Context for Metasearch

Last Friday the Encoded Archival Context (EAC) standard for archival authorities was released to the international community for review. Warning: an EAC record is not your grandmother’s MARC authority record. EAC is a companion standard to Encoded Archival Description (EAD), yet now seems to be useful well beyond the world of archives.

Managing collections archivally requires archivists to create comprehensive descriptions of corporate bodies, persons and families. Who would know better the context of records and creators than the archivists with the stuff in their hands? And who knew that this contextual information would be exactly what folks want to share when Networking Names [pdf]? With EAC we can link the creators, the context and the stuff. EAC goes one step further, facilitating the exchange of authoritative contextual information across many domains.

It turns out EAC is useful infrastructure for metasearch. At our RLG Annual Meeting, Warwick Cathrow demonstrated The National Library of Australia’s prototype “one-search” service. Here one can discover everything – pictures, books, archives, newspaper articles, music, etc. – by and about a creator. The Australians have used EAC to collate dispersed, silo-ed information. (Just search the Christian name “Nellie” and watch it go! Hats off to Basil Dewhurst and his team.)

At the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists in Austin earlier this month, Chris Prom (UIUC, channeled by Dennis Meissner, Minnesota Historical Society) argued that users often search for context, while archivists have largely described collections. In response to users’ needs, EAC can link archival information about people and institutions to all kinds of stuff in a systematic yet flexible way. (There’s that “aboutness” topic again, folks. But I digress.)

RLG was integral in the development of EAD; likewise people from several RLG Partners institutions have contributed substantially to EAC. The first assignment Merrilee handed me, when I walked in the door at OCLC Research, was to take her place on the EAC Working Group. Anne Van Camp had nurtured EAC beta from the start, before she handed it off to Merrilee. David Stam and the Delmas Foundation have given the project a real leg up.

But the real power behind EAC comes from the international community. The Australian and European members of the EAC Working Group have directed and perfected the schema. Or, rather, have collegially enlightened Daniel Pitti from time to time. Some day take Daniel and Stefano Vitali for a drink and ask them about the 8000 notaries to be described in the State Archives of Florence…

It remains to be seen if the US community will bite. Nevertheless, I am happy to report that there are some fine coder-archivists out there, and I’ve heard that the back-channel twittering about EAC is enthusiastic. So bring it on. The EAC Working Group wants your comments and suggestions. Does EAC bring linked data to archival description?

2 Comments on “Context for Metasearch”

  1. The concept is just what the archival community needs to pull together related resources in a meaningful and discoverable format. I think EAC has huge potential for large institutions, like the Smithsonian, with widely varied, but related, resources spread (hidden?) across numerous museums, archives, special collections, and libraries. The fact that it is structured data just makes it easier to implement and use! Just imagine a search for example, for Jackson Pollock, that results in a biography, archival resources, photo collections, oral history interviews, digital content, artwork, books, monographs, vertical file materials, thesis, etc.

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