“Records in Context” in Context: A Brief History of Archival Data Modeling

Archival data modeling is examined in this paper as a practice whose nature, purpose, and value are shaped by the specific historical and cultural conditions under which it is carried out. In the late 1980s, three separate meetings of interested parties led to the roughly contemporaneous construction of data standards for the archives, library, and museum fields. The history of each individual project has been well-documented in the technical literature of its particular domain, but such narratives struggle to explain the considerable inter-domain differences in the forms taken by the various products. For example, a notable point of distinction between archival standards such as ISAD(G) and standards used in the library and museum domains is that, in the former, a data model is merely assumed rather than made explicit, with the result that that model remains opaque to many of the archival standards’ users. A new archival model—“Records in Context”—is being designed to be in close alignment with museum standards. There is a danger here of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater: Will harmonization with museum practices require wholesale replacement of a well-established family of archival standards, developed over a two-decade period, in which data elements for the description of records and their contexts are already clearly defined? Our ability to answer this question, and others like it, depends on our understanding of the historical and theoretical conditions for the distinctive direction taken by developers of archival standards since 1988. In the paper, these conditions are examined in comparison with those prevailing in the library and museum communities, with the goal of accounting for differences in the relative extent to which data modeling has been considered important in each domain.

Jonathan Furner is a professor and department chair at UCLA. He studies the history and philosophy of cultural stewardship, and teaches classes on the representation and organization of archival records, library materials, and museum objects. He has published over fifty papers on these and related topics, frequently using conceptual analysis to evaluate the theoretical frameworks, data models, and metadata standards on which information access systems rely.