The story is centredon the work of the Australian Science Archives Project (1985-1999)and its successor, the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre(1999-).

    When operations commenced with the founding of the AustralianScience Archives Project (ASAP) at the University of Melbourne in1985, the use of well-structured information to represent people andcorporate bodies connected with archival records was an accepted prac-tice in Australia. This use of archival authorities to provide a frame-work of meaning was well understood, but this understanding in thepre-Web world was, as a rule, limited to the closed archival informationmanagement systems created by archival organisations and reposito-ries. Information about creators of records was attached to descriptionsof records in a framework of access and management based around therecords themselves. The archival authority record was necessary but an-cillary, and this thinking seemed to apply both in environments that had



  • authority information embedded in records descriptions as well as inthose where they had been logically separated but linked.

    The aim of the ASAPto provide a range of national information ser-vices for an audience unfamiliar with archival practice and processesled to an alternative approach to the use of the information collected byarchivists. The question that was asked most often of us and the ques-tion that we seemed to asking most regularly was where are the recordsof a particular person? So rather than put a catalogue of records at theheart of the system, our approach was to create a register of people (andother entities) and make this the key to how we documented and man-aged our information. Although not the first to attempt this, ASAP didpersist over a twenty year period in exploring the implications of thisapproach for the design of archival information interfaces and how thisinformation could be structured and stored in archival information man-agement systems. The development of the Web in 1993-1994 resultedin an appreciation of the potential of this approach to map complex con-textual environments and to provide a range of new services in a worldof open-networked information.


    The idea to create the national register was not new.2 National regis-ters (or union catalogues as they were sometimes known) had becomepart of the post-World War II archival environment in many countriesincluding the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. How-ever, two factors made this register of the archives of science inAustralia novel:

    it was established by a newly-created, noncustodial archival or-ganisation without secure institutional funding (the AustralianScience Archives Project of the University of Melbourne) which,while locally-based, had a national mission,3 and

    it utilised an informatic framework that made information aboutpeople (or other non-record entities) the focus of the register ratherthan descriptions of records.

    The Australian Science Archives Project (ASAP)

    ASAP, with the appointment of Gavan McCarthy as its first staffmember, commenced operations in March 1985. It was established by

    Case Studies 151

  • Professor R. W. Home of the Department of History and Philosophy ofScience at the University of Melbourne who was committed to explor-ing and enabling work in the history of Australian science. The broadaim of the project at the outset was to assist in the preservation of the ar-chival records of science in Australia, as it was an area that tended to beoverlooked by many archives of the time. It was planned that its role inthe archival world would not duplicate the work of the established ar-chival institutions but complement the work already being undertaken.At the outset there was no mention of ASAP taking on the task of estab-lishing a national register of the archives of science in Australia.4

    ASAP had three key characteristics which, when combined, made itdifferent from other archival institutions in Australia. First, it wasnoncustodial. This simply meant that the project did not establish a re-pository for the long-term preservation of archival materials. ASAPwas, therefore, also relieved of the responsibility of providing archival-quality records storage with access facilities for researchers. Further-more, it did not have to develop extensive in-house systems of archival,repository, and research management. The absence of such constraintsgave the project the opportunity to define a new niche in the Australianarchival landscape through the development of cooperative relation-ships with established archival bodies, with the general aim of workingtowards better documentation of, and access to, the records of scienceand technology in Australia.

    Secondly, ASAP was endeavouring to be a truly national project de-spite the size of the country and the distributed nature of the practice ofscience in Australia. In essence, this meant that ASAP, because of itssmall size and limited resources, had to find novel ways of assistingother archival organisations to document the activities of science andtechnology within their jurisdiction. As Joan Warnow-Blewett stated,[the project] had to do those things that others were not doing and notdo the things others should be doing.5 An important function thatevolved for ASAP was conveying information and through this, ASAPcame to see itself as a nexus linking the three, mostly independent, net-works of scientists, historians and archivists.

    Thirdly, while the field of interest of the project was originally con-ceived as being limited to science, this was later expanded to includetechnology. Similarly, the initial focus on personal records of scientistswas expanded to include archival materials from organisations, societ-ies, research institutes and other corporate bodies. This expanded areaof activity had the potential to include personal, academic, government,and business records. The general strategy adopted by ASAP early in its


  • life was not to limit its charter unnecessarily. As the path ahead was un-known, it was felt that ASAP needed the freedom to evolve, to find itsniche within the scientific, historical, and archival environments. Withno similar projects in related fields that could constrain its activities, theproject had considerable scope to find its own way. All these factorscombined to allow it to explore new ideas, new ways of working andfind new sources of funding.

    The Need for a National Register

    It became apparent very early in the life of ASAP that to function ef-fectively it needed a register of where archives of science and technol-ogy were currently held, and which archives, museums or libraries hadmade archival arrangements with scientists and/or their families. Shortlyafter the project began, a list of important senior Australian scientistswas drawn up and approaches were made to some of them directly tofind out what plans they had for their records. This survey revealed thatsome parts of the Australian archival community were already quietlyworking in this area. It further indicated that the project needed to targetits activities within this existing framework of relationships betweenrecords-creators and archival institutions. It was envisioned that the bestway to maintain the information about this network of relationships wasa national register that documented creators (predominantly scientists),record collections, and custodians. Further analysis of the informaticsrequirements revealed that the register would need to contain informa-tion about the individuals, their families, and the organisations to whichthey were connected; descriptions of the records themselves at all sortsof levels and aggregations; and information about the institutions andindividuals holding the records, whether they be established archival re-positories or private individuals.

    The idea that such a register was needed did not come entirely fromwithin ASAP. In 1966 Ann Mozley published her pioneering Guide tothe Manuscript Records of Australian Science, which for many yearswas the only source available to direct scholars of the history of Austra-lian science to relevant archival sources.6 It became a key reference forASAP in its early years even though it represented the archival preser-vation activities of previous generations. That it was substantiallyout-of-date had already become apparent in the late 1970s to the grow-ing but diverse group interested in the history of Australian science andtechnology.7 In 1979, the National Committee for the History and Phi-losophy of Science proposed that the compilation of a union catalogue

    Case Studies 153

  • of source material for the history of science in Australia should betaken up by the history of science community.8 The failure to implementthis suggestion was due partly to the lack of an organisation or institu-tion with the funds and/or interest to undertake such a project. Parochialinterests tended to dominate the thinking of the archival community,and the scientific community was driven by a progressive, forward-looking world view that was reluctant to see hard-earned research fund-ing directed towards archival activities. Perhaps the other two key fac-tors that worked against action at that time were the lack of readilyavailable, affordable data-handling tools, and the shortage of people inthe field with archival informatic skills.

    The Manual Register

    In those early days, most archival projects taken on by ASAP wereconcerned with the location, documentation, and preservation of thepersonal records of scientists. To assist with the management of theseprojects, a manual alphabetical filing system (by entity or authorityname) was developed. This register was extended to document the activi-ties of both ASAP and other organisations with respect to the records ofindividuals, scientific societies, research organisations, and projects.Biographical or historical notes, descriptions of any known collectionsof archival records and their locations, correspondence, personal notes,and any other documents of relevance were filed into the manual regis-ter. The work done by Mozley in the 1960s at the Australian Academy ofScience provided a useful starting point for the register.

    Various attempts were made to improve access to the range of data inthe register through the creation of card indexes covering such things asdistribution of records by state, subject access by discipline, or whetherthe individual was a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science or theAustralian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. Thesewere of limited success. An effort was even made to colour-code thefiles by state but this proved to be cumbersome, as it became clear thatthe relevant records were often located in a number of places in severalstates. It was obvious that the task would be much better handled by arelational database that could normalize the information and systemati-cally record the attributes of the entities and their associated records.However, at the time (1985-1986), ASAP did not have access to thenecessary technology.


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